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Learning at WISR

On this page, below, is a somewhat abbrievated version of “Learning at WISR” . . .  Read More for a highly detailed version.

WISR’s Individualized Approach to Learning and Grading

Most of the work of WISR students is similar to what is called independent study at conventional institutions.  However, WISR’s learning/teaching relationships involve substantially more ongoing and cumulative student-faculty contact than the conventional model of independent study, which relies primarily on initial “contracts” and faculty checkups at the contract’s end.  WISR students average twice-monthly, individualized discussion sessions with faculty members, with more frequent contacts when projects are at especially active phases, and less frequent contacts in a project’s less active phases.

Evaluations of student work are made by each person’s primary faculty advisers throughout the individual, faculty-student consultations, and in the faculty member’s review of written papers and project reports. 

WISR relies not on standardized courses but on students’ active efforts, under faculty supervision, to solve problems that actively interest them, bringing their own work experiences together with the resources of academic research.  

Academic assessments are not based on rigid, technical criteria of achievement but on faculty members’ requiring that students meet broad, basic standards of clear thought, substantively rich description, coherent explanation, concern for evidence, and active, imaginative inquiry.  In short, each student’s faculty advisers evaluate the student’s work based on the guidelines stated in the catalogue in the sections on “Grading and Awarding Credit” and “Academic Requirements.”

Sequences of Learning Activities

Although WISR students take many, varied paths in the pursuit of their learning, there are three phases which typify the learning rhythms of many WISR students from admission to graduation, at both the graduate and the undergraduate levels. The first phase is exploratory.  Students investigate existing knowledge about a number of substantive areas, actively try to learn the “lay of the land” in fields of study with which they are working, and/or begin actively working on one or two projects that have strong, personal interest for them.  The second phase is oriented to breadth and to completing tangible projects.  Besides building on each student’s own intellectual and professional interests, these projects must help the student become proficient and demonstrate competence in a range of theories and practices within a major field and in two broad, core areas of study:  Methods of Social Action Research and Theories of Social Analysis and ChangeThe third phase is focused on the student’s major project (the undergraduate, senior culminating project), thesis (Master’s level), or dissertation (Doctoral level).  This effort involves a serious, in-depth study of a subject intrinsically interesting to the student and, usually, of benefit to others.

Evolution of Student Learning Projects

Whenever it is deemed helpful to the student’s learning process, faculty members fill out a Tentative Project Plan form with students at the beginning of a learning project. It is expected that very often student project plans will change, and students and faculty are strongly encouraged to be open to changing project plans, as well as to changes in the scope and intensity of the project.  At the end of a project, the faculty member articulates on the Project Evaluation Form the academic criteria and evidence used in making the final credit determination.  In particular, if the faculty member awards more or less than 4 semester units of credit, he/she comments on why he/she evaluates the scope of the project and the intensity of student effort to be substantially more, or less, than what is expected in most, “medium-sized” conventional 4 unit courses. 

Seminars at WISR

There are several opportunities each month for students from all of our degree programs to come together at WISR’s storefront seminar/office space–to learn together, to share and discuss learning experiences, and to socialize with one another. WISR seminars are always small enough to allow ample opportunities for everyone to participate actively in the discussions.
Each month, there are:

  • two MFT/LPCC seminars on Saturdays (typically 10 am to 2 pm), led by WISR MFT faculty, and specifically designed for and required of MFT (Marriage and Family Therapy) students, but open to participation from all WISR students;
  • two optional, interdisciplinary seminars during weekday evenings on topics of general concern to WISR students (e.g., action-research, multiculturality and social change, as well as presentation/discussions by students on their current and recent studies and projects)–with participation by one or two WISR faculty, interested students, and friends of WISR from the larger community; and very often,
  • a couple of student-developed and student-run study groups that have faculty support and assistance at the request of participating students.
  • As a new option, beginning September 1, 2011, the required MFT/LPCC seminars will be available by telephone conference call, supplemented by web-based online sharing of documents and notes in real-time. Most of our optional, interdisciplinary seminars will also be available by telephone conference call. Students who live too far from our Berkeley site to travel here twice per month may call into a phone conference line that will be connected with a speaker phone in our seminar room. Students and faculty on site at WISR and those students on their phone line, off site, will be able to interact and discuss issues, ideas and questions with one another. At a future date, some sharing by video conference may be also available from time to time. Students living outside the area are asked to attend some seminars on site at least once per year, in order to further develop their collegial relationships with faculty and fellow students.
  • It is a core requirement for all WISR students that they learn about the concepts and strategies underlying WISR’s approach to action-research, including participation in at least several seminar sessions on action-research. This includes, for example, how to make science and inquiry part of everyday life, and how to use what we know from everyday life to aid our inquiries and community projects. How do we learn things we don’t know yet from others? How can we write and talk with people to gain knowledge which is both conceptual and concrete?

Also, typically, every month or two, there is a film night, where students, faculty and friends from the community come together to view and discuss films on such topics as African American history, poetry and social change, adult learning and community organizing, and documentary social critiques (e.g., the films by Michael Moore). From time to time, WISR hosts events sponsored by MoveOn.org and by other community and activist groups.

About every six months there is an All School Gathering attended by many WISR students and faculty, as well as by some Board members, alumni and friends of WISR. This Saturday event lasts four hours and is a very enjoyable time for socializing and for sharing experiences and ideas.

Once a year, usually in the late summer, WISR students come together from all over the U.S., and even from other countries to participate in our two- to three-day annual conference of student presentations, discussions and socializing. Participation in this event is optional, but those students who travel to attend, even from other countries, have always enjoyed immensely their experiences at our annual conferences.

Some Outcomes for Our Learners

There are a number of themes that quite often characterize the learning outcomes for WISR students. Several are:
• “One thing leads to another” –as students realize one accomplishment or learning breakthrough, then that, in turn, often opens new doors for the learner and for the people in their lives—in their jobs, communities and in their circle of friends and relatives.
• WISR learners often find their own voice, in written and oral communication.
• Learners at WISR often come to see knowledge-building as something in which most everyone is involved.
• As a consequence of conscious efforts on the part of WISR faculty, many students design and pursue learning activities—action projects, research, and writings—that help to build bridges to the student’s desired career path, and/or to the next significant and meaningful things that they want to do with their lives. Read more.

To read about further topics on “Learning at WISR” . . . go to:

Learning the WISR Way


WISR Learners Speak


Distance Learning