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Independent Study

Purposes and Goals of Independent Study, Independent Study and Extensiveness in Grades K– (12)

Independent study programs are found at nearly every level of education in the United States, from elementary school through graduate school. Although the concept of independent study was not new, a spectacular increase in interest in the subject occurred in elementary and secondary schools in the 1960s. In the early twenty-first century, many courses delivered within a traditional format are expected to have some component of independent study and to build independent learning skills. The major elements of independent study are the following:

  • Individualized teaching and learning takes place through the student's activity.
  • A tutorial relationship exists.
  • Learning is made convenient for the student.
  • The learner takes responsibility for progress.

Independent study programs are sometimes criticized because they release students from group-learning situations. Students themselves, while they may select or volunteer for independent study experiences, are frequently unprepared because they lack experience with any other way to learn except in a classroom. However, some research has shown that computer-based learning is as effective as traditional instruction. Students were able to organize their own learning effectively, were generally positive about using this form of instruction, and scored similarly on examinations.

Purposes and Goals of Independent Study

Successful independent study programs provide preparation for students and guidance along the way:

  • Students are taught knowledge and skills that cannot easily be communicated in classrooms.
  • As evaluated by exams, independent students learn at least as well as students in classes.
  • Independent study provides useful practice in the process of learning.
  • Independent study is viable when an educational institution is inaccessible to the learner.
  • Independent study meets the convenience needs of many learners.
  • Independent study develops self-motivation, concentration, and discipline.
  • The learner is taught to identify a problem, gather data, and take responsibility for conclusions.
  • The learner does all the work and cannot slide by on the anonymity of group activity.

Independent Study and Extensiveness in Grades K– (12)

The amount of time that students devote to independent study could be much greater than is the case in most schools. Although often identified as a tool for meeting the needs of gifted students, independent study should be available for all. Each year, teachers demand more group attention on the part of students, leaving less time for independent study even though the students' capacity for independent study grows. Of course, students differ in their degree of self-direction, creativity, and performance, but all can profit from a greater amount of independence. In the past independent study has too often been viewed as being synonymous with learning by doing or with special term projects. Independent study needs to be viewed as an integral part of the total process of learning in all fields. Each curricular area needs sequenced materials that enable students to learn independently effectively. The materials first should describe the required outcomes in terms that each student can understand. Concepts and skills should be defined in behavioral terms. For example, if students are asked to research an issue through independent study, the exact parameters of their project, depth and breadth, the types and numbers of sources, the form conclusions should take, and the formats that may be used to present the results should be clearly spelled out, so that each student will know precisely what the school expects. Each segment in the learning sequence should provide a variety of learning activities that may be used to arrive at specified outcomes. Pretests and self-tests that enable monitoring of learning and suggestions of some ways to study in greater depth should be included. Motivation is enhanced by self-selection of learning strategies that work well for individual students and by the immediate reinforcement of self-testing. Provocative questions or activities to stimulate the learner's creativity such as those described by Phil Schlemmer (1999) for students in grade six and above can be used in concert with a traditional curriculum. Students no longer fail; they simply make less progress in the learning sequence. Each student's special projects should be recorded as part of an educational portfolio (now required by some states for graduation).

The University of Missouri-Columbia High School (MU High School), part of the University of Missouri Center for Distance and Independent Study, has an accredited diploma program for students of varying ages interested in alternatives to traditional high school. These include students who are home schooled, rural students wishing for additional college preparation, gifted students who need coursework above their current grade level, and students who need to make up courses. More than 150 different courses can be applied toward credit to a high school transcript. John Marlowe (2000) recommends that educators offering independent study to high school students analyze individual needs, match needs to options, use a paper trail to manage each program, enlist teacher support, guarantee academic rigor, and include some component that allows for students to socialize. Programs to teach independent and strategic learning skills to this age student also exist. In summary, students at the high school level use independent study to do the following:

  • Earn university credit before they begin college.
  • Earn extra credits to finish high school early.
  • Supplement schedules with courses not offered at their schools.
  • Enrich their high school experiences.
  • Make up credits to graduate on time.
  • Earn a high school diploma.

