Independent Study: Navigating a Custom Academic Path

Updated: Dec 5, 2019

The concept of learning at home is nothing new. However, as technology hurtles along, what used to be known simply as “homeschooling” has evolved, revolutionizing the way many students learn. Independent study, also called distance learning, offers a variety of pathways for students who find that a traditional brick-and-mortar school cannot meet their needs in one way or another.

A recent boom in online, accredited curriculum affords students many new opportunities:

  • Completing a full year or semester of schoolwork

  • Supplementing a traditional school program with a class or two

  • Enrolling in elementary through college courses

Why Independent Study?

Why would a student depart from a conventional classroom setting in favor of independent study? The reasons vary almost as much as the classes themselves, so here are the most common ones:

  • Enrolling in a class not offered on the regular school menu of courses

  • Acceleration through a sequence of courses in subjects like math

  • Credit recovery for a poor academic performance

  • A slower pace for special circumstances like injury, illness or trauma

  • A flexible schedule for artists, athletes and students in transition

  • Academic enrichment

Choosing an Independent Study Program

So you want to enroll in an independent study program or course. With so many options to choose from, how can you make an informed decision and find the right fit?Let’s unpack all the key factors in vetting the best program for your specific needs, one by one.


If your student is just taking a class for enrichment, this won’t concern you. For everyone else, this really matters.

Accreditation ensures that a course or program is held to a higher standard of excellence. A transcript from an accredited program will typically be accepted by other schools (with course pre-approval in place). Also, some accredited programs offer classes, but not degrees. College-bound students, especially athletes, need to be even more careful. Be sure to research thoroughly!

Course Format

The way a program delivers its course content is another critical variable. Some students love the flexibility of accessing courses primarily or exclusively online. However, a digital format certainly isn’t for everyone. The distractions or complexities inherent in online curriculum lead some students to choose a textbook-based independent study option instead. These students find learning easier or more effective when they have the concrete, familiar resource of a physical textbook as opposed to a screen.

The Instructor

Please consider how much contact a student may need with the class teacher in cyberspace. For some students, consistent support and feedback as they make their way through lessons proves critical to success; others may be just fine with occasional contact. Even highly independent, motivated students may need some access to a course instructor or tutor to breathe life into a curriculum.

Enrollment Rules

The allotted timeline and subsequent pacing for any given independent study course can vary widely. Here are the two most common options:

  • Open enrollment: A student can enroll at any time of year and receives a specific time frame to complete a course with minimal regulation for deadlines.

  • Calendar enrollment: A student must apply and be accepted to a program before enrolling in courses with a specific timeline for work submissions.

Open enrollment is obviously much less restrictive, especially for artists, athletes and students contending with injury or illness. However, the structure and accountability built into a more traditional enrollment plan benefits learners with a tendency to procrastinate in the absence of specific deadlines.

Is Independent Study the Right Fit for My Child?

Not every student thrives in a distance learning environment. Even independent learners may need additional support systems and people in place. Also, keep in mind the social factors at play here; a student without regular access to peers loses a built-in opportunity to socialize with schoolmates. Take steps to ensure your student has adequate time and opportunity to spend with friends and peers. Seek extracurriculars that allow for a robust social life.

Lastly, remember that purchasing the necessary curriculum without the right support in place may not set up your child for academic success! Even the most comprehensive and supportive curricular options may require a significant commitment of time and potentially outside teaching or tutoring support. If this cannot be provided by a parent, many tutoring services offer excellent support for students enrolled in independent study programs.

With so much to consider, we recommend enlisting the help of a professional to help you vet and build out the right program. Some families new to independent study feel like they’re jumping out of an airplane into the unknown. With thorough research and understanding, we can all pack our parachutes and trust they will open for a soft landing.

~Maya Varga

Director, Hayutin & Associates

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Hayutin & Associates

Tel: 310.829.7505

Fax: 310.829.7514

2500 Santa Monica Boulevard, Suite 100

Santa Monica, CA 90404

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