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Brown Open Curriculum: Everything Applicants Need to Know

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The Brown Open curriculum sparks many questions from applicants and future Brown students.

Who is in charge of your education? If you asked a college student this question, he or she would likely reply, “I am.”

Although this is the way it should be, with learners taking an active role in shaping their own learning, a majority of the undergraduate and graduate programs are not set up in a way that facilitates student choice.

Brown University is looking to change this through an innovative structure known as the Brown Open Curriculum.

What is the Brown Open Curriculum?

Most freshman college experiences go something like this: You choose a major, are handed a course catalog that details every required class for that particular degree path, and then you meet with an advisor who explains the order in which you will take the pre-selected courses.

If you are lucky, you might get to choose between a few different electives here and there.

But for the most part, you will have little say in what you learn about while in school.

For 50 years, Brown University has been encouraging students to take a route that is very different from the traditional college path.

  • Students are allowed to develop a personalized course of study based on passions and interests.
  • Brown calls students ‘architects of their own education.’

It has created a distinctive approach that allows learners to play a hands-on role in designing their own academic blueprint.

Brown Open Curriculum Mission

One of the missions of Brown University is to make sure that each and every student is engaged, empowered, and transformed by their education. The flexibility of their academic structure supports this goal.

  • Individual
  • Experimentative
  • Integrative

These three words summarize the Brown program, which is based on three basic principles:

  1. Students should be active in their education and responsible for directing their own learning.
  2. Learning is not about transmitting information but a process of individual development that is different for every person.
  3. The curriculum used to facilitate learning should encourage individuality, experimentation, and integrate important information from various fields and disciplines.

How Does Brown Open Curriculum Work? Designing Your Own Program

Brown University does not have majors.

This shocks many students who know how common it is to have to choose a course path before they even step foot on campus.

  • Instead, Brown offers over 80 ‘concentration’ paths.
  • Like a traditional model, Brown’s undergraduate concentrations are geared toward a particular focus.
  • All of these paths lead to a bachelor degree in either arts or science.

While students are required to complete courses offered in one of these concentrations, they also have the freedom to explore classes that are not related to their primary area of study.

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Brown University Undergraduate Concentration List:

Concentrations offered through the Brown open curriculum include:

  • Africana Studies
  • American Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Applied Mathematics
  • Applied Mathematics-Biology
  • Applied Mathematics-Computer Science
  • Applied Mathematics-Economics
  • Archaeology and the Ancient World
  • Architecture
  • Astronomy
  • Behavioral Decision Sciences
  • Biochemistry & Molecular Biology
  • Biology
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biophysics
  • Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations
  • Chemical Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Classics
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Science
  • Comparative Literature
  • Computational Biology
  • Computer Science
  • Computer Science-Economics
  • Contemplative Studies
  • Development Studies
  • East Asian Studies
  • Economics
  • Education Studies
  • Egyptology and Assyriology
  • Engineering
  • Engineering and Physics
  • English
  • Environmental Studies
  • Ethnic Studies
  • French and Francophone Studies
  • Gender and Sexuality Studies
  • Geology-Physics/Mathematics
  • German Studies
  • Health & Human Biology
  • Hispanic Literatures and Culture
  • History
  • History of Art and Architecture
  • Independent Concentration
  • International Relations
  • Italian Studies
  • Judaic Studies
  • Latin American and Caribbean Studies
  • Linguistics
  • Literary Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Mathematics-Computer Science
  • Mathematics-Economics
  • Medieval Cultures
  • Middle East Studies
  • Modern Culture and Media
  • Music
  • Modern Studies
  • Physics
  • Physics and Philosophy
  • Political Science
  • Portuguese and Brazilian Studies
  • Psychology
  • Public Health
  • Public Policy
  • Religious Studies
  • Renaissance and Early
  • Society
  • Science, Technology
  • Slavic Studies
  • Social Analysis and Research
  • Sociology
  • South Asian Studies
  • Statistics
  • Theatre Arts and Performance Studies
  • Urban Studies
  • Visual Art

As you can see from the list above, Brown University offers a wide range of areas of educational focus for undergrad students.

  • Instead of having to focus on ‘history’ or ‘art,’ learners who are a part of a Brown Open Curriculum program could gain in-depth knowledge about anthropology, medieval cultures, visual art, or architecture.

Many Brown students have learned the importance of asking around for course recommendations and the best professors. Some of the coolest classes at Brown include:

  • ARCH 0310 – Interactions with the Dead: Past and Present
  • CHEM 0090 – Kitchen Chemistry
  • CLAS 0400 – Ancient Comedy and its Influence
  • CSCI 1951F – Computers, Freedom and Privacy: Current Topics in Law and Policy

As you can see, you can study almost anything as an undergraduate at Brown. The possibilities are endless.

  • Although not as well known, Brown has a graduate school as well with 51 doctoral programs and 33 master’s programs offered.

There are also special programs including the Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), which leads to medical school and the Brown-RISD Dual Degree Program, which allows students to earn two degrees (a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science) in just five years.

Research opportunities, internships, and international fellowships are also a part of Brown University’s academic offerings.

Brown Requirements for Graduation:

To have their degree awarded, all Brown University students must meet these requirements:

  1. Quantity Requirement. Brown University is not focused on credit hours in the same way that other universities are. It instead counts each course.

Every semester, students can choose to take a minimum of three to a maximum of five courses.

To successfully graduate, students must pass at least 30 courses with at least an A, B, C, or S (for satisfactory).

  1. Concentration Requirement. Earlier, we discussed the fact that Brown requires students to complete classes in at least one concentration.

