Inclusive Teaching in an Open Curriculum

“Can I do this?” “Do I have control of my work?” and “Do I belong here?”: Inclusive Teaching in an Open Curriculum

At Brown University, the purpose of education for the undergraduate is to foster the intellectual and personal growth of the individual student. The student, ultimately responsible for [their] own development in both of these areas, must be an active participant in framing [their] own education. A central aspect of this development is the relationship of the student with professors and fellow students and with the material they approach together.
-Brown Faculty Rules and Regulations 

This year, Brown’s Open Curriculum celebrates its 50th anniversary. Evidence suggests the powerful potential of an open curriculum model for developing students’ investment in learning and promoting their independence and creativity (Teagle Foundation, 2006). Indeed, the values underlying the purpose statement above -- development of a student’s competence and self-efficacy, a sense of autonomy, and connection to faculty, staff, and other students -- are, when fulfilled, associated with lifelong well-being, high performance, and deep learning (Deci & Ryan, 2008). 

This newsletter looks at the building blocks of a curriculum -- courses -- and examines teaching strategies to further the values of development of student competence, autonomy, and relatedness to others. On the level of a course, what are strategies for creating a learning environment where all students have opportunities to achieve the benefits of the Open Curriculum? Educational psychologist Marilla Svinicki (2016) describes this approach to inclusion as helping students to answer three questions: “Can I do this?” “Do I have control of my work?” and “Do I belong here?”

Can I Do This? 

The purpose of education for the undergraduate is to foster the intellectual and personal growth of the individual student.

In a course, well-designed assignments and assessments are key ways that instructors can promote students’ intellectual growth. However, equally importantly, the values of the Open Curriculum state that courses also should promote holistic growth, or students’ sense that they have the competence and capabilities to achieve their future goals. This sense of self-efficacy is strongly related to academic achievement, and it is something that instructors can positively influence, even within one term (Bandura, 1977; Bartimote-Aufflick, et al., 2016). 

Fortunately, the same teaching strategies can be used to help students achieve both cognitive and personal development, or to grow intellectually and gain a sense of competency. These include:

My goal as a teacher is to provide every student with the resources to succeed and an atmosphere where they feel comfortable asking for them. I make sure every class uses think-pair-share problems. To help students move beyond rote formula crunching in my upper-level courses, I also use a “consistency check” where every answer needs to be accompanied by a meta-analysis in which students argue why they have confidence in their answer.
-Jonathan Pober, Assistant Professor of Physics 

Bartimote-Aufflick et al. (2016)’s review of research about strategies to increase student self-efficacy suggests an additional 11 teaching approaches, which are linked here.

Do I Have Control of My Work?

The student, ultimately responsible for [their] own development in both of these areas, must be an active participant in framing [their] own education.

One core value of the Open Curriculum is to enable students to be active participants in shaping their own learning. At the classroom level, this statement of purpose, oriented around student autonomy, may be the trickiest to enact. On the one hand, a great deal of evidence suggests that when we have opportunities to exercise choice, our motivation is heightened (Deci & Ryan, 2008; Pintrich, 2003). On the other, too many choices may be demotivating to students (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000) and, at least in STEM, a moderate to high degree of structure (e.g., daily or weekly homework) has been found to reduce achievement gaps (Casper et al., 2019; Eddy & Hogan, 2014; Haak, et al., 2011).

However, offering some degree of choice -- even within a well-structured course -- affords students a sense of control over their work. These opportunities could be relatively small in scale, because as Svinicki (2016, p. 7) suggests, “In every class there are things that the students can decide, such as concepts that need further discussion, or reasonable time limits for an assignment resubmission.” Other examples include allowing students to choose their own topic from the same type of assessment or choice of assessment about the same topic (Holman, et al., 2017). On the other end of the spectrum, “gameful courses” allow students more extensive choice, to customize their own pathways through a course (Brunvand & Hill, 2018). Charles Carroll’s course in history offers an example of a gameful course at Brown (see textbox on right). 

Gameful courses are designed to not only challenge students to think about their own learning goals, but also to tailor the ways they communicate their ideas through writing and other media to those individual learning goals.
-Charles Carroll, Visiting Assistant Professor in History

However, regardless of design, it is important to be cautious about the number of choices. One study at Stanford compared offering students a choice of six (limited choice) or 30 (extensive choice) essay prompts for extra credit. The researchers reported that more students in the limited choice condition engaged in the assignment -- and wrote better papers (Iyenger & Lepper, 2000). 

Do I Belong Here?

