You may find that during your college career an independent study opportunity is offered to you. These entail working closely with a professor on a topic of study, a teaching assistantship or a project. You'll receive credits as you would for a traditional class, but you'll design the requirements and syllabus with your professor and likely have some freedom to pave your own education in the process.
At some schools, you can design your own class with a professor or adviser by proposing an independent study. For example, say you're interested in learning more about Post World War II contemporary poetry, but nobody teaches a class on it in your department. At some colleges, you can propose a semester-long study to a professor with that area of expertise, and if it's accepted, earn course credits. You'll likely have to agree on a reading list and series of assignments and projects with the professor, and then you'll meet with the professor several times per week to discuss your work and turn in assignments and papers. These programs are usually researched-based and allow you to act like a graduate student and spend a length of time researching, reading and learning on your own.
A Full Year
Some colleges will allow you to count semester-long travel as an independent study as long as you design a curriculum with a professor and agree to complete essays or projects that are educational and academic. At some schools, such as the College of Wooster, independent study is a full year of studying on your own through a close relationship with a mentoring adviser. Designed to take the place of one of your senior-year classes, it lets you immerse yourself in a topic or field without the interruption of class time, switching gears or worrying about tests. These year-long projects typically involve a major project at the end, an art installation or some type of thesis.
Making the Cut
Most schools offer independent studies only to students of a certain academic standing. Each school will have its own policies, and each department within the school may have its own requirements. For example, independent studies in English or political science might involve assistant teaching, where you shadow and assist a professor handling a freshman-level course. You'll have to be a student with high grades who knows the professor well to earn one of these spots. Likewise, most schools require you to be at least a junior or senior before you can enter an independent study program. Don't expect to have this opportunity first semester of freshman year; it must be earned with a good track record and demonstrated interest in a discipline.
Programs for Flexibility
Other than on-campus and travel-based independent study courses, some colleges and universities offer full independent study programs for non-traditional students who work or don't have schedules conducive to regular course loads. For example, the Independent Study program at Idaho University combines several colleges to create a linked program where you can take the courses you need from several different universities through a process of self-study. Known as ISI, this program offers classes in history, psychology, modern languages, library sciences and even fields like real estate. Classes at this program and other similar ones are usually offered either online or through print-based materials that you read and study on your own. Exams are given several times during the semester, either through an online portal or in a test classroom.