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Grinnell’s Individually Advised Curriculum

One of the many important things that sets Grinnell apart from its peer institutions is the individually advised curriculum (formerly the open curriculum, even more formerly the no requirements curriculum). Unlike most institutions, Grinnell has no set of core courses that we expect every student to take, other than Tutorial. (We do, however, limit the number of courses in one department or division that you can count toward graduation requirements.) Since I came from Chicago, which has (or had) one of the more significant sets of common core requirements, I will admit that I found the individually advised curriculum a bit strange. But it has many strengths.

Many students think that the biggest plus to the individually advised curriculum is that you don’t have to take courses that you don’t want to take. But that’s not the purpose of the individually advised curriculum. The real purpose of the individually advised curriculum is to encourage you to figure out what makes the best liberal arts education for you, and to put together a set of courses that achieve that goal. Since you do that with an advisor (and, one hopes, with significant reading about the importance of such an education; for starters, I recommend William Cronon’s Only Connect [1]), you often figure out that there are courses you didn’t think you wanted to take, but that you want to take because you know that they will challenge you in interesting and valuable ways, and help you think and connect better. A good advisor should help you figure out why you need to study another culture, to delve into the scientific method, to understand society, to find both quantitative and qualitative ways to analyze, to consider the human condition, to delve into literature and the arts, to develop habits of wellness, to think about interactions of different approaches, and more.

I find it interesting that Grinnell empowers students to think this way. It certainly corresponds well with our philosophy of self governance, which also treats students as adults and asks them to make their own decisions (although, once again, with some guidance). And, as is the case with self gov, it doesn’t always work well in practice as it does in theory. Sometimes advisors are not persuasive enough about the benefits of certain kinds of courses. (At times, I fall into that camp because I lack the time, energy, or stamina to help a student think differently about their education.) Sometimes students don’t understand the personal responsibility that goes with the individually advised curriculum, and don’t think deeply enough about what they should take, or when they should challenge themselves more. And sometimes external forces make it difficult to achieve the best curriculum.

Still, in most cases, I expect that our students do work with their advisors to think carefully about their educations and what courses and other activities will contribute best to making them individuals who can think clearly, who can speak and write persuasively and even eloquently, who can evaluate critically both their own and others’ ideas, who can acquire new knowledge, and who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good. [2]

To me, that’s the strongest aspect of the individually mentored curriculum. But it has a second important strength: In every course (or almost every course), students are there because they have figured out why they should take that course, not because they have to check off some box on a gen ed menu. I am convinced that makes our classroom environment much better. You don’t have the toxic students who resent being forced to take a class, and want everyone to know it. You don’t have the students who slack off because they don’t care. You have people who are truly committed to learning the subject (although I must admit that there are clearly different levels of commitment).

I don’t know that all students are ready for the responsibility associated with an individually advised curriculum. However, I think for those that are, it’s a true gift, both in the opportunity to consider carefully the purposes of each course and in the improved classroom environment in provides.

While I miss many aspects of the Chicago Core, I think the Grinnell individually advised curriculum also makes sense. I’m certainly glad to be a part of it.

Note: Grinnell’s style guide suggests that we use adviser rather than advisor. I prefer the latter. Since official College materials are inconsistent in their use, I follow my preference.

[1] Cronon, William. (1998). Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education. Available online at

[2] Grinnell College. (n.d.). Mission Statement. Available online at