Story by Anna Browne
The Independent Study Program, also called learning contracts, is a program for students interested in becoming more independent in their learning, said Beth Tyne, the coordinator for learning contracts at Whatcom Community College.
“A learning contract is a mode of learning,” Tyne said, adding that Whatcom offers learning contracts to promote independence and freedom in a student’s learning.
The program’s handbook defines learning contracts as a “written agreement reached between the student and the College regarding what is going to be learned, the method of learning and the method of evaluation.”
“It gives students the ability to have a responsibility with their learning,” Tyne said. “Students get a sense of empowerment.”
“Learning contracts provided me with this excellent opportunity to stretch my education,” said Samantha Williams, a student at Whatcom who took part in the program. “[It] allowed me more freedom to pursue what interests me as well as what challenges me.”
The program offers two types of courses for students to consider.
The catalog course is when a student chooses a class offered in the course catalog but doesn’t attend the class, Tyne said. Instead they study the subject independently through the program to receive the credits, using resources such as the required textbooks, Tyne said.
The self-design course is when a student creates a class or course that Whatcom doesn’t offer, so they can learn more about a subject they are passionate about and get credit for it, Tyne said.
When a student chooses to take this course, Tyne said she asks them to be able to present three key points in order to convince her that they’ll be able to learn from it. Those three points are what the student will learn, how they will learn it, and which area of the subject they plan to focus on.
“Learning contracts at Whatcom is the ticket to making our creative ideas for the world-at-large actually happen,” said Song Lantzey, a student at Whatcom who completed the program.
“Students are expected to have learned from their independent study and be able to prove it,” Tyne said.
Some colleges require students to complete a learning contract, but Whatcom allows students the choice to not complete one, Tyne said. A student cannot earn all of their credits through the program, however.
The subject that the student chooses to study will result in the type of credit they will receive, Tyne said. For example, if a student wants to take a catalog course in history, they will receive social sciences credits.
A student can experience the program in ways other than just studying the course they choose.
“There was a student who wanted to do a history course for the program,” Tyne said. “He was a folk musician, and because history wasn’t his favorite subject, he decided to learn it by examining folk songs throughout the time period he was learning about [and] analyzing the meanings in the songs.”
The program is independent, but students work with a mentor either from the college or in the community who have some expertise in a subject to help them with any conflicts and answer questions, Tyne said.
“Finding a mentor was easy,” Lantzey said. “[There were] so many willing teachers, [and I] even found willing mentors in the community.”
Whatcom faculty and staff are not required to be a mentor.
“Mentors give students an opportunity to work with faculty, so they don’t do it alone,” Tyne said. “They don’t tell students what to do.”
Williams said her advisor was Gena Grochowski, who is part of the art department at Whatcom. “She is extremely kind and friendly, offering helpful feedback and being available when I struggled with creating art or have questions on what to do when I felt stuck,” Williams said, adding that she felt continuing support from Grochowski.
Colleges and universities like to see a student that has completed a learning contract, Tyne said.
“My learning contract has made me a better student, a better researcher, and has given me confidence as I move onto university,” Williams said.
“[Colleges and universities] like seeing somebody who is independent and has taken initiative,” Tyne said.
The Independent Study Program began with the creation of the college, when Whatcom’s focus was mostly geared towards adults above twenty years of age, and has stayed constant as the college developed over the years, Tyne said.