The program chosen is not, in most cases, focused on a particular career goal.

It is an in-depth study that targets the following: the understanding of a problem or discipline, intellectual development, and personal growth.

  • Students must declare a field of concentration by the end of the fourth semester. This means that before this period of time, students are able to ‘test the waters’ and try out courses in various fields.

Changes in declaration are allowed under certain circumstances, and students may finish more than one concentration area.

However, students are not allowed to ‘overlap’ course requirements as a way of taking short cuts through multiple concentration areas.

Concentration Case Study:

Let’s look at an example of how this might work. Kirsten, a Brown freshman, is having trouble deciding between two concentrations: theatre arts and psychology.

  • On the one hand, she loves the arts. Being on stage is one of her greatest passions, and she already misses learning about and being part of stages productions like she did in high school.
  • Kirsten also wants to be a child psychologist. Although she enjoys theater, she is also interested in the human mind, how it works, and wants to learn to help others overcome mental health struggles.
  • At a regular university, Kirsten would be forced to choose between the two early on. At Brown, she has options.

In the end, Kirsten opted to take work a few theatre courses into her early semesters at Brown.

Through these courses, she was able to make community connections that allowed her to take part in productions outside of school.

By the time she entered her third semester, Kirsten was ready to declare psychology as her concentration.

  1. The Writing Requirement. Strong reading and writing skills are a requirement for degree completion across the board.

Students who struggle with writing are required to work with faculty to develop a plan for improving this skill area before their degree can be awarded.

  1. The Residency Requirement. Although students are permitted to resume their education at Brown University after attending school somewhere else, there are residency graduation requirements that all students must follow.

In general, a student must meet the following:

  • Be enrolled for at least four semesters as a full-time student
  • Complete a minimum of 15 courses successfully at Brown

Entering the Resumed Undergraduate Education program allows students to study part-time at Brown, but the minimum course requirement still stands.

  1. Tuition/Enrollment Requirement.

According to Brown University degree requirements:

Prior to the awarding of a baccalaureate degree, each candidate normally must have accumulated credit for the payment of a minimum of eight semesters of tuition or the equivalent.

There are specific rules governing tuition for summer vs. winter courses that must be considered during enrollment time should you decided to pursue a degree at Brown University.

Brown Open Curriculum Grading

Because students are encouraged to be explorers and take on a variety of challenging courses in various fields of study, Brown University adopted a grading system that complements its Open Curriculum model.

  • Students have choices. They can take a course for a letter grade (A, B, or C), or they can choose a Satisfactory (S) /No Credit scale.
  • There are no pluses or minuses, only solid grades. Also, there are no Ds or Fs with the Brown Open Curriculum since failing grades are not recorded.
  • There are also no grade point averages calculated at Brown.

Although this makes it difficult to compare a Brown University transcript with that from another school, there are many benefits that support such a grading system.

  • For one, it allows students to focus less on obtaining a certain grade (number) and more on immersing themselves in the learning materials presented.

Also, Brown provides students with other forms of ‘learning proof’ that show their academic growth much more clearly than a specific letter grade ever could.

These include letters of recommendation, performance reports, and qualitative evidence from capstone projects.

Cons of Brown Open Curriculum

The Brown Open Curriculum has so many benefits, but as with everything, there are some ‘cons’ to entering into such a program.

  • Many proponents of a more traditional plan for learning believe that structure is important and that such a flexible learning plan is difficult for students fresh out of high school and still in need of guidance.
  • This is why Brown has seasoned advisors on staff to help guide students in their choices as well as strict semester deadlines for choosing a concentration area.

Students are also encouraged to be organized and seek out help if they are struggling.

Also, there is the criticism that some Brown students take the ‘easy way out’ and seek out the Open Curriculum to avoid being challenged by subjects that they do not like or are difficult for them.

  • For example, most universities require prerequisites.
  • This means that even if you are a liberal arts major, you must take some basic math courses.
  • A student who hates math might try to avoid this by going to a school, like Brown, that does not require math-heavy courses.
  • Many feel that although this makes the student more comfortable, it puts them at a disadvantage later on.

Although taking the driver’s seat down the road of their own education can be difficult for some students in the beginning, the rewards are plentiful.

You can get a well-rounded education through Brown’s Open Curriculum. A student can be a pre-med student and still learn French, boat design, and study Russian literature.

The ability to explore without risk minimalizes most of the drawbacks.

Course Rigor of the Open Curriculum

Some people assume that an open curriculum equals ‘easy’ or ‘less difficult.’

This is far from the truth. In fact, Brown University prides itself on providing opportunities to gain in-depth knowledge.

  • The admission process is not an easy one. Only 9% of those who apply to Brown University get accepted.
  • This means that potential students must really focus on their studies during high school if they want a chance of exploring at Brown.

One thing that makes the Brown Open Curriculum stand out (other than the comprehensive nature) is the fun.

  • You wouldn’t normally equate college classes to fun, but when you are learning about something you are passionate about, you can’t help but enjoy it!

Being a Bear comes with community deals and discounts as well, making your life at Brown even more enjoyable.

Conclusion: Brown Open Curriculum

The Brown Open Curriculum is a comprehensive, flexible way for students to plunge into a wide array of interests.

Brown wants its students to be active in their education and develop their individual tastes and thoughts.

  • By studying different disciplines, students get a taste of different trains of thought, perspectives, and scholarly work.

If you’re looking to challenge yourself, exercise freedom in your academic pursuits, and develop your individual academic preferences, the Brown Open Curriculum might be for you.

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