The open curriculum is based on a belief in the power of student choice exercised in collaboration with faculty. Such a curriculum gives students great freedom but expects considerable responsibility in return, and it requires significant faculty engagement to shape, support, and inspire student learning. This tension between freedom and responsibility, choice and accountability, student independence and collaboration with faculty, recurs in different ways at campuses with an open curriculum.

Sometimes controversial and often misunderstood, the open curriculum has become an important alternative tradition in liberal education. A “Working Group” of representatives from eight institutions where such a curriculum has thrived for more than forty years met throughout the 2005-06 academic year to identify the values and learning outcomes associated with this educational model and to begin to assess its strengths and weaknesses. In addition to articulating the assumptions and goals that define an open curriculum, the Working Group discussed the challenges of developing adequate assessment measures and conducted some initial assessment activities whose findings are reported here.

According to alumni interviews and faculty focus groups undertaken as part of this study, students who are granted such freedom display unusual motivation and engagement with their studies and develop independence, self-confidence, and decision-making skills that serve them well in later life. Although there is a danger that students may avoid difficult courses and stay within their comfort-zones, statistics about breadth of course-choice and the reports of alumni and faculty suggest that the preponderance of students use the freedom of this curriculum to explore new areas and to challenge themselves. An emphasis on developing the capacity for problem-solving and on promoting creativity, curiosity, and independent thinking is, according to these reports, characteristic of the culture of learning that an open curriculum makes possible. Alumni and faculty agree, however, that these positive outcomes are not guaranteed but require effective, engaged advising.