The self-designed nature of our Human Ecology degree is about more than just course selection. Students also have opportunities to design classes and other kinds of learning experiences.  Many use student-directed study to gain depth in an area and prepare for their senior project, professional interests, and/or graduate school. There are four main types of student-directed study.

Independent studies

Independent studies provide students with the opportunity to design their own courses. A student first initiates and plans out a syllabus, often in consultation with faculty or other experts, then carries out the work under the supervision of a faculty sponsor. Independent study is appropriate for advanced or focused work, for study in fields not offered by the college, or study requiring work off campus. Students can propose independent studies after their first year.

In a typical term around 50 students do an independent study—about 15% of the student body.

The approval process for independent studies is fairly straightforward. The student must meet all deadlines, and the faculty sponsor and advisor must approve the proposed course of study. That’s it. Independent studies are a great way to customize your education.


Residencies are a three-credit, term-long educational experience designed and carried out by advanced students. The student proposing a residency will put together her or his own program of study to explore areas which may not exist in either the content or structure of the regular academic curriculum. Residencies may incorporate such diverse components as participation in courses, workshops or training programs, independent study, volunteer work with individuals or organizations, particular skill development, and research. Residencies are frequently done off campus.

Residencies are for students with a developed interest in an area that cannot be satisfied by the regular curriculum who also have the motivation, work habits, and creativity necessary to pursue their interest independently in an academically responsible manner. Students must have an excellent academic record and be in good standing to participate in residencies. Typically there are around ten residencies approved each year.

Group studies

Group studies are, in essence, student-run classes.  Planned and initiated by students, they allow for the collective study of subjects, topics, or issues not offered in the regular curriculum. Key factors in the success of any student-designed study at COA are planning, goal-setting, and evaluation. The content of group studies ranges widely. Some groups work on hands-on projects which have tangible products. Some groups are more seminar-like, with the objective being the sharing of information among members. Group studies are taken for credit/no credit and available after the first year. Each group study assigns a student administrator who submits an evaluation of each student to the registrar within three weeks after the end of the term. If needed, there is a budget of up to $600 for travel and supplies.

All group studies, like courses offered by faculty, must be approved by the Academic Affairs Committee.  In a typical term COA will offer one or two group studies.


Tutorials are small courses for one to five students which cover specialized or advanced material not always available within the regular curriculum. They differ from independent studies, residencies, and group studies in that faculty members, not students, are responsible for design and implementation. Often, however, faculty members offer tutorials based on student demand. In some cases a group of students will confer and then suggest a topic area for a tutorial to a faculty member. We can’t always accommodate these wishes—there are only so many hours in the day. But in general faculty members work with students and often consider their design ideas in the development of tutorials. There are typically four to six tutorials offered each term.

Please note that official academic policies, including important details about independent studies, group studies, and residencies, can be found on the Registrar’s page.