Increasing Curricular Flexibility

Overview of several course- and program- level tools for increasing curricular flexibility.

Several tools are available to foster flexibility in the curriculum. Program requirements can be developed to allow students to use the following to meet requirements, assuming that the department/program curriculum committee has reasonable procedures for ensuring that these tools are used appropriately:

Topics Courses

“Topics” courses are types of courses that have a general title (usually, “topics in…”) and a variable subheading determined by the department. They serve as broad categories within a particular field, under which a range of more narrow subjects may be taught. For example, under the course topic “Women and Society”, the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies has taught such varied topics as “Political Economy and Gender”, “Family and Community Life”, “Gender and Welfare in Global Perspective”, and more.

Topics courses allow flexibility in the curriculum, so the faculty can experiment with new courses, offer instruction in areas that are not part of the regular course array, take advantage of the expertise offered by visiting professors, or to provide a “holding” place while a course is awaiting approval. These are tools to use when departments want to offer courses that don’t appear often enough, or that aren’t broad enough, to justify creating a regular course. In other words, topics courses help the faculty manage curriculum.

See also: Guidelines for Topics Courses  and How can departments/programs avoid creating problems with "Meets-With" arrangements?

  • Topics courses are usually lectures or seminars taught by faculty or instructional staff. 
  • Topics courses usually do not carry L&S breadth, unless a department/program can make a good case for assigning topics appropriately.
  • Using topics courses to create “temporary cross list” or “meets with” arrangements can work – but remember to avoid “meets-with messes” that link courses that do not have matching course designations. An Advanced-level Humanities course should not “meet with” an Elementary-level Social Studies course! (Sorting these issues out costs us a lot of time, effort, and student confusion!)  Please avoid mis-matching courses - it's important that students get credit appropriate to the instruction received.

Directed study

"Directed Study" courses are non-group instruction courses that students pursue under the direct supervision of a faculty mentor.  Although they are often independent reading and research experiences, they have (with the consent of the faculty who guide the student's learning process) been used to connect formally defined academic study and scholarly research with a wide variety of other experiences (e.g., internships and volunteer opportunities).

  • Departments may want to establish 299, 499 and 699 courses, and have rules about what students can enroll in each. (For example, it is probably only appropriate to have majors enroll in 699, which should have some reasonable prerequisites.)
  • Best practices for Directed Study include:
    • Achieving department consensus on what constitutes appropriate directed study.
    • Achieving department consensus on who may teach directed study (usually limited to faculty and instructional academic staff, but emeritus faculty and visiting professors might also be appropriate).
    • Achieving department consensus on how much work, and how many meetings with faculty, should be associated with each credit earned.  Per University Curriculum Committee standards, it is generally not appropriate for students to earn credit solely for turning in a paper; these courses presume that the students' work is guided by regular contact with the faculty member overseeing the work.
    • Achieving department consensus about evaluation of directed study work.
    • Creating a template learning agreement for instructor and student to sign and file with department office.

See L&S Undergraduate Directed/Independent Study Course Guidelines  for more detailed guidance from the L&S Curriculum Committee about use of Directed Study Courses.  Note: The University Academic Planning Council has approved policy in this area, "Policy on Directed/Independent Study for Undergraduates ". The L&S Curriculum Committee has aligned L&S policy to conform to the campus policy.

Thematic Course Groupings

These are "tags” can be applied in the Schedule of Courses to help students find information about particular areas of interest, which may not yet be associated with formally approved academic programs or approved subject listings.  For example, courses may be tagged as “Evolutionary Biology”, “Visual Cultures”, and students can use those tags to identify courses that may interest them.

This is a new tool that can be used to help students identify courses in the Course Guide and Schedule of Courses. Easier to manage than a Subject Listing, it might also be useful to direct students to interesting elective courses.  Contact Curricular Services for information about developing new Thematic Course Groupings.

Options and Tracks


  • Options are formally designated program concentrations on that appear on the transcript and - for undergraduate programs - are encoded in the Degree Audit Reporting System. Creating options requires approval by Department, L&S APC, and University APC or Graduate Faculty Executive Committee, and Options must conform to university policy (see Document 25458 is unavailable at this time. ). Because these are formally approved program requirements, changes to options in L&S must be approved by the L&S Curriculum Committee before they can be advertised in the Catalog or encoded in DARS. Formal options are reviewed five years after they're created, and must be reviewed when the overarching program is reviewed.
  • Tracks are advising pathways that do not appear on the Transcript. They do not require approval by bodies outside the department, though changes that affect program requirements must be approved by the L&S Curriculum Committee. Per the policy cited above, undergraduate program "tracks" are not encoded in the Degree Audit Reporting System.


  • Departments can use tracks or options to guide students within programs toward courses that share a fundamental core. Because approving, encoding, assessing, reviewing, and otherwise administering formal options requires more resources than simply providing advising about related courses ("tracks"), a strong case should be made that a formal option will:
    • clearly benefit students;
    • not be "low enrollment"; and
    • be supported adequately with department/program resources.
  • Options may be used to identify parallel, but different, program pathways. For example, a “professional” and “research” MA/MS.
  • Options must be used to identify “campus/traditionally delivered” and “distance-delivered” programs. This is important because:
    • UW-Madison is required to monitor and report distance education program activity to oversight agencies.
    • UW-Madison is not currently authorized to deliver education to some states. Plans for new distance programs need to include attention to monitoring admissions and enrollments to help campus comply with regulations.
  • Because creating new options requires department, college, and campus-level approvals, please plan timelines accordingly – if the L&S APC receives a request in September, it can usually reach the University APC in October/November (via GFEC, if grad programs are involved). If approved in December, the Registrar’s Office and others may be able to address necessary programming matters to allow the program to be implemented by the subsequent Fall admissions/recruitment cycle. The first cohort would therefore likely be admitted in the subsequent Fall term.

See also:  Changes to Program Requirements (Major, Option, or Certificate)

Keywords:topic option directed study 699 track independent study   Doc ID:21534
Owner:Elaine K.Group:College of Letters & Science
Created:2011-11-30 14:50 CDTUpdated:2016-07-20 12:55 CDT
Sites:College of Letters & Science
Feedback:  0   0