Independent Study: What It Is and How It Works

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  • If a school doesn't offer a course you're interested in, you can create your own.
  • The independent study must align with your academic goals.
  • Students work independently with faculty members who agree to sponsor them.
  • Students pursuing independent study earn credits and usually receive grades.

Is there a subject you're excited to learn about that aligns with your academic goals but isn't covered in an existing course? Consider an independent study course that lets you design your own class.

Most universities and colleges offer these courses for learners who want to study or conduct research on a topic that isn't already covered in the available curriculum. What is independent study in college? Read on to learn about the basics, including who is eligible and the steps you need to take to create your course.

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What Is Independent Study?

Independent study allows you to learn about a subject that's unavailable in your school's established curriculum or about a topic you would like to explore in greater depth. You create your course, determine what you study, and then work one-on-one with a faculty member to earn academic credit.

For example, imagine you're taking a course on British literature and develop a strong interest in the lives and writings of British fantasy authors, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Douglas Adams, and H.G. Wells. You can ask the instructor if they would consider supervising an independent study class focused on this topic. If their answer is yes, you complete a proposal and submit it to your faculty advisor for approval.

Depending on the amount of work assigned, the number of readings, and the school's policy, you can typically earn 1-4 credits for your independent study class. All schools set a maximum number of credits students can earn through this type of learning. You will receive a grade in the same manner as you do in typical college classes.

Most colleges allow undergraduate and graduate students to take independent study courses. Undergraduates usually need a certain number of credits under their belt before pursuing this type of study. Graduate students may find independent study particularly helpful, as it can allow them to take a deep dive into a topic related to their research and thesis or dissertation.

Why Should You Do Independent Study?

Students who enjoy working one-on-one with an instructor and delving into a creative project or particular topic often find independent study rewarding. Independent study requires strong study habits and self-motivation.

While independent study requires a bit of extra determination and willpower, this unique learning opportunity also offers you the chance to demonstrate your take-charge attitude and learn about a subject you find challenging and exciting. Depending on a school's guidelines, you may also be able to explore a subject relevant to your dissertation or thesis.

By developing a class that aligns with your academic goals, you can also receive credits that count toward your major or minor. Many students who pursue independent study enjoy meeting with their instructor once a week (or less), rather than attending class multiple times a week. This schedule allows them to use their free time to write, read, and explore.

How Do You Plan Your Independent Study?

Independent study requires early preparation. When considering potential topics, consult your faculty advisor to make sure the subject you're interested in isn't already covered in your college's curriculum. While school policies differ, the following are common steps you need to take when planning for independent study.

  • Secure a "Yes" From the Instructor You Want to Work With

    Connect with your instructor early by email or in person during office hours to discuss the content, readings, syllabus, and written work that will be evaluated.

  • Write a Proposal or Study Plan

    A well-crafted proposal is critical to a successful independent study. In it, you should develop a statement of purpose describing the specific area of study, including the content and how it fits into your academic goals. You should also create a syllabus with learning objectives, required writing and reading assignments, due dates, methods of assessment, and earned credits.

    Finally, make sure you prepare a schedule of face-to-face meetings with your instructor.

  • Secure Written Approval

    The last step is to get written approval from both your faculty advisor and resident dean. Once you've done this, you're ready to start your independent study.

What Are Your Responsibilities in Independent Study?

Independent study occurs outside of regularly scheduled class hours. Before applying for this type of course, make sure you have time. Generally, professors expect students to put in a certain number of hours each week based on the number of credits they'll receive.

For instance, as a rough rule of thumb, a three-credit course correlates with three hours of class and two hours of coursework for each credit each week (i.e., you can expect to spend roughly nine hours on a three-credit independent study class each week throughout the semester).

Faculty members expect students to remain organized, self-directed, and self-motivated during their independent study class. As in regular classes, you must meet all assignment deadlines.

Instructors normally decide how often to meet. Some may require weekly meetings, while others might prefer to convene just once a month. Determine their expectations before starting. When deciding on independent study and your college class schedule, keep in mind the importance of maintaining a healthy balance between work, life, and school.

What Are the Requirements for Independent Study?

Colleges vary in their requirements for independent study, so check your school's specific guidelines and approval processes. Most institutions require some form of the following:

  • Specific Academic Level or Number of Credits: Some schools require students to complete their first and second years of college before pursuing independent study. Other schools require a certain number of completed credits.
  • Minimum Cumulative GPA: Cumulative GPA requirements range from 2.0 to 3.0.
  • Major or Minor Credit: Independent study courses usually apply to your major or your minor, but not toward general education requirements.
  • An Advisor: Instructors take on independent study courses in addition to their regular classes and research commitments, and are often busy. Finding a faculty member to sponsor you may take time. Remember that the advisor you choose must be an expert in the area you'd like to study.
  • Approval: You also need the approval of a faculty advisor, resident dean, and/or program director.

Schools usually limit the number of independent study courses a student may take, with some capping these classes at one or two per semester. Speak with your academic advisor to find out more — they can help you determine whether independent study is right for you.


Feature Image: kundoy / Moment / Getty Images

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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