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How to Plan and Implement an Independent Study in High School

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There will be times during your high school career that you find yourself thirsty for knowledge that isn’t readily available to you. Maybe you’ve taken a class that has sparked your passion, but there are not more advanced classes in the subject matter available. Perhaps you can’t fit your favorite elective into your schedule, or your school doesn’t offer them at all. What can you do when you want to take a class that is not available to you at your school, and you want to make sure you receive credit for it, too?

If you are a self-motivated high school student who is finding that the class you want to take is not accessible to you at your school, an independent study might be a good option for you. Before you can know for sure, though, you’ll need to have a good understanding of just what an independent study is, what factors to consider before arranging one, and how to go about setting one up at your school.   

What is an independent study?

An independent study is a sequence of study that you undertake on your own, rather than a class that you take in a traditional high school setting.  Some independent studies can be arranged during the school day but often they take place outside of normal school hours.

Instead of relying on a teacher to present the material, you set your own learning objectives before beginning, and you pursue your own knowledge through a variety of sources such as textbooks, online lectures, or mentorships.

Independent studies are often self-designed, so they require focused planning and extended forethought well before the start of a new semester. Independent studies are less supervised than traditional classes, but usually students have a faculty adviser who helps to guide their work and offers feedback throughout the semester. This faculty adviser is also the person who will assess your progress during the course and assign you a grade at the end of the course. Because you are earning credit for your independent study, you can expect it to appear on your transcript with a corresponding grade. The grading scale will depend on the specific class and how many credits you are receiving for it. Generally, independent studies are graded on the same unweighted scale as regular classes, but sometimes, particularly if you are taking pursuing an elective, you may simply receive a Pass/Fail grade. Be sure to specify with your adviser beforehand so that you know what to expect.

Why consider an independent study?

The reasons for pursuing an independent study are vast. Some students turn to an independent study when they are interested in a subject not offered at their school. Others use independent studies to pursue in-depth knowledge of a subject they’ve already studied. Sometimes, students cannot fit a preferred class into their schedule or find that they need to learn at their own pace due to limited timeframes or extenuating circumstances. Whatever the reason for being interested in an independent study, it takes an especially responsible high-school student to effectively design and pursue one.

Are you ready for an independent study?

Before you move towards arranging an independent study, be sure that you are up to the task by asking yourself these questions:

  • Do you learn well independently?
  • Do you have any history of pursuing your own interests without the support of classmates or a team?
  • Were you able to sustain that pursuit over time?
  • Will you get lonely or unmotivated without study partners?
  • Are you able to devote the necessary time to designing your own syllabus and course objectives?
  • Is this something you’re passionate about doing?

If you ask yourself the above questions and, after considering them carefully, still believe you are a good candidate for an independent study, you should take advantage of the opportunity and move towards arranging one.

How do you set up an independent study?

The first step to setting up an independent study is to find out if it’s even a possibility at your school. Start looking into this early, as it can take a month or more to go through the full application process, particularly if you are planning to design your own course. Check at the registrar to see if they have a formal registration process in place for independent studies. Many schools will have an application process, and the application itself will shape your thinking as you plan.

If your school does not have an application process already in place, meet with your academic adviser or guidance counselor to discuss what options might be available. Go into this meeting with a solid idea of what you’d like to do and be prepared to discuss in detail why you believe that this is your best option for pursuing the coursework, and how you know you will be successful. Don’t go into this meeting with just a vague idea of what you’re hoping to accomplish. You should think of this as an opportunity to display your independent thinking and ability to take initiative.

Even if your adviser gives you the green light to move forward, you will probably still need to get your independent study approved through some formal process. Get advice from a teacher or your adviser on what to include in your proposal. Odds are, it will be a rough outline of your syllabus, a list of resources or materials you intend to use, and how you plan to produce evidence of your learning.

How do you plan the class?

If your academic adviser or guidance counselor indicates that independent studies are an option at your school and your proposal moves forward, really narrow down your subject area and make a list of potential faculty advisers who would be best suited to guide you through your work. You should ideally choose an adviser who teaches that subject area and with whom you have an existing relationship. An adviser who is already familiar with your work ethic and scholastic aptitude will be more likely to take on the project with you, and you are more likely to be comfortable seeking feedback from someone whose guidance you already trust. 

