April 6, 2011

Studying alone no loss

Providing an opportunity for college students to create a course that requires self-motivation and self-discipline may seem like a futile effort. For Knox students, however, independent study has been a largely successful way for students to pursue their passions in a self-directed manner.

“[Independent study] is primarily driven by the student with minimal direction from the faculty member,” Dean of the College Larry Breitborde said. “In an independent study, you’re constructing the syllabus.”

On average, about 300 students conduct around 400 independent studies each year under the mentorship of almost 100 faculty members, indicating a widespread desire among students to engage in independent work and a willingness among faculty to aid in the process.

“It’s an important story to tell about Knox,” registrar and Professor of Mathematics Kevin Hastings said of independent study. “[These numbers] don’t even account for senior capstone experiences…nor does it account for Honors projects.”

For senior Courtney Tichler, independent study was a chance to delve deeper into Islam, a subject she had become interested in via other Knox coursework. Tichler, a Religious Studies minor, conducted two independent studies, one on Hamas and the other on the Muslim Brotherhood.

“These studies greatly enriched my understanding of political Islam,” she said. “The opportunity to conduct an independent study…is invaluable.”

Senior Kelsey Ingle, who is interested in children’s theater, chose to do an independent study after realizing that Knox offered no “expertise or experience” in the field.

“I’m interested in children’s theater, and I want to learn more about it,” she said. “That’s basically what an independent study is for, right?”

Breitborde agrees.

“Usually, a student encounters something…that peaks their interest, but there’s not necessarily a class on that particular thing,” he said. “Most students do use [independent study] for that.”

However, students may occasionally take on an independent study for a different reason, such as having to make up credit due to withdrawing from a course.

“Now they have to catch up in their other courses…and worry about the pace at which they’re accumulating credit,” Breitborde said. “So we get some requests for half-credit independent studies for this reason. It’s not supposed to be the way this works, but faculty are generally inclined to help the student.”

Overwhelmingly, however, Breitborde believes that students undertake independent study to explore a specific topic more in-depth. Although grades are generally relatively high in independent studies, this may be a result of the amount of work put into independent studies due to students’ affinity for and dedication to the subject matter.

“Students have the motivation to do an independent study, so it’s not surprising [that grades are higher],” Breitborde said. “Whether that creates the impression that independent study is an easy way to get an A is not any different from how students think about different courses.”

For Ingle, independent study was not about the grade but rather the experience.

“It’s…incredibly applicable to my life since I already have a job pinned down for the summer serving as the director for the children’s theater summer academy at Carroll College,” she said. “I wanted to give myself an academic background in the practical field in which I’m interested. [Independent studies] are a great way to tailor your education.”

Anna Meier

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