Independent Study Abroad Programmes

Written by  Erin Moores February 6, 2012
Learn how you want, where you want.

Emma Dines gets university credit for performing clown acts at Findhorn ecovillage in Scotland. The 24-year-old explains that she’s interviewing community members about group dynamics then creating clown acts which she performs spontaneously around the community. She belongs to a breed of innovative students who are incorporating travel and study in a unique programme that pushes the limits of the classroom. 

Julia Smith, a student at Long Island University’s Global College, spent three months conducting research at a refugee camp in Ghana.  While there, she became increasingly interested in micro-financing programmes for refugees.

Dines and Smith created their projects through a unique approach to education called independent study. This style of learning, rare at the undergraduate level, offers students the opportunity to create their own course content, choose their own study methods and direct their own individualized research, with the support of a faculty advisor. 

Dines is in a small programme unique in Canada: the Bachelor of Independent Studies at the University of Waterloo. Students can design all of their own coursework—that could mean no lectures, tests or exams and sometimes even no grades. In Smith’s Global College programme, students follow a more structured curriculum but have many opportunities to create their own projects. 

It's not surprising that many students use independent study to create tailor-made overseas experiences. Ian Fornshell is a first-year student at Quest University where students take between one and four self-directed “experiential education” courses during their degree. He’s using one of these to turn a Kenyan volunteer stint into a university credit, by proposing a set of learning objectives and steps for his study on “how different cultures use music for different purposes.” 

Programmes like these don’t require extraordinarily high grades—admissions procedures emphasize getting to know the whole person. Letters of reference, personal essays, artistic portfolios and interviews can be part of the process, along with transcripts. Students can enter directly from high school or transfer later from other programmes.

The programme is a lot of work, especially when it involves an overseas project. Preparations include working one-on-one with an advisor to conduct pre-travel research, preparing proposals, getting approval from the university and working out reliable to communicate with instructorys while abroad. 

“It is tiring and, in a way, very lonely, because I am the only one doing what I am doing!” says Dines. 

Smith describes another challenge. “If you’re in an academic institution doing a traditional thing, then your teacher’s going to have the class prepared,” she says.. “But, when you go somewhere that you’re unfamiliar with and your advisor is unfamiliar with, you kind of stumble along the way.”

That stumbling can also be a good thing. “In many ways, I don’t have to ‘get it right,’” Dines explains. “It's more about my exploration and everyday experience.” 

Smith agrees. Exploring micro-finance projects was not part of her original plan, but she was able to pursue the topic because the content of her project was under her control. 

Students usually complete their studies by turning in a final project which can include research papers, artistic or multimedia creations, journalism pieces, term reports or portfolios. At the University of Waterloo's programme, this thesis project is evaluated by specially-appointed supervisors. The academic board then reviews the evaluations, along with any grades or other academic material, and decides whether or not to grant the Bachelor of Independent Studies degree.

According to the University of Waterloo website, graduates have gone on to respected positions like Senior Corporate Business Planner for Environment Canada, computer science professor and dance teacher at the National Ballet School of Canada. And while arranging and undertaking an independent study programme can require more effort than a traditional undergraduate programme, many students feel that the benefits outweigh the challenges by a long shot. As Smith puts it, “I feel that if I had been in a traditional institution, my learning would have been set and I wouldn’t have had time to do anything if something new had sparked my interest.”

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