Directed study is one mode of teaching and learning in graduate and postgraduate programs. Independent study is another mode that allows a professor and student to develop a learning agreement to read and research in select subjects relative to his or her principal course of study or dissertation topic. The following information is designed to assist both professor and student in creating a meaningful learning experience that promotes faculty oversight and guidance, where needed, and the student’s interests.
I have assumed standards from the USA Carnegie Unit (Carnegie Foundation), the EU Bologna Process, the Melbourne Model, and the UK Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS).
Directed Study students should submit a learning contract before commencing work. A learning contract is an agreement between the professor and student on a plan for executing and completing a directed study course. After discussing the course and goals for the directed study, the faculty member and student will reach an understanding of a bibliography for reading and a theological reflection paper. The learning contract for the directed study will be governed by the syllabus, with particular attention to the Course Learning Outcomes. The CLOs are singled out because they are the most vulnerable factor in making the transition from a classroom (online or brick-and-mortar) to a directed study mode.
Independent study is a faculty-supervised reading and research course designed to support the student’s desired learning outcomes. A learning contract will include the approved course title, course description (directed study will use the course description in the academic catalog), initial bibliography, deliverables (usually confirmation of assigned book completion percentage, and a 20-25 research paper), and the course syllabus.
Learning Agreements (AKA “learning contracts”)
Learning agreements are necessary for undertaking an expedition in a directed or independent study. The agreement need not be overly complicated. The document clarifies and records, e.g., the mode, methods, goals, desired outcomes, and method of evaluation for the course. Many of the requirements are codified in the course syllabus. What usually remains is the student’s choice of curricula material that is listed as open-ended in the syllabus. The learning agreement can be communicated to the professor by email. Some faculty prefer a form for such contracts. I used to use a form but found much of it redundant and, therefore, unnecessary. In summary, the key to any directed study or independent study learning agreement is this: Instructor and learner are agreed to the means, methods, and outcomes of the course.
Six Steps in Directed and Independent Learning Agreements
The ordinary route to achieving directed study or independent study teaching and learning goals (in a theological higher education setting) should include at least these six landmarks in the journey:
- Read assigned scripture (e.g., a book of the Bible or a section of scripture, i.e., Pastoral Epistle).
- Read the works in the assigned bibliography. The page count will likely be more than the classroom delivery model (about 1,500 pages). Check with your professor. Since directed and independent studies are examples of “reading” for a subject (as in the traditional British and European teaching and learning methods), there should normally be significantly higher expectations for reading, or, if field education, of reading and praxis.
- Practice spiritual formation related to the readings and the subject (“Lord, what does this mean for Your call on my life?”).
- Journal with theological reflection (“Father, where does this intersect with Your Word? With the theology of Your Word? What do I do with it as Your appointed shepherd to Your People?”). For more on theological reflection, see A Brief Guide for Writing Theological Reflection Papers.
- Research while you read and follow the footnote trail (“What else is said about this matter? Who agrees? Why or why not? How about contrasts? Where do I stand given the Word, the Confession of Faith, and my love for the saints?”). See Follow the Footnote Trail: The Deeper Learning Model in Theological Higher Education.
- Write to demonstrate reading, research, theological reflection, and critical thinking, i.e., integration of content and theological reflection, and pastoral application. A capstone paper will be no less than 20 pages and no more than 25 pages (Turabian 9th edition style with the Erskine Seminary adaptation; The 20-25 pages do not include the cover page or the bibliography. The bibliography should not merely be a “works cited” section. Instead, make your bibliography a record of the depths of your research for this project. See A Brief Guide to Writing a Theological Reflection Paper.
Independent Study and Directed Study depend on a self-motivated learning commitment. The professor plays the part of a guide, a docent, to the world of research and writing. Nevertheless, the student must approach the Independent or Directed Study with a high level of commitment. This commitment to conducting “deep learning” will undoubtedly yield a more satisfying learning experience (“Deep Learning” is that pedagogical dynamic in which research plus critical thinking and theological reflection beget pastoral or practical application for the good of others and the glory of God). Directed Study and Independent Study necessarily rely significantly upon reading and research. The capstone paper is the student’s opportunity to demonstrate mastery of the course goals and provide rigorous research evidence.
The Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies (FHEQ), United Kingdom.
The Melbourne Curriculum. The University of Melbourne. https://about.unimelb.edu.au/strategy/melbourne-curriculum. Retrieved 07 January 2023.
Bonjean, Dominique (21 September 2018). “The Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area”. Education and Training: European Commission. Retrieved 07 January 2023.
Silva, Elena, et al., The Carnegie Unit. The Carnegie Foundation, 2015. https://www.carnegiefoundation.org/resources/publications/carnegie-unit/. Retrieved 07 January 2023.