Helping Students Understand Our Codes: Designing Inclusive Open Curricula
Web Exclusive

Helping Students Understand Our Codes

Designing inclusive open curricula

By Paul S. Hanstedt

April 29, 2021

When I am on a campus talking about revising a general education curriculum, every so often someone raises a hand: “Why do this at all? Why not just let students take whatever classes they want?”

It’s an interesting question. Plenty of campuses do have an “open” general education curriculum. In the educational model offered by institutions like Brown University, Hamilton College, and Grinnell College, for instance, there are few minimum course requirements distributed across specific disciplines. Instead, with a few small exceptions (writing and math, for example), students generally can take whatever they want.

I’m generally wary of the open curriculum. But the rationales for such an approach are varied, often based on a premise of respect: if we want our students to become responsible citizens, we need to allow them to make decisions as responsible citizens. Choosing their own courses, reaping the rewards, and bearing the burdens of their choices can help students develop a sense of consequential agency.

However, some of our students may be at a disadvantage when it comes to the curricular and cultural decoding they will have to do in an open curriculum. Nevertheless, rather than throw out the idea of an open approach to general education entirely, I’d like to suggest several best practices that may allow for greater inclusion and deeper learning for all of our students.

An Open Curriculum Can Create New Barriers

An open curriculum is easy for us. And, very likely, it’s easy for some of our students. Some students come from backgrounds where the methods and rationales of the liberal arts are already encoded in their way of looking at college—and at life. They know that their first job when they graduate—or the job after that, or the job after that—might be entirely unrelated to their major. They know that taking a variety of courses from a variety of fields may help them live richer, fuller lives.

For other students, though, these unstated assumptions have never been part of their worldview. College is a direct path from means to end: study X so they can get a job doing X. The major is all that matters. These students can come from any number of backgrounds, but a fair number will be first-generation students or from families that recently immigrated.

More structured general education curricula have both road maps and street signs that indicate expectations, practices, and values. In an open curriculum, fewer markers exist, and as such, these models have an inclusion problem. All who wander are not lost. It’s just that some who wander are less privileged than others, and therefore may be more likely to be lost.

Provide Thoughtful Advising to Connect College Courses with Life after University

Most students will hear at one time or another that breadth of learning is, like a breakfast cereal, “good for you.” Why? Well, no one really goes into that. Thoughtful advising should explain not just what students need to learn but also why. If an open curriculum is going to work for all students, institutions need to have academic advisors—faculty, full-time staff members, or a mix—who are effective at talking about the complex challenges and multiple career paths that students face after graduation.

Thoughtful advising also means alerting students that, even if they will work in a field that matches their degree (and stay in that field their entire career), the narrow disciplinary corridors in college aren’t replicated outside the campus walls. For example, an architect might need an understanding of small-town politics and business management. Middle-school counselors need to be adept at cultural analysis to serve diverse student populations. Nurses draw constantly on their technical skills, their understanding of religious practices, and their capacity for ethical decision-making.

Each of these careers—indeed, all careers—require the ability to think abstractly, translate concepts for different settings, and use different practices at different moments. The purpose of a wide array of courses is not breadth but agility.

Structure Opportunities for Reflective and Integrative Learning

Good advising gets students involved in a variety of intellectual experiences; carefully designed reflection helps them make sense, meaning, and purpose out of those opportunities. The structure of reflection and integrative learning can vary from school to school: some institutions might add connective moments to the projects and papers assigned in courses; others might use reflective ePortfolios that students build across courses. Campuses can even connect the open curriculum through a series of integrative courses: a first-year seminar, a sophomore- or junior-level course, and a senior capstone.

Assess and Disaggregate

Finally, if an institution is going to use an open curriculum, it’s imperative to make sure it’s working. What classes are students taking? What are they avoiding? What skills are they learning? Or not learning? Are they adept at thinking critically and carrying ideas from one course—or discipline—to another?

Institutions need to disaggregate data to ensure that all students are being served. If we can’t recognize when some students are not succeeding at the same level as their peers, the systems and structures that have excluded and undermined for so long will continue to exclude and undermine.

Help Students Put the Puzzle Pieces Together

Rich Grant, an associate dean at Roanoke College, often talks about how students come to college with boxes full of puzzle pieces—all of their life experiences, thoughts, and ideas jumbled together. What students want, Grant says, is the opportunity to sort those pieces into some sort of coherent picture. Instead, what colleges often do is just dump more pieces into the box.

Some of our students will come to campus capable of putting the pieces together and making sense of the mixed messages and methodologies of their educational experience. Others won’t. And finally? Our job is to educate all students, not just the ones who already understand our codes.


  • Paul S. Hanstedt

    Paul S. Hanstedt

    Paul S. Hanstedt is director of the Houston H. Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington & Lee University.