Next, arrange a meeting with your potential faculty adviser to discuss your goals for the independent study and how you plan to achieve them. Keep in mind, teachers are generally not paid extra to help students undertaking independent studies, so be grateful for the time and feedback. Be respectful by coming to meetings prepared with a list of questions or talking points. If the teacher is willing to be your faculty adviser during your independent study, make sure to have a clear understanding of what prep work you will need to do before beginning your project in earnest.

Should I take a pre-designed independent study or should I design my own?

Some students take pre-designed independent study courses. These include online college course work, online homeschool programs, or other classes that you can pursue outside of school. These are a good option if you are too busy to take on much planning and can find one in your subject area. These courses come complete with a list of textbooks or other assigned reading materials, assignments to complete throughout the class, and sometimes even access to online lectures. They save you a lot of work in the planning process.

The disadvantage is that these pre-designed classes will likely be less specific to your unique interests and you may find the pacing to be too fast or too slow, depending on how quickly you learn. These classes also come at a price. The independent study classes offered online through Brigham Young University, for example, tend to cost around $150 plus textbooks. 

The other option is to design your own course. This requires a lot of extra work, but the payoff can also be quite large. You will need to design your own syllabus, listing specific learning objectives for the class, the resources that you will use to meet them, and how you will display your knowledge both during the class and at its conclusion. You will need to design a way to track what you’ve learned as it’s happening, whether that’s through regular written assignments, a learning journal, or some kind of online assessment. When you complete your coursework, you should be able to measure your success through a finished product, final paper, exam, or presentation.

For ideas on what a course syllabus should look like, review past syllabi from your classes. You could also check with teachers who teach within your intended subject area for ideas on learning objectives and resources.

In general an effective class syllabus should include the following:

  • 3-5 broad learning objectives for the class
    • What will you know when you’re done with the independent study?
    • What will you be able to do when you’re done with the independent study?
  • What will the class format be?
    • Will you have a set period during the school day to work on it?
    • How often will you meet with your adviser?
  • How you will you work towards the above objectives?
    • What materials will you read?
    • What other resources will you use?   
  • How will learning be assessed?     
    • For each of the objectives above, how will you display your knowledge and ability?
  • What will you produce to show your knowledge?
    • Essays, assignments, artwork, performance, etc
    • How often?
  • What will your final project be?

Make sure to complete your syllabus well before the semester starts. You will need time to find resources and other materials for your work.

How can you be successful in an independent study?

Once you’ve developed your course syllabus, meet with your adviser to discuss it in detail. Make sure that you both agree on its effectiveness and that the standards established are high enough to keep you busy for the entire semester, but not so much as to overwhelm you.

As you undertake your work, start early and stay on top or ahead of schedule. It is easy to fall behind when you are relying on yourself to set the pace. Ensure that this doesn’t happen by challenging yourself to keep ahead of your work. This way, if you meet any unexpected obstacles, you should still be able to finish the project on time.

Also meet with your adviser frequently to solicit feedback. Remember, your adviser is the one who will be grading your work and you want to make sure that all of it is up to his or her standards.

Finally, arrange some kind of display for your final project. If you are writing a final paper or research project, find the opportunity to give a talk on it to share your knowledge with the community. If you are producing artwork, arrange to display it somewhere or host an art show. By sharing your independent study with the rest of your high school, you will encourage others to pursue their own learning and expose them to an area of study that may not be typically available.   

How will college admissions committees see my independent study?

Usually independent studies appear on your transcript as such. You should make sure that when you formally register for credit for the study that you include a descriptive course name. For example, the course may be titled Independent Study: Intro to Child Development. This way, the admissions committee will see which subject area you chose to pursue.

If you want to really highlight the independent study on your application, your faculty adviser may be a great option to write a recommendation. Who better can speak to your ability to take initiative and seek out unconventional learning opportunities?

Alternatively, independent studies can often be used as evidence of other core skills spoken to in the essay section of your application. Want to highlight your dedication to community? Write about how your independent study project enabled you to communicate with a classmate through learning American Sign Language, and how you went beyond that to share your knowledge with the rest of the class. Want to highlight your ability to think outside the box and overcome obstacles? Write about how a crowded photography class inspired you to build a darkroom in your basement as part of an independent study in photography, and expand on the engineering and design skills that you learned along the way.

An independent study can be a great way of pursuing learning on your own terms. It displays a passion for specific subject areas, it shows an ability to plan ahead, and it shows your dedication to independent pursuits of learning.


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.