Kzoo's Open Curriculum

I understand the concept, but would love to hear from students/parents/faculty with experience as to how in practical terms Kzoo’s open curriculum is a benefit. What has it enabled you to do that you may not have been able to do at other schools? Ultimately do you end up taking the breadth of classes that would have been covered by the distribution requirements of typical colleges?

Per the Kzoo website:

Students who wish to be considered for election to Phi Beta Kappa must demonstrate a knowledge of mathematics, take a wide variety of courses outside the major, and must include courses in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

So while you are free to take pretty much whatever you want are you basically going to end up taking very similar coursework had distribution requirements been in place? I appreciate any insight.

Not your target group of who you want answers from, as I am a parent of kid who looked closely at Kzoo but chose a different school.

My kid was very interested in schools with open or more flexible curriculum because he was a full IB diploma student and wanted to be out from under the weight of “having” to take a prescribed curriculum. If he had chosen Kzoo, we would have encouraged (even required) him to take at least a science class in another area outside the usual high school curriculum, and some kid of quantitative reasoning class. But the knowledge that he didn’t HAVE to take specific number of credits/courses in certain areas was liberating.

Perhaps inquiring about the advising process, and looking online for forms/models for student advising at Kzoo might give you some insight into the practice, and process?

I am also not from your requested response group. However, I do have a few thoughts I would be happy to share.

Apparently there was a change in requirements beginning in 2009. Before, there were AOS (Areas of Study) requirements where students had to select classes from several different academic areas (what would often be referred to as “distribution requirements” by many colleges and universities) prior to graduation. This requirement was apparently dropped as the College moved to an “Open Curriculum” in 2009.

To answer your question “do you end up taking the breadth of classes that would have been covered by the distribution requirements of typical colleges?”, the most accurate answer is that it probably depends on the student. You can take a full breadth of classes if you choose, or you can narrow your focus.

Removing a constraint only means that the original outcome is not forced. It is still available.

To be considered for Phi Beta Kappa (which is probably not on most students’ minds as they go through college, selecting courses), you would still need to choose to develop breadth in your course selections outside your major.

To answer your other question, “what has it enabled you to do that you may not have been able to do at other schools?” I suppose the answer is that you are enabled to be highly focused in one or two academic areas if you choose.

As a parent of a student who is looking at various schools, one of the things I really appreciate about Kalamazoo College is how they tend to analyze their own operations with actual data AND how open they are with sharing that information through their website. For example, on this very topic, in 2012 they looked at student course selection before and after the move to an open curriculum, and the results of their study are included on their Educational Quality Assessment page ( ) – see the “2012 Breadth Analysis” and “2012 HLC Presentation on Breadth at Kalamazoo College”. The latter is a power point presentation, and you don’t have the person speaking to present the findings, but you can learn a fair amount by going through the slides. For instance, you can find out that before the move, about 90% of students took a class in Philosophy or Religion. After the switch to an open curriculum, one of the earliest classes affected had only 50% of students who took classes in that area. Similarly, when the AOS/distribution requirements were in place, almost all students took one or more classes in the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. With open curriculum, inside of two years close to 10% of students avoided that division, taking no classes.

So, are students using the open curriculum to “focus” on areas of interest? Or are they using it to “avoid” areas where they are not comfortable? I would suspect the latter, but can’t say for sure. The effective difference between those two is only one of intent, though, as the outcome is the same: there is not as much breadth being accessed under the open curriculum.

According to the brief report available on-line, a focus group eliciting responses from students about this issue found “many first years and sophomores were attracted to the College by the open curriculum; seniors, who started under the former degree requirements, were more ambivalent about the open curriculum; overall, students were unsure about whether the College values breadth; students were more likely to value breadth if they perceived that advisors valued it; and students were more likely to follow advisors’ advice when they believed their advisor cared about them as individuals. The consensus among students was to keep the open curriculum and find ways to provide structure, and most saw advising as key to providing structure.”

Perhaps that answers in part what (then/2012) current students thought about the open curriculum. I don’t know what they think four years later.

Please note that all of the above is simply what I have discovered through reading/research and is NOT based on first or second hand experience, so I could be wrong.

Thank you for the replies! I appreciate your thoughts on this. The open curriculum was just one aspect that drew our attention to Kalamazoo College. There is a lot to like there. On the tour the guide emphasized taking whatever you want and only three classes at a time, and that was an appealing thought to my son having taken 7 classes each year until his senior year when his school reduced the schedule to 6.

Agreed, about the trimester format – my kid also really liked the idea of 3 classes at a time, after high school which felt like an overloaded schedule and encouraged short cuts. We found so much to love about Kzoo. My kid chose elsewhere partly because we are from Indiana, and Kzoo just didn’t feel like it was going “away” to college.

For us, the initial draw was the international emphasis, with 85% of students studying abroad! Looking more closely, we found quite a bit more to like. They seem to have a good approach to the freshman year experience (National Policy Center recognized the first year program at Kalamazoo in their book “Achieving and Sustaining Institutional Excellence for the First Year of College”.) They have a remarkably high percentage of students going on to earn PhDs, according to National Science Foundation data – remarkable because they are ahead of quite a few schools with much higher student “stats” coming in. At one point they had the highest number of peace corps volunteers per capita (less surprising considering their international emphasis). Senior Project also sounds appealing in theory, though I’m not sure how the seniors feel about it when the time comes.

With regard to the trimester system, as pointed out above, it seems to us like it would be a welcome change going from seven classes per day (high school) to three. We are still trying to get a better feel for academic rigor. Many of the comments on various review sites (Niche, Unigo, etc) talk about the focus on academics and the “intense” environment, sometimes specifically mentioning the fact that quarters are only 10 weeks so a great deal of material is covered quickly. Logistically, with trimesters it sounds great to end around Thanksgiving and not have to return to school until January! This is particularly helpful for students traveling from farther away (perhaps not a factor for most students as the school draws primarily from Michigan).

Back to the original topic – open curriculum doesn’t seem to be much of a factor one way or another for us. Having “distribution” requirements wouldn’t be a deal breaker, nor is open curriculum critically important.

K is currently my Ds first choice. There are several reasons for this but not “having to” take some classes is great for her. She will be a bio major who loves to write, but isn’t a fan of history. Her high school is on trimesters and they have 5 classes per tri. The thought of only having three appeals to her too. Although, she thinks she wants to take 4 so she can get in some extra language classes. We went to an admitted students program this weekend and she spent some time with an econ professor and a Spanish professor. Neither of these are her intended major or minor, but she said, “If all of the profs are like that, this will be fantastic.” She loves the flexibility of the open curriculum but honestly, if there were gen ed requirements she would still love it. She really enjoyed her overnight, the people she met, the coach of her intended sport and teammates, and just the vibe on campus.

As an undergrad my college did not have gen ed requirements either, but my major in International Relations did require extra classes that I never would have taken and to this day regret spending tuition money on. I should have just created my own major, which you can also do at K. We did not specifically seek out no gen ed requirements, but it is a key component for my S’s attraction to the K Plan.

My S is glad to have just the 3 classes, but knows the speed of doing it all in 10 weeks will be a challenge. He is happy to avoid more math and any class with too much writing at this point. Counting down the days at this point until he starts.