Underpinned by ideas of optional grades, autonomy, and relatedness, the Open Curriculum was adopted at Brown University more than 50 years ago. Mary Wright finds it works just as well in a pandemic.
In a podcast recorded earlier this year, where I was an invited guest, we discussed the term, `the reactive chalkface’ coined by Claire Gordon to mean a relatively surface-level adjustment to the challenges of pandemic teaching and learning. While some aspects resonated with me, such as the rapidity and intensity of change in Spring 2020; I simultaneously found it hopeful to see promising signals of renewal and positive change where I work, at Brown University in the USA. In my context, I saw many examples of instructors who rethought their courses from the ground up, when afforded time to do so in the summer and fall of 2020. In short, I observed a countervailing trend that we might call, borrowing from Gordon’s term, `the reflective chalkface.’ Because context matters enormously in higher education, I am grateful to have the opportunity to elaborate more on one structural lever that enabled that move, Brown’s Open Curriculum.
Developed by students in 1969, Brown’s curriculum is most frequently described by what is absent: the lack of many required courses and a calculated grade point average. To encourage exploration, students may elect to take any course for a grade (A, B, C, or `No Credit’) or as `Satisfactory’/`No Credit’ (S/NC) – and any `No Credit’ grade does not appear on a student’s external transcript. Students may also request a narrative evaluation for any of their courses.
Brown's curriculum is most frequently described by what is absent: the lack of many required courses and a calculated grade point average
However, the perhaps less-recognised aspects of Brown’s Open Curriculum are its philosophical underpinnings. As described in Brown’s faculty rules handbook, the purpose of the Open Curriculum is defined as fostering “intellectual and personal growth” and the student must be an active participant in framing these dynamics. (Colloquially, we often describe this for students as “being the architect of your own education.”) Further, the principles describe a key process for students to engage in this meaning-making process: “A central aspect of this development is the relationship of the student with professors, staff, and fellow students and with the material they approach together.”
Educational psychologist, Marilla Svinicki has written about three fundamental questions that inclusive educators need to help students answer: “Can I do this?” “Do I have control of my work?” and “Do I belong here?” The ideas underlying both these questions and Brown’s Open Curriculum – development of a student’s self-efficacy, a sense of choice, and connection to others – may also be recognisable to some as self-determination theory, which holds that competence, autonomy, and sense of belonging are related to lifelong wellbeing, high performance, and deep learning.
Of course, these ideas are not unique to Brown University and its Open Curriculum. In reading the University of Groningen’s 2015-20 strategic plan, I remember being struck by a similar statement: “Our vision of teaching and learning rests on the assumption that the acquisition of knowledge and skills is primarily the result of optimal interaction between staff and students that enables students to become active and responsible participants in their own learning process.” Other universities also have open curricula, primarily smaller liberal arts colleges in the USA.
However, in all of these cases, a curricular environment encouraging competence, autonomy, and relatedness seems a powerful influence to guiding instructors to develop courses. Further, course structures responsive to these values would also be more likely to be supportive of student success during times of crisis. For example, a commonly reported pandemic adjustment at Brown was course assessment. Instructors reported moving to low-stakes course assessments and offering students some choice in prompt and format. Both of these adjustments are wonderful examples of evidence-based approaches that build students’ sense of competence and autonomy. (More examples of ways to employ these principles are given here.)
By the time they graduate, about half the undergraduates report serving as a teaching assistant or tutor.
Brown also has a powerful environment to help students develop a sense of belonging. In alignment with the open curriculum philosophy to encourage the “relationship of the student with professors, staff, and fellow students and with the material they approach together,” many undergraduates serve in teaching roles. By the time they graduate, about half the undergraduates report serving as a teaching assistant or tutor. Additionally, the Sheridan Center coordinates three Fellows programmes, in writing, problem-solving, and data science. In each of these, undergraduates take a course on the theories of teaching and learning in the respective competency area and then engage in work such as giving other students early feedback on drafts of papers (Writing Fellows) or creating digital learning tools (Data Science Fellows).
This student-centered environment was important for teaching and learning during the pandemic. In recent focus groups that the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning staff facilitated with faculty who taught in hybrid format (i.e. with a mix of in-person and remote students), faculty named undergraduate Teaching Assistants as one key support. Research supports that undergraduate teaching assistants serve as important curricular mentors to their peers, helping them to affirmatively answer the question, “Do I belong here?” These connective relationships were particularly important during the anomie of pandemic times.
In Spring 2020, grades were a key focus of discussion among many universities around the world. Students demanded and, in many cases, received accommodations ranging from more lenient grading to a mandatory pass/fail system for all courses. At Brown, an opt-in Satisfactory/No Credit infrastructure had already been in place for over 50 years. Although there were strong calls for a mandatory pass/fail system (which would not be permissible by our university’s accreditor), administrators did extend by a few weeks the deadline for students to make the decisions they normally would be allowed to make anyhow. Some students moved their graded courses to Satisfactory/No Credit but, strikingly, the likelihood of changing to a graded option was greater. In other words, on net, the grading choices that students made after the extension were relatively similar to the ones made before, with a slightly greater proportion opting into the A/B/C system. The pandemic was and continues to be a challenging time for faculty and students alike. Yet, at Brown, many instructors changed their courses in new ways, and student feedback on their learning experiences continues to be quite strong.
on net, the grading choices that students made after the extension were relatively similar to the ones made before, with a slightly greater proportion opting into the A/B/C system
In 2018, I wrote about a pre-pandemic trend to de-centred postsecondary education environments, where learning happens in a diffuse environment, student-faculty teams are co-designers of courses and course materials, and there is an increasing (though still imperfect) focus on equitable ecosystems that address access, outcomes, and the student experience. Certainly, one of the key tensions for higher education in 2020 is not that these trends were new – many were observed by feminist and social justice pedagogues in the last century. Yet, it is the case that the pandemic acutely accelerated these tensions: learning environments became very diffuse as students were scattered around the world, faculty needed to rely upon students in new ways, and educational inequities became much more visible and discussed. A curriculum, such as Brown’s Open Curriculum – which is foundationally based on ideas of competence, autonomy, and relatedness – can offer powerful supports for faculty to address these challenges.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.