Honors Program courses provide opportunities for students to learn in an environment suitable for their interests and talents. In concert with the mission of the university to provide excellence in education, these courses seek to provide unique and rich experiences for both students and faculty. Students learn in a small class setting and play an active role in their learning. Faculty teach in a class with interested and motivated students and have an opportunity to experiment with their pedagogical strategies.
The following are some guidelines for constructing and teaching “H” and “HP” courses. These guidelines are not meant to be limiting, and you are not necessarily expected to include all the items mentioned below. Rather, these guidelines are designed to help to differentiate “H” and “HP” courses from normal courses and to stimulate your thinking as you create an honors class.
One should also be aware of the distinction between “H” and “HP” courses. An “H” course is usually an honors section of a regularly taught course within a department (i.e. AH 101H or PO 101H). An “HP” course is often a course that is cross-disciplinary in nature. It can be taught as a unique course or on an irregular or occasional basis. Sometimes it is cross-listed with one or more departments, and sometimes it is taught by more than one instructor. It is always a course the focus of which reaches beyond the normal boundaries of a discipline.
Characteristics of an Honors Class
1) Greater engagement of the student
An “H” or “HP” class should invite the student to participate in learning the substance of the course. Normal classes frequently rely heavily upon the role of the instructor, whether in the traditional lecturer model, as the dispenser of information, or as the discussion leader. The focus of an honors course should shift away from instructor and toward the student. Hence, you should work hard to involve the student in the learning process of the course. While this may be more difficult in some “content driven” courses, every instructor of an honors course should strive to create ways in which the student becomes more of a “co-learner” and less of a recipient of knowledge.
Some suggestions for increasing student involvement:
- Small group work
- Students as discussion leaders
- Students as “teachers” for the day
- Students as source of questions and discussion for the day
2) Enrichment of the course
An instructor of an “H” or “HP” course should seek ways to make the course experience unique, rich, and memorable. The implication here is that an honors course should not simply involve a course with a great deal of additional work, such as AP courses in high school. Rather, the instructor should seek ways of expanding the walls of the course.
Some examples of enrichment:
- AH101H course where the second class of the week meets at the Cleveland Museum of Art so that students may see the art works “in person” rather than through slides or videos, seated in a darkened classroom.
- MT135H course in calculus where the emphasis is placed on understanding the underlying theory rather than the necessity of repeated problem sets.
- TRS101H with visits to houses of worship of a variety of traditions.
- PS101H where an additional text on intellectual development is used.
- Other ways to enhance a course might be additional reading materials, visits to labs, guest lecturers, or emphasizing the larger questions and implications of what is being studied.
3) Altered focus of the class
In some ways, this characteristic is related to the first one. The goal here is to move the center of learning away from the professor toward the student. An instructor should assist the student in becoming more responsible for his or her learning and should seek to instill a love of learning.
- Do not rehearse reading in class but respond to students’ questions and insights.
- Explore implications and consequences of readings.
- Adjust class to students’ pace of learning.
- Be guided by students’ questions, issues, and concerns.
- Focus more on essay and “problem-solving” testing rather than objective exams.
- Employ more primary resources and encourage students to engage in reflective interpretations of those resources.
4) Evaluation of students
How to grade an “H” or “HP” section is something that needs consideration. An instructor should not vary his or her grading standards. Indeed, an example of excellence should be demonstrable and comparable in any course. What is likely to change in an honor class is the “average” grade. Whereas a non-honors course might have an average of B- (for example), an honors course could quite likely have an average of B+. This does not mean that no student will receive a low grade in an honors class; it merely means the overall level of performance is likely to be higher in such classes.
The goal here is not to punish a student for taking an honors class. Since students do not accrue any advantage (in their GPA) for getting an “A” in an honors course, it should not be more difficult to get an “A” in such a class. One should also remember that “H” courses (and some “HP” classes) are not restricted to Honors students. Thus, not all students in an “H” course are in the Honors Program.
Reminder: it is the quality of the learning experience in an honors class that makes it different, not its difficulty.
Practical Implications for an Honors Class
1) Class Structure
- With the smaller size of an honors course (20 or under) there should be greater contact and interaction between instructor and students.
- Greater student input is expected.
- Emphasis should be placed on the students’ ability to articulate their ideas in both written and oral forms.
- An “H” class can often be supplemented with films, trips, speakers, experiments, etc., which are not otherwise available (some financial assistance is available from the Honors Program).
- The instructor of an “H” course often employs teaching methods which de-emphasize straight lecture and encourage more discussion.
- The instructor can experiment with new or different classroom styles that challenge the student and instructor.
- The instructor has the opportunity to work with students who are often highly motivated and eager to learn.
- The instructor should help students to step back and reflect on what is being done in the class and on the material under discussion.
- The instructor should help students to learn how to construct analyses and interpretations of primