Independent Study Brown Bag - Summary

Independent Study Courses Brown Bag
Thursday, January 28  — 12-1, G239 Angell Hall

Summary: No departmental volunteers being forthcoming, Chris Luebbe presented an overview of Independent Study courses covering the College guidelines on these, approved last January 2009 by the Curriculum and Executive Committees, a range of departmental guidelines as posted on websites, and a summary chart of topics such as whether and how independent study courses could be used toward requirements for the major, how the work-to-credit ratio was defined, and whether the courses had pre-requisites or were limited to majors. 

The departments sampled included:

All of these departments allow the use of Independent Study courses towards requirements for the major, though there are many variations in when and how they can be used.  There are also wide variations in how the work-to-credit ratio is determined, which variously includes minimum weekly reading loads, pages of written work, student-faculty contact hours, and/or combinations thereof.  Generally these courses have no pre-requisites other than instructor consent or on occasion class standing (usually junior), the notable exception being in Biology, specifically EEB and MCDB 300 and 400, which stipulate a minimum major GPA and number of completed credits of Biology courses.

Questions Arising: Although more questions were raised than were answered, those that came up were nonetheless productive for consideration of how guidelines for Independent Study courses are developed and how such courses are integrated into student plans and departmental curricula.

  • What primary purposes do Independent Study courses serve both for students and for departments and faculty?
  • What types of activities can be done in Independent Study courses?  For example, can they essentially serve as internship courses?
  • How do Independent Study courses intersect with UROP, internship, and other research courses/positions?  How are students appropriately guided from one to another of these?
  • How are Independent Study courses integrated into the student’s major and department’s curriculum?
  • What resources, both faculty and equipment, are allocated to Independent Study Courses both within the department and outside the department, and how are decisions about this allocation made?
  • What incentive is there for faculty to do Independent Studies?  How do these “count” for faculty and departments?

Considerations: In the discussion of the above questions, three primary underlying issues emerged that departments may wish to consider in thinking about their own guidelines and offering of Independent Study courses.

  • Purpose: What is the actual pattern of student use of Independent Study courses in the department?  Does this usage indicate anything about current departmental course offerings or about the structure of the department’s undergraduate curriculum and major or minor requirements?  
  • Incentive: The incentive for students in terms of one-on-one attention and customization of focus to their specific interests are clear. On the faculty side, the benefits are less obvious.  Similar to internship courses, independent study courses, often with the exception of Honors work, are generally not counted towards teaching or service loads though they may require considerable effort and time on the part of faculty.  Other than the opportunity to work closely and in a mentoring relationship with a highly engaged and motivated student, are there other incentive structures that might be put in place at the departmental or College level? 
  • Resources: Related closely to the issue of faculty incentive is the question of how best to manage faculty and material resources that are often already stretched thin. Although obviously not meeting the desire for one-on-one student-faculty interaction, one possibility for encouraging engaged and motivated students’ intellectual exploration beyond the traditional curriculum while also fostering collaboration would be to solicit student group proposals for upper-level topics courses or seminars.


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