Independent Studies: Unit Planning Decision Guide

The following questions are meant to guide you through the process of designing a “course” or unit of study. Take time to reflect on them to help create a cohesive, concrete plan. Having a learning contract will allow you to review the plan as a whole with your advising faculty member and check for consistency.

  1. Where are you?

    • Captain Plan-ItWhat is your background?
    • What prior knowledge do you have of this material?
    • Where does this unit fit with your degree requirements?
    • What are your beliefs, attitudes, skills, values, and support structure, both in life and as a student?
  2. Where do you want to go?

    • What would you like to get out of this unit (knowledge and skills)?
    • What do you want to be able to do once the unit is over?
    • What will you have to know in order to do the items listed above?
  3. How will you know you got there?

    • How can you assess your learning achievements?
    • What types of evaluation methods will suit the goals you outlined for question two (e.g., essay, presentation, annotated bibliography, webpage)?
  4. How are you going to get there?

    What general structure of activities do you want to use? You can design your own, or use one of the following activity structures:

    • Read-write-talk: Sequence of reading, reflective writing, and discussion with advising faculty member
    • Do/look-read-talk: Start with some field or lab work, followed by readings and discussion with advising faculty member – write-ups of experiential work can be included
    • Read-talk-do: Do assigned readings, followed by discussion with advising faculty member, and then application based projects
    • Know-do-do: Work through a series of stages – build some background knowledge of skills, work on smaller application projects, conclude with larger, more complex project
    • Talk-read-write: Start with some intensive meetings with advising faculty member to discuss material, read recommended resources, prepare written work
  5. What are you going to do?

    • What specific activities will you use to attain each of the goals for question two, in keeping with the general strategy chosen?
    • Critically evaluate these activities. Is reading/writing/reflecting, etc. enough to attain the desired amount of learning?
  6. When are you going to do what?

    • Develop a week by week schedule for the whole term
    • What activities need to come first?
    • What activities do you want to conclude with?
    • What sequence makes sense for the middle?
  7. Who/what can help?

    • What resources do you need to support each of the goals listed for question two?
    • Include people, places, community, articles, media, library, and advising faculty member resources
  8. How will your work be assessed?

    • Who will do the assessing?
    • What activities will be assessed? (Not all activities may require assessment)
  9. Communicate your plans

    It is now time to develop your learning contract. A sample learning contract and tips on developing the contract are available from Centre for Teaching Excellence. The contract should include:

    • Goals for the unit
    • Structure and sequence of activities
    • Timeline for completion of activities
    • Details about resource materials for each goal
    • Assessment procedures
    • A section for advising faculty member feedback and evaluation as each goal is completed
    • May include a plan for regular meetings with advising faculty member and other unit policies, such as work turned in late
    • Once created, contracts should be assessed by the advising faculty member. What could go wrong? Is there too much or too little work? Is the timeline and evaluation reasonable?
  10. How will you know how the unit is going?

    • What kinds of feedback will you need?
    • How often should you meet with the advising faculty member?
    • What specific questions do you want answered as each goal is achieved?
    • Do some self-evaluation as you progress to help you stay focused


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.


  • Fink, L.D. (1997). Instructional consulting: A guide for developing professional knowledge. Practically speaking: A sourcebook for instructional consultants in higher education. Brinko, K.T., & Menges, R. J. (eds.). Stillwater, Oklahoma: New Forums Press.
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