Q&A: What Is Independent Study?

Answer: Independent study is when students are allowed to take a class one-to-one with a teacher and/or little faculty supervision. It can be available at any level, high school through college, but is more common in traditional, brick-and-mortar schooling than online settings. There are two different reasons a student might pursue independent study.

The first reason is because a student needs a specific class to graduate and it's not being offered soon enough. Some schools will allow students to contact any instructors that teach the needed course to ask for independent study. In these cases, it's up to the instructor if they want to accept the student and provide one-to-one teaching.

Another reason, more likely, that a student might ask for independent study is because they are interested in a unique or special subject. For example, let's say a student majoring in Art History is specifically interested in Chinese Art from the 1800s. If the college the student attends doesn't offer any classes in this topic, the student can request or petition their school for independent study in this area. An instructor or possibly the department chair of his/her degree program would oversee the independent study, which typically culminates in the student completing an extensive research project. In these situations, the teacher provides little supervision and is available primarily for assistance, if needed. Independent study may or may not include tests as well.

If you are interested in doing independent study, talk to your school's registrar or an academic advisor. If your school does offer this opportunity, I recommend the following questions before you make your decision.

  1. Is independent study offered in all program areas?
  2. What's the process for submitting my topic?
  3. Is independent study available any semester? If not, when?
  4. What happens if I begin the process but don't complete the project or study?
  5. Is there an additional cost for independent study?

Again, independent study is a great option for students who want to explore specialized topics while in school. With the wide variety of programs and career fields available today, it's impossible for schools to offer everything students may be interested in. However, through independent study, you can take the initiative to expand on your major.

Dr. Beverley BrowningDr. Beverly A. Browning (Dr. Bev) has been a higher education adjunct faculty member for over 25 years. She has taught in the classroom and online for multiple colleges and universities including Spring Arbor College, Baker College of Flint, Mott Community College, and Rio Salado College. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, Spring Arbor College and Mott Community College. She is currently an online instructor for ed2go.com (Cengage Learning). In addition to founding and directing the Grant Writing Training Foundation, Dr. Bev is also Vice President of Grants Professional Services for eCivis, Inc. She is the author over over 37 grant-related publications and a frequent keynote speaker and workshop presenter for national and regional conferences. Dr. Bev is a product of lifelong learning and an advocate for online teaching and learning!