Independent Studies Give Students Unique Opportunity to Explore Interests

Story by Kathy McPherson

Kathleen Donovan ’21 went through high school thinking independent study wasn’t for her. “I just wasn’t that type of student,” said Donovan, who’s almost midway through her senior year at Durham Academy Upper School.

Kathleen Donovan Independent Study Website

Kathleen Donovan's independent study website: DA Upper Students' Mental Health During COVID-19

But she’s a huge fan now that she’s had the experience of doing an independent study project during the fall 2020 semester. 

“If someone is thinking about doing an independent study, I would scream, holding a banner, saying ‘Do it, please!’ 

“You learn so much about yourself as a student doing this,” said Donovan, whose independent study looks at DA Upper School students’ mental health during COVID-19. She created three anonymous questionnaires to survey the impact of COVID-19 on students in grades 9–12 and will share her findings to let the school know how students are feeling during this unprecedented time. 

“I think it's a great way to explore your interests,” she continued. “I'm a senior applying to colleges, and I decided to major in psychology because of this. I'm very sure of it now. I just think that the skills you learn through this course are invaluable.”

Donovan, who took four Advanced Placement classes and dance in the fall, decided to give independent study a try at the suggestion of her neighbor and DA parent, Kathleen Linger.

“I'm so happy I decided to because it's very exciting,” Donovan said. “It's very interdisciplinary and it's working with my AP Stat class, with my AP Psychology class. I can take concepts I learned from the two classes and apply them and vice versa. Obviously, I've learned a lot about the content [from the independent study], but as a student I have learned how to confidently and effectively conduct a meeting with teachers, also to have a lot of accountability. When you do an independent study, it's only you, all eyes are on you to keep up that motivation and get on yourself to do your work.”

Edward Rogers

From Edward Rogers' independent study website: Inspiring Young Voters

Donovan is one of seven Upper School students who completed an independent study in the fall semester. Faculty member Tina Bessias coordinates the independent study program and has seen the program grow from two or three projects in early 2018 to about 15 per school year.

“One of the things that's just really exciting to me about this program is the breadth of interests that students choose to pursue,” Bessias said. “We have somebody looking at our [Durham] history. We have somebody investigating medical illustration. We have somebody writing essays about political philosophy and Greek and Latin literature. We have somebody getting out there and working to inspire young voters, volunteering during the election and reflecting on the experience. There are just so many different things.”

DA’s independent study program was given a boost last spring with the establishment of the Jack Linger Explorers Fund, which was created by Donovan’s neighbors, Kathleen and John Linger, to honor the memory of their son Jack, a member of the class of 2020. Jack Linger completed a solo 3,500-mile, cross-country bike trip in summer 2019 to generate material for a fall independent study project. Tragically, he died unexpectedly three-and-a-half weeks after completing the trip.

Bessias said the Linger Fund adds a new dimension to DA’s Independent Study Program. “It recognizes and supports students' curiosity and determination to learn in out-of-the-box ways, and it reduces or removes financial obstacles. We are working to expand awareness of it and hope to double the size of the fund through new donations. This is just the beginning of an ambitious, new, student-powered engine for learning in the Upper School.”

Alex Hogue Medical Illustration

From Alex Hogue's independent study website, Medical Illustration

Senior Alex Hogue tapped into the Jack Linger Explorers Fund for a summer independent study with art and special needs students.

“I had actually been doing that program throughout my junior year, but of course it was in person,” Hogue said. “When COVID happened and everything went online and schools were closed, I wanted to figure out a way to do my program teaching art to these kids over the summer and virtually. I applied for the Jack Linger grant because all the supplies cost money. When I got the grant, I was able to get all the kids’ art supplies and lead virtual classes every week throughout the summer.”

Noting that art supplies are expensive, Hogue carefully planned out every project so she could be sure all the supplies would be provided for the summer program. 

“One project was tie-dying a T-shirt using shaving cream. That was really fun because it was really tactile and fun to play around with the shaving cream. We also made rain sticks, which was also fun because of the sound. I think we used quinoa to fill the sticks. Doing different projects that engage the senses is really effective, and I think the kids enjoy those the most.”

Hogue’s fall semester independent study project in medical illustration combines her interests in art and the brain, biology and anatomy. “I really wanted to combine those interests in a way that's not possible in my other classes. That's what doing an independent study allows me to do. … This year I'm taking AP Psychology, which is really fueling my interest in the brain. I find it super interesting and I've used a lot of what I've learned in my independent study this semester.” She’s applying to colleges now and plans to double major in neuroscience and art.

As fall semester independent study projects wrapped up, Bessias looked toward spring semester and new projects. Dec. 6 is the preferred deadline for independent study proposals, but proposals often continue into January. Proposals are reviewed by an academic committee, which approves them or recommends revisions, graded on a pass/fail basis and awarded academic credit.

“Ultimately, I look for every student in Durham Academy to do an independent study sometime during their high school career,” Bessias said. “I think it's a great experience for independent learning. Learning isn't only about school. School comes to an end. The need for learning never ends. 

“Teaching students to learn on their own, helping them identify a passionate interest and understand how they can pursue it and to get that sort of stamp of approval from the school that says this was meaningful, important academic work that was completed — I think all of that is really exciting.”