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Independent Study Programs

Instructor: Bill Sands
Independent study programs are a popular alternative to traditional classroom study. Read on to learn more about how these programs work and who is eligible to take them.

Independent Study

In select academic cases, traditional study is simply not a viable option for some students. Those who find their needs are not being met in the classroom can instead look into an independent study program, which offers a much greater degree of flexibility and customization.

How Does Independent Study Work?

Due to the highly individualized nature of these programs, a student's independent study experience is often unique to his or her own situation.

That being said, independent study programs generally fall into one of the three following categories.

Paper-based Courses

This system of delivery is conducted via mail. Students receive a course packet that contains all essential classroom materials: a syllabus, self-check assignments, and course readings. Students will also need to complete Scantron-type assessments that can either be uploaded via the internet or mailed back to campus.

This learning option is ideal for students who do not have access to reliable internet and prefer completing their work in a traditional manner, on paper.

Online Courses

Online courses are extremely similar to paper-based courses, with the obvious exception being the means of delivery. Using an online portal provided by the school, students have access to all pertinent class materials, including readings, pre-recorded lectures, and discussion forums.

The ease of online learning means that students have complete control over the pace of their learning and may complete work as fast or as leisurely as they choose, depending on a school's available programs. This format can also be much more interactive, as students can easily connect with professors, teaching assistants, and other students online.

In-Person Courses

An independent study program does not necessarily need to be conducted via distance learning. Students who wish to take such a program can also do so while remaining on a school's campus.

Typically, students choose their own topic or subject and bring it to the attention of a professor. Should the professor approve, he or she serves as a supervisor while the student undertakes research or completes a project related to the topic. Some schools also require approval from a department program director.

Requirements for these programs are often strict, as schools need to be sure that the student is pursuing a legitimate academic endeavor. Be sure to check your school's rules and procedures concerning independent study before you begin devising your own.

Reasons for Independent Study

The reasons for pursuing an independent study program vary from student to student.

Scheduling Conflicts

One of the most common reasons for independent study is a lack of available time, especially for college or nontraditional students. If you are employed, a parent, or simply extremely busy, taking courses outside the classroom is a convenient and effective way to complete coursework at your own pace and location.

Exemplary Performance

In select cases, certain students may prove that their intellect and knowledge deserves a more demanding curriculum than their peers.

Independent study offers an outlet for gifted students to both pursue their own interests and remain engaged academically. Whereas an easy curriculum may prove boring, a more challenging and personalized program can help keep a gifted candidate focused on their studies.

Lack of Available Courses

Independent study is a viable alternative for students who wish to study a topic that is not covered by the current course listings. Motivated students with an interest in a specific subject can consult professors and design their own programs.

Independent Study Resources

If you're interested in pursuing an independent study program, Study.com has an extensive library of college-level courses., and over 200 of these courses offer transferable credits to more than 2,000 colleges and universities. These self-paced courses cover a range of topics, including psychology, English, and biology.

Enrolling in an independent study program requires discipline, excellent time management skills, and dedication to studying. This College Success Course contains plenty of helpful tips and strategies that you can use to succeed during your independent study experience.

In some cases, independent study programs can take the form of an internship opportunity. This course on How to Get an Internship offers advice from experienced guidance counselors and can help you figure out what type of internship is suitable for you.

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 79 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 2,000 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

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