Designing Independent Study Courses

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

A few years ago, I designed and facilitated an independent study course for an undergraduate student in my department. She needed a more focused, self-directed study of qualitative research methods before beginning her senior thesis project the following semester. I was impressed by her ability to articulate goals for the course and why I would be the best person to teach it. She clearly understood why she needed the independent study experience with me. But she had not given much thought to the anatomy of the course itself (e.g., format, structure, timeline, content). Before agreeing to direct the course, I asked her to put together a formal proposal that addressed six important elements for self-directed learning (see Planning for Independent Study):

  1. Description: What do you plan to do and how do you plan to do it? What are your objectives in undertaking this study? What do you hope to learn?
  2. Qualifications: What background, knowledge, or preparation do you have that will help you in undertaking this course? What books have you read? What courses have you taken? What relevant experiences have you had?
  3. Resources: What sources and resources do you intend to use? Can you provide a list of articles and books you want to read?
  4. Demonstration of Learning: How will you keep track of and demonstrate your learning? When, where, and how will you report your progress?
  5. Evaluation Criteria: How will you evaluate your work? What will be the focus of your evaluation?
  6. Expectations of Instructor: Describe your expectations of the instructor directing this independent study.

The student emailed me her proposal and we scheduled another meeting to discuss the six elements listed above in greater depth. The most challenging part for me was the shifting of power from instructor to student. I spent most of the meeting asking clarifying questions, listening, jotting down notes, and imagining ways to craft a syllabus with this student. For the most part, I stayed out of the weeds and provided space for her to identify what she needed from the course and from me. I would periodically suggest a reading (e.g., “I think this important reading is missing…”) or help frame her ideas in the context of a specific theory or relevant concept, but most of the course design work was done by the student. At the conclusion of our meeting, I was confident she was ready for independent study with me. I agreed to direct the course and, using her proposal and the notes from our meeting, we drafted a course syllabus for her independent study. It ended up being a really positive and productive experience for us both.

If you currently teach independent study courses or are interested in learning more about ways to design and facilitate them, I encourage you to explore some of the resources below. I find the document from Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University to be particularly useful because of its student-centered approach to course design. If you are looking for a list of more research-oriented resources, look at the document from the University of Waterloo’s Center for Teaching Excellence. And as always, please feel free to schedule a teaching consultation with someone in the Reinert Center to discuss independent study courses.


  1. Guidelines for Independent Study (DigiPen Institute of Technology)
  2. Planning for Independent Study (Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Western Washington University)
  3. Recommended Independent Study Structure (School of Public Health, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston)
  4. Self-Directed Learning: A Four-Step Process (Center for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo)
  5. Supervising Independent Student Project (Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University)

2 Responses to “Designing Independent Study Courses”

  1. Excellent tips on independent study. It will be especially helpful to me with undergraduate research methods independent studies.

  2. This would be a great praxis workshop for next fall – would be great to get some feedback in real time