Independent Study: What It Is and How It Works

portrait of Marisa Upson
by Marisa Upson
Published on September 1, 2021 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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Independent Study: What It Is and How It Works

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.

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.

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:

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

When choosing college electives, consider your schedule, consult an academic advisor, focus on your interests, and don't be afraid to try something new. Auditing a class allows students to learn without the pressure of grades and GPAs. Discover what it means to audit a class in college and how to get started. The definition of a good GPA can vary depending on the school, discipline, and employer. Learn what a good GPA is in college and high school. 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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