A central aspect of this development is the relationship of the student with professors and fellow students and with the material they approach together.

While supportive relationships are core to student motivation (Pintrich, 2003), connections to faculty are associated with many positive future outcomes, such as well-being and engagement at work (Gallup and Purdue University, 2014; Mayhew, et al. 2016). The following Sheridan newsletters offer strategies for faculty to build effective relationships with students:

Courses can also help students develop learning-focused connections to their peers. On a small level, this can be done through active learning. A more extensive adoption of this value involves integrating student leadership roles into a course, like undergraduate teaching assistants, Writing Fellows, or Problem-Solving Fellows. Peer teaching is an evidence-based strategy to help close achievement gaps (Snyder et al., 2016) and increase students’ well-being, performance, and retention (e.g., Drane et al. 2014; Hanson et al., 2016). 

Especially because the writing that I teach is so different from what Brown students have been exposed to in high school and in their other college courses, Writing Fellows are an indispensable pedagogical resource. They help students to structure short case recommendations, to exhibit the confidence that leading with an assertive recommendation requires, and to support their recommendations with the right balance of qualitative and quantitative supporting analysis. 
-Danny Warshay, Executive Director, Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship

Another way to increase students’ sense of belonging is through motivational interventions. These are writing exercises, usually ungraded, that typically require little class time but are associated with benefits such as increased student sense of belonging (Yaeger & Walton, 2011). For example, in one study, students wrote a letter to a future student, after reading narratives about how others overcame challenges in the university (Walton et al., 2015). In another study, researchers asked introductory biology students to regularly pick a concept from lecture and write about the relevance of the concept or issue to their own life, giving examples. The key goal of the research was to increase student motivation by increasing students’ sense that course material is closely connected to them.  Researchers examined intersectional effects and did, indeed, see performance gains for all student groups (Harackiewicz, et al, 2015; Hulleman & Harackiewicz, 2009).

To Learn More

When an open curriculum lives up to its ideals, however, it creates a culture of choice and collaboration that encourages the creativity and engagement of both students and faculty by making them partners in the educational enterprise (Teagle Foundation, 2006, p. 2).

To realize the potential of the Open Curriculum, Brown’s classrooms also need to be aligned to helping students answer these core questions: Can I do this? Do I have control of my work? and Do I belong here? In its programs, the Sheridan Center will be offering several programs and events to support our teaching and learning communities in this endeavor. These include consultations and early student feedback sessions, Fall Open Classroom Weeks, and workshops.



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Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercis of control. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Bartimote-Aufflick, K., Bridgeman, A., Walker, R., Sharma, M., & Smith, L. (2016) The study, evaluation, and improvement of university student self-efficacy. Studies in Higher Education, 41:11, 1918-1942.

Brunvand, S., & Hill, D. (2019). Gamifying your teaching: Guidelines for integrating gameful teaching in the classroom. College Teaching, 67(1).

Casper, A. M., Eddy, S. L., & Freeman, S. (2019). True grit: Passion and persistence make an innovative course design work. PLoS Biol 17(7). Available: e3000359.

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Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE - Life Sciences Education, 13: 453-468.

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Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2015, Nov 2). Closing achievement gaps with a utility-value intervention: Disentangling race and social class. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 11(5): 745-765.

Holman, C., Plummer, B., Niemer, R., & Fishman, B. (2017). Know your choices: Exploring how instructors support student autonomy through assessment design. Poster available here:

Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Making education relevant: Increasing interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326, 1410–1412. 

Iyengar, S.S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6): 995-1006.

Mayhew, M.J., Rockenbach, A.N., Bowman, N.A., Seifert, T.A., Wolniak, G.C., Pascarella, E.T., & Terenzini, P.T. (2016). How college affects students: 21st century evidence that higher education works. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons. 

Pintrich, P.R. (2003). A motivational science perspective on the role of student learning in teaching and learning contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(4): 667-686.

Svinicki, M.D. (2016). Motivation: An updated analysis. IDEA Paper #59. Available:

Teagle Foundation. (2006, June). The values of the Open Curriculum: An alternative tradition in liberal education. Teagle Foundation Working Group White Paper. Available:

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

Walton, G.M., Logel, C., Peach, J.M., Spencer, S.J., & Zanna, M.P. (2015). Two brief interventions to mitigate a ‘chilly climate’ transform women’s experience, relationships, and achievement in engineering. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(2): 468-485.

Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K.H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1-2). Available:

Yaeger, D.S., & Walton, G.M. (2011). Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic. Review of Educational Research, 81(2): 267-301.