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Undergraduate Study at UW–Madison

General Education Requirements

Ethnic Studies
Quantitative Reasoning
Identifying Courses that Meet the General Education Requirements
Policies Related to the General Education Requirements

The purpose of the General Education Requirements is to ensure that every graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison acquires the essential core of an undergraduate education. This core establishes a foundation for living a productive life, being a citizen of the world, appreciating aesthetic values, and engaging in lifelong learning in a continually changing world. These requirements provide for breadth across the humanities and arts, social studies, and natural sciences; competence in communication, critical thinking, and analytical skills appropriate for a university-educated person; and investigation of the issues raised by living in a culturally diverse society. The Wisconsin Experience begins with this core of intellectual and practical skills, basic knowledge of human cultures and the physical world (and, importantly, the strategies used to understand these topics), and tools intended to contribute to their sense of personal and social responsibility; the work students do in their majors and to complete their degrees also helps them to learn what they need to know not just for making a living, but also for making a life.

Completing the General Education Requirements is an important part of achieving these competencies, and to do so, students choose from many courses in communication, quantitative reasoning, natural science, humanities/literature/arts, social studies, and ethnic studies. Many of these courses also count toward other degree requirements.

All students except those who matriculated at a college or university before May 20, 1996, must satisfy the university-wide General Education Requirements. Students should always check with their advisors to see if their school or college has any additional requirements that go beyond the basic UW–Madison requirements, or if the programs in which they are enrolled ask them to fulfill these requirements through specific courses or by pursuing them in a particular order. Please see this website for a comprehensive description of the General Education Requirements and the courses that may be taken to fulfill them.

The university-wide General Education Requirements are:

Breadth, 13–15 credits, distributed over three areas

All students must complete 13–15 credits of course work intended to provide a breadth of experience across the major modes of intellectual inquiry. Breadth course work is intended to give students a broad intellectual perspective on their undergraduate education and their world by encouraging them to look at and understand subjects through the various modes of inquiry used in the natural, physical and social sciences, arts, and humanities.

Students are required to complete the following breadth requirements:

  • Natural Science, 4 to 6 credits, consisting of one 4- or 5-credit course with a laboratory component; or two courses providing a total of 6 credits
  • Humanities/Literature/Arts, 6 credits
  • Social Studies, 3 credits

This requirement challenges students to understand that there are many ways to research and explore, and ultimately understand, the world around us. These many "ways of knowing" are intended to enrich the undergraduate experience and complement intensive study in students' majors. Through these courses, many students discover subjects and ideas that will become lifetime interests, or that offer the creative stimulus to see their favorite subjects from new perspectives.

The natural sciences (which include studies in the physical and biological sciences) involve knowing the world through scientific inquiry—assembling objective information that can be used to explain observed natural phenomena in a way that is thorough and verifiable. Laboratory components give students firsthand experience in methods of scientific research. These courses help students see both the explanatory and creative processes in science that are transforming our world.

The humanities, literature, and the arts examine the world through many different lenses that help students interpret and think critically about creative and cultural expressions of what it means to be human. Some courses focus on the production and analysis of artistic, literary, and scholarly works; others help students learn about and compare religious and philosophical conceptions of humankind; still others study history and the peoples and regions of the world. All of these courses encourage students to analyze the range of creativity, cultural expressions, and ideas about and patterns in human existence—history, literature, art, culture, folklore—and to use that information to better understand humanity.

In the social sciences, students learn other ways to understand humanity. Courses in this area are found in a wide range of fields that share a common focus on the systematic study of personal interactions, and the interactions of society and institutions. These fields use quantitative and qualitative research strategies to look at the variety and scale of these interactions, and in these courses, students learn how to formulate research questions and determine what techniques are best used to answer those questions.

These "ways of knowing" the world around us intersect and overlap, and the ideas presented in one area will often inform and transform what we know or think about what we know about the others. Taken as a whole, the breadth requirement is intended to help UW–Madison graduates appreciate the many and complex ways to understand the world around us. By these means, students develop skills that help them make informed decisions in a wide range of political, economic, and social contexts, to think critically about the world, to better understand humanity, and to behave in socially responsible ways.

Communication, 3 to 5/6 credits

Part A. Literacy Proficiency. 2–3 credits at first-year level dedicated to reading, listening, and discussion, with emphasis on writing. While most incoming freshmen are required to complete course work to fulfill this requirement, students may be exempted from Part A by approved college course work while in high school, AP test scores, or placement testing. Students are expected to satisfy this requirement by the end of their first year.

Part B. Enhancing Literacy Proficiency. 2–3 credits of more advanced course work for students who have completed or been exempted from Part A. Students should consult with the appropriate undergraduate advisor about when this requirement should be completed. Courses that satisfy this requirement are offered in many fields of study; although a wide variety of courses fulfill this requirement, students are encouraged to select a course most in keeping with their interests or other requirements of their intended field(s) of study.

Ethnic Studies, 3 credits

All students must take one course of at least 3 credits which is designated as an Ethnic Studies course. The ethnic studies requirement is intended to increase understanding of the culture and contributions of persistently marginalized racial or ethnic groups in the United States, and to equip students to respond constructively to issues connected with our pluralistic society and global community. Many ethnic studies courses also fulfill other breadth and other requirements. 

Information about learning outcomes to be achieved by Ethnic Studies Courses can be found on the General Education website.

Quantitative Reasoning, 3 to 6 credits

Part A. Quantitative Reasoning Proficiency. 3 credits of mathematics or formal logic. Students may be exempted from Part A by approved college work while in high school, AP test scores, or placement testing. Some students, however, may need to complete a prerequisite before enrolling in a Quantitative Reasoning Part A course.

Part B. Enhancing Quantitative Reasoning Proficiency. 3 credits of more advanced course work for students who have completed or been exempted from Part A. Courses that satisfy this requirement are offered in a variety of fields of study. Students are encouraged to select a course in keeping with their interests or other requirements of their intended field(s) of study.

Identifying Courses that Meet General Education Requirements

The university offers hundreds of courses that meet the requirements described above. Students should consider their own interests and check with their advisor when deciding which courses to complete. Please note that many undergraduate programs of study have breadth requirements that go beyond these basic university-wide requirements.

The following symbols are used in the UW–Madison course listings to indicate how courses count toward satisfying the communication, quantitative reasoning, and ethnic studies portions of the General Education Requirements.

  • a—Communication Part A
  • b—Communication Part B
  • q—Quantitative Reasoning Part A
  • r—Quantitative Reasoning Part B
  • e—Ethnic Studies

Note: Some Communication Part B courses carry Communication B credit only at the lecture or section level and/or only in certain semesters; these courses may instead be footnoted in the Course Guide.

A wide array of indicators are used to designate the type of breadth courses carry. Please refer to this website for more information. General Education and breadth indicators appear in the UW–Madison course listings. Students should also be aware that each school and college may, at its own discretion, designate additional courses that satisfy these requirements. For this reason, students should consult their advisors to obtain information about how these requirements are implemented in the school or college in which they are enrolled.

Policies Related to the General Education Requirements

Exceptions: All students are required to meet the fundamental degree requirements of the university, which include a general education component. The university has determined that waivers to the communication and quantitative reasoning portions of the general education component would fundamentally alter the nature of the University of Wisconsin–Madison degree. (Students should not expect to obtain disability-based waivers to the communication and quantitative reasoning portions of the General Education Requirements.)

Pass/Fail: Effective fall 2012, all courses taken to meet the University General Education Requirements must be taken on a graded basis. These grades are included in students' GPA calculations according to school/college GPA rules.