At New College, January means a much-appreciated break from classes after frenzied weeks of cramming for finals. It is a refreshing change of pace where students get to focus on an Independent Study Project (ISP) on a subject of their choice. However, what has been a staple of the academic structure, has now become the source of a discussion on the future of ISPs at New College.
New College of Florida’s President Donal O’Shea noticed that New College’s academic calendar ends later in the year than most other institutions, potentially making students less competitive for summer opportunities. He also noticed that the placement of the ISP, after a month-long December break, left students with two unstructured months that could contribute to the school’s low retention rate.
As a result, Provost Steve Miles was tasked with preparing a report to be given to the next Provost on how students, faculty and staff view the ISP. To build this report, two open discussion meetings were scheduled March 14 and 22 where anyone was invited to share their thoughts on how they’d like to see the ISP change.
Preparing for thesis work
One of the main issues discussed at the March 14 meeting was how the ISP can be improved to better prepare students for completing their thesis, a project that must be completed in order to graduate from New College.
”We stress so much over the fact that many students aren’t prepared to do independent work by the time they get to the thesis process, so why aren’t we thinking about this earlier?” Associate Professor of History, Carrie Beneš, said. “If we can put together a framework where students of each year are gradually encouraged to think about how to envision and carry out a big project, we could make ISP the perfect time to tackle these issues. I would like to see ISP conceptualized as a series of stepping stones toward independent research.”
According to data provided by Provost Steve Miles, 41 percent of unsatisfactory ISPs in the last four years have been first-year projects. This large percentage could be due to the fact that many first-years are unfamiliar with performing in-depth, independent work by the time they perform their first ISP.
“The academic success for a first-year is not the same as a third-year in terms of what you expect from their ISP,” second-year Yvenord Mergilles said. “Writing a 20-page paper for someone who has never written anything of that volume is an easy way to burn out. If they don’t have the work ethic in place yet, which most first-years don’t, it’s naturally going to be left to the end and then they’re just going to write a bad paper. […] We could consider restructuring ISP for first-years to be a more exploratory learning experience and introduce more structure in the next two years to prepare students for thesis work.”
More faculty supervision
Another common issue among first-year ISPs is time management.
“The danger of ISP is time getting away from people,” Professor of Philosophy Aron Edidin said. “The key is planning your time accordingly to make sure you accomplish what you set out to accomplish. I think it’d be helpful if the default for first-year ISPs was a more structure-intensive ISP project with very involved sponsors.”
Establishing regular communication with ISP sponsors could keep students on track with their research schedules and result in more successful first-year ISPs.
“It really helps when your advisor tells you what they’re expecting of you because as a first-year you really don’t know,” second-year Ethan Kennedy said. “I came in with the expectation that an ISP was supposed to be a massive project and my ISP sponsor helped me make my project something much more reasonable. I think this goes back to the need for faculty working closely with students to evaluate how much they should actually accomplish.”
Another important function of the ISP is that it provides extra time for students and faculty to wrap-up their work from the previous semester.
“At the last faculty meeting, most of the defense for keeping ISP in January had little to do with the content of ISP and much more to do with giving faculty time to do our evaluations, for students to take make-up exams and for thesis students to advance on their projects,” Professor of History David Harvey said.
Moving the ISP to May, a suggestion made by President O’Shea to avoid having two unstructured months between Fall and Spring semester, could jeopardize students opportunity to pass classes or contracts they had not completed from the previous semester, contributing to even lower student success.
“The time off from regular academia that ISP gives you is so essential to the school especially for people with physical and mental disabilities,” second-year Volanta Peng said. “There is more time to take care of yourself between semesters, more time to finish contracts […] ISP being in-between semesters is a godsend for anyone needing more time.”
If you would like to share your thoughts on how ISP should change in the coming years, attend the next ISP Open Comments meeting on Wed., March 22 in Harry Sudakoff Center at 3:30 p.m.