L&S Undergraduate Directed/Independent Study Course Guidelines

Students can enhance their "Wisconsin Experience" by conducting independent reading and research under the mentorship of a faculty member. Here, the L&S Curriculum Committee offers advice to departments and programs about how they can develop curricular procedures to ensure that these courses are academically rigorous and meaningful for students.

In May 2013, the University Academic Planning Council approved campus-level policy governing undergraduate-level directed/independent study courses.  The L&S Curriculum Committee was consulted during the creation of the campus policy, and the existing L&S policy was closely aligned with the approved campus policy. 

Key features of the policy:

  • An instructor may supervise no more than 40 credits of directed/independent credits without prior approval of their school/college Associate Dean.
  • Students and supervising instructors prepare a written study plan that should be on file with the department, and may be subject to review by the department or dean's office. 
  • Students should enroll in an appropriate directed study course by the course-add deadline; late enrollment requires additional approvals. Students may not enroll for directed study courses for prior semesters once the semester has ended.
  • Credits awarded for work conducted in directed study learning experiences are assumed to be consistent with the amount of work and learning demanded in group instruction courses bearing the same number of credits. Students who enroll for a large amount of credit are assumed to be meeting more frequently with their instructor/mentor and performing more work than those who enroll for a smaller amount of credit. Completing a research paper without also engaging in regular instructional contact is not considered the equivalent of credit-bearing learning experiences.
  • Directed Study may not be used for group instruction.    

The L&S Curriculum Committee strongly supports and encourages the use Directed/Independent Study for those students who have the interest and skill to engage in it, and for faculty who have the desire, dedication, and time to teach undergraduate students in this way.  They strongly endorse the value of these courses, which they regard as an important tool for student development.  In the course of completing a faculty-mentored learning experience, students become more self-directed learners while they work closely with faculty and academic instructional staff mentors who guide their research, provide feedback, and model scholarly and professional behavior.  Directed/Independent Study courses are expected to be rich and highly effective learning experiences for students, and the College encourages faculty to engage in this activity.

Because these learning experiences are so highly variable, concerns sometimes arise about whether every student’s experience meets these ideals. Department and program faculty should therefore engage in serious and thorough discussion of department/program-wide policy and practices regarding Directed/Independent Study courses. The goal of these discussions is to make explicit the implicit assumptions about what instructors expect of students who engage in these mentored learning experiences.  For example, it is important for department/program faculty to develop a consensus about: 

  • the amount and nature of instructional contact between the instructor and student
  • the type and nature of student work that is appropriate for a directed/independent study experience, within the context of the discipline
  • how contact time and work completed should vary according to the amount of credit students earn
  • what should be expressed in faculty-student agreements about contact time and work completed
  • department/program policy concerning maintaining records of directed/independent study
Among other points departments/programs should consider:

1.  Subject listings can include a range of directed study courses.  This allows students to enroll in courses at appropriate levels, reflecting prior preparation in the discipline. The range of numbers available may be used to provide opportunities to serve new students, non-majors, and majors - for example, a first-year student might take a course numbered 199 or 299, while a more experienced student with some prior coursework might enroll in a 399 or 499.  The highest level courses (699) should be reserved for higher level students (Jr/Sr/Grad) students who have taken several courses or who may be completing a program of study in the related discipline.   (Please remember that Graduate Schools may use students' 699 courses to meet graduate-level requirements - it may therefore be in the interest of the department and discipline to ensure that work performed at this level meets those expectations.)

The following numbering/grading conventions are noted in the Catalog:
  • Directed Study courses numbered 198 or 199 have a credit range of 1 to 3 credits, are considered elementary level, and are intended for freshmen and sophomores, though, in exceptional cases, juniors and seniors may be appropriately admitted if the nature of the course so allows.
  • Directed Study courses numbered 298 or 299, including supervised reading in foreign languages and in subjects related to students' major fields, have a credit range of 1 to 3 credits and are considered intermediate level.
  • Directed Study courses numbered 698 or 699 (and other courses with numbers ending in 98/99, between 398 and 699) have a credit range of 1 to 6 credits, are considered advanced level, and are offered primarily for juniors and seniors. However, in unusual cases, freshmen and sophomores with exceptional preparation and motivation may be admitted. At this level, it is a prerequisite to have had previous or concurrent exposure to the subject on an intermediate level.
  • Courses ending in -98 are only available Cr/N; courses ending in -99 are graded. As mentioned above, undergraduates are not allowed to take directed research at the graduate level, 700 and above.)
2. Directed and Independent Study courses are used by faculty and departments to convey academic credit for a rich and varied array of learning experiences. These experiences may include formal research (in lab, library, and field) or mentored work on creative and performance projects. Departments/programs have the authority to determine what sort of mentored work is appropriate for academic credit awarded by those department or program; collectively, the faculty has the discretion to establish department/program-level requirements related to these learning experiences, and to ensure that credit earned in these courses are of a quality and level akin to credit earned in other UW-Madison courses.  For example, the following topics might be discussed by the faculty as part of a broader discussion of curriculum:
    • Development of local criteria for directed study projects, suited to the particular discipline. This should include a statement of expectations about instructional contact, as well as general guidelines for what students are expected to produce in this course of study.  To support consistency of practice across the department/program, instructors might share samples of projects undertaken within those criteria, or tools used to evaluate student work on these projects.
    • Professor and student should have a formal agreement describing expectations for the course.  The following instructions appear in the Catalog:  "Prior to registration and before the end of the second week of classes, students are responsible for making all arrangements with the faculty member who agrees to direct their work. The student and faculty member should prepare a study plan, determine the time and place for regular meetings, the number of credits to be earned, and how to enroll in the course."  These agreements should be maintained in the department/program office.
    • Departments/programs have the discretion to limit the number of directed study credits students can count toward completion of the major/program.  They may also define limits based on level of directed study courses taken, or on the number of directed study courses that may be repeated with one instructor.
3. Directed and Independent Study course numbers should be used appropriately.  These course numbers should only be used in cases where students are pursuing individually mentored learning experiences, working one-on-one with an instructor, with no "group instruction" taking place.  In cases where students pursuing distinctly different projects meet together to discuss their progress, it may make sense to codify that learning experience as a regular group instruction course (e.g. group meetings related to service-learning projects or to internships). Wherever possible, departments and programs should develop these experiences as formal courses, to ensure that students receive appropriate credit on their transcripts, and that faculty receive appropriate recognition for their workload.

Ensuring effective instruction in these courses calls upon faculty time and energy and may affect other faculty responsibilities; therefore, L&S limits instructors to no more than 40 credits of Directed/Independent Study students per term.  Requests to exceed this limit should be discussed with the department/program chair and the appropriate associate dean. Instructors generally do not receive additional compensation or load consideration for teaching Directed Study.

See also:

Keywords:Independent, Curriculum, New, 299, 399, 499, 599, 699, 692, 692, 681, 682, X98, X99   Doc ID:20133
Owner:Kimbrin C.Group:College of Letters & Science
Created:2011-09-06 11:05 CDTUpdated:2016-01-25 09:27 CDT
Sites:College of Letters & Science
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