Special Types of Courses

The following distinctions reflect long-standing Harvard tradition and are offered as basic guidelines.

Seminars, Proseminars, and Conference Courses

A seminar tends to focus on more advanced and/or specific research topics. It has few, if any, lectures and emphasizes student presentations, papers, and research. Enrollment is usually limited to 12 to 15 students.

A proseminar is a graduate course usually taken to obtain appropriate background in a subject or area in preparation for a more advanced seminar.

A conference course places more emphasis on discussion than research. It usually has an enrollment of about 25 students (35 maximum), meets once a week for 2-3 hours, and incorporates lectures, as well as student papers and research.

In general, seminars and conference courses are open to advanced undergraduates as well as graduate students. Ordinarily, they do not have final examinations, nor do they qualify for teaching fellows.

Tutorial Instruction (Undergraduates Only)

Tutorials are opportunities for students to participate in small group or one-on-one instruction in their concentrations. They are generally characterized by their centrality in the concentration curriculum, by their sequencing, and by their emphasis on methodology and academic skills.

All full-time faculty members are ordinarily expected to participate in the tutorial programs of the concentrations with which they are affiliated. Participation may involve individual or group tutorials, special seminars, or the direction of senior theses or projects. Although faculty-taught individual tutorials or group tutorials are ideal in many subject areas, departmental resources may be insufficient to accommodate these goals. When a tutorial is conducted by a teaching fellow, a designated faculty member should have ultimate responsibility, and that faculty member should oversee reading lists, discussion topics, and paper topics. From time to time, faculty members should participate in the tutorials for which they have accepted responsibility. (See Responsibility for Instruction and Responsibility for Evaluation.)

Supervised Reading and Research Courses

Undergraduates interested in supervised reading and research may enroll in courses offered by many departments under the designation of 91 or 910. Such courses are not Independent Study but regular courses with weekly or biweekly meeting times agreed upon by the instructor and student. Students enrolled in Reading and Research courses are expected to complete course work under supervision and not independently. Instructors of such courses must hold a teaching appointment. (See Responsibility for Instruction and Independent Study.)

Graduate students enrolled in Reading and Research courses (300-level courses) do not receive letter grades but are graded SAT/UNS. Undergraduates may not enroll in courses numbered in the 300s or 3000s. However, Advanced Standing students in their fourth year of residence who are candidates for the master’s degree may enroll in such courses with the instructor’s permission. (See Undergraduates in Courses Designated Primarily for Graduates.)

Freshman and House Seminars

Freshman and House Seminars are offered under the general supervision of the Committee on Freshman Seminars (www.freshmanseminars.college.harvard.edu). Both are small, limited enrollment courses. The Freshman Seminars are designed to intensify the intellectual experience of incoming undergraduates by allowing them to work closely with faculty members on topics of mutual interest. Freshman Seminars are graded SAT/UNS, may not be audited, and enrollment is limited to the first two terms of students who enter as freshmen.

House Seminars are sponsored by the individual residential Houses and ordinarily are open to undergraduates only. These Seminars bring something new to the existing curriculum either in method of instruction, range and depth of subject matter, integration of practice and theory, or special responsiveness to students’ needs. House Seminars are letter-graded degree-credit courses that may be taken Pass/Fail. Enrollment requires the permission of the instructor. Any request to offer a House Seminar must first be approved by the Faculty Dean of the sponsoring House.

Independent Study (Undergraduates Only)

Independent Study is designed to provide credit for field research, academic study not available in regular course work, or practice or performance in the arts. It is not suitable for group instruction, paid work, or activities outside the competence or concern of one of Harvard’s departments. Studying the financial accounting system of a business firm might be an appropriate project, but working in an accounting office to gain business experience would not by itself merit academic credit. Investigating child development through observation in a day care center could qualify, but simply tutoring a child would not. Analyzing the organization of a political group might be a suitable subject, but organizing a political campaign would not alone suffice. In each case what distinguishes the suitable project is the application of analytical skills to the object of the Independent Study, not the intrinsic worthiness or instructiveness of the experience itself.

Any sophomore, junior, or senior whose previous record is satisfactory may petition to undertake Independent Study for non-letter-graded credit. A student may petition to take up to a total of four half-courses of Independent Study. Independent Study courses are subject to the same rules for dropping and withdrawing as any other course.

A petition to undertake Independent Study, available on the Office of Undergraduate Education website, requires two signatures:

  1. That of a qualified adviser (ordinarily a voting member of Harvard Faculty) who must be an officer of the University and whose professional competence is appropriate for the subject area of the Independent Study. In those exceptional cases where the adviser is not a faculty member - for example, a teaching fellow - the petition must also be supported by an appropriate academic department or unit.
  2. That of the Allston Burr Assistant Dean, which signifies that the proposal satisfies the guidelines and has been signed by the adviser. Assistant Deans will refer questions concerning guidelines to the Office of Undergraduate  Education.

The petition also requires an outline of the student’s proposed project. It must be submitted to the Allston Burr Assistant Dean for approval, ordinarily in the first week of the term. Once final approval is granted by the OUE, the Allston Burr Assistant Dean must lift the advising hold from the study card in order for the student to register. Any change-of-course petition that is filed to add, drop, or withdraw from Independent Study also requires the approval of the Allston Burr Assistant Dean. A separate petition, properly completed, must be filed for each half-course of Independent Study.

The adviser will assist the student in the development of a plan for Independent Study and provide guidance but not regular instruction. Independent Study does not imply formal instruction and should not be confused with tutorials, House Seminars, or with directed or Supervised Reading and Research courses offered by several academic departments and committees. (Supervised Reading and Research courses are generally numbered 91 or 910 and normally receive letter grades.) A student enrolled in Independent Study must undertake to work independently. Classroom work, regular instruction, and group projects are inadmissible. Students whose projects include interviews or research involving human subjects should contact the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects before submitting their independent study petition.

The adviser will submit a midterm grade based on a preliminary written report by the student of his or her activities. At the beginning of the Reading Period, the student must submit to the adviser an analytical paper concerning the term’s work. A simple description or report of the term’s activities is not by itself adequate. In the case of artistic practice or performance, evidence of substantial accomplishment should be supplied in lieu of written work.

The granting of credit will be determined by the adviser. In those cases where the adviser is not a voting member of a Harvard Faculty, then the Chair, Director of Undergraduate Studies, or Head Tutor of the department, or equivalent officer with voting membership in a Harvard Faculty, must review and approve the petition and the grade assigned by the adviser. Independent Study is graded “Pass” or “Fail.” The adviser will submit a copy of the student’s paper and a brief statement about his or her work for inclusion in the student’s folder in the Assistant Dean’s office, ordinarily by the first day of the Examination Period. Independent Study is not counted toward General Education or Core Curriculum requirements and is not normally counted toward concentration or secondary field requirements.

First-year students may not enroll in Independent Study. They may, however, seek special permission from the Freshman Dean’s Office to enroll in one Supervised Reading and Research course within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (91r- and 910r-level course category) if an appropriate member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has indicated a willingness to supervise. (See “Supervised Reading and Research Courses" within this section)