Similar programs also exist at the elementary and middle school level. The University of Missouri's Distance and Independent Study Center also offers a program for elementary and middle school students in grades three through eight that covers curriculum in language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. All the courses were written by licensed teachers and are equivalent to a semester of work. Coursework can be completed through the mail, online, or by fax.

Issues Trends and Controversies

The movement toward independent study at the elementary and middle school level has been fueled by an increase in the number of students who are home schooled. Although developed primarily for this consumer group, such courses are being offered to schools as supplements to the regular curriculum and as a way to meet the needs of diverse learners. Schools may opt for these programs for use in enrichment programs, especially for students in accelerated programs or those identified as gifted, for remediation, for use with students with identified learning problems, or in place of summer school programs. Programs to teach independent and strategic learning skills also exist for grades K–12.

There are several reasons for this trend. First, independent study programs have been successful in meeting the needs of students who lack other educational opportunities. Second, increasing pressure on adults to continue learning to upgrade skills for their current job or to prepare themselves for new careers has created a concomitant expectation that students will learn how to do this in grades K–12. Third, educational technology has gained increasing acceptance as an ally of the teacher and student in accomplishing tasks that would be more difficult and expensive in conventional formats. Fourth, improved understanding of the nature of the individual process of learning has yielded greater emphasis on teaching the student to learn and solve problems independently and with less emphasis on information transfer.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the infusion of technology (particularly the Internet and video-conferencing) has made independent learning and distance education a focus for all schools. Carefully conducted research and a rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of independent study programs, especially those that rely heavily on technology over a long period of time, are needed. Such evaluation should analyze not only differences in achievement, as measured by existing standardized tests, but also changes in student attitudes and the quality of their experience. The changes that independent study and distance education bring in the learning and teaching environment must also be a focus of study.


DEWHURST, DAVID; MACLEOD, HAMISH A.; and NORRIS, TRACY A. 2000. "Independent Student Learning Aided by Computers: An Acceptable Alternative to Lectures?" Computers and Education 35 (3):223–241.

KIEWRA, KENNETH, and DUBOIS, NELSON F. 1998. Learning to Learn: Making the Transition from Student to Lifelong Learner. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

MARLOW, JOHN. 2000. "Learning Alone." The American School Board Journal 87 (12):56–62.

MEDINA, KATHLEEN; PIGG, MATTHEW; DELAR, GAIL; and GOROSPE, GIL. 2001. "Teaching Generation.com." Phi Delta Kappan 82 (8):616–619.

SCHLEMMER, PHIL, and SCHLEMMER, DORI. 1999. Challenging Projects for Creative Minds: Twenty Self-Directed Enrichment Projects that Develop and Showcase Student Ability: For Grades Six and Up. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Press.

SCHUNK, DALE H., and ZIMMERMAN, BARRY J. 1998. Self-Regulated Learning: From Teaching to Self-Reflective Practice. New York: Guildford Press.

WASSERRNAN, SELMA. 2001. "Curriculum Enrichment with Computer Software." Phi Delta Kappan 82 (8):592–597.

WEINSTEIN, CLAIRE E., and HUME, LAURA M. 1998. Study Strategies for Lifelong Learning. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

ZIMMERMAN, BARRY J.; BONNER, SEBASTIAN; and KOVACH, ROBERT. 1996. Developing Self Regulated Learners: Beyond Achievement to Self-Efficacy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI'S CENTER FOR DISTANCE AND INDEPENDENT STUDY. 2002. "Elementary/Middle School." <http://cdis.missouri.edu/elementary>.

UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI'S CENTER FOR DISTANCE AND INDEPENDENT STUDY. 2002. "MU High School." <http://cdis.missouri.edu/MUHighSchool/Hshome.htm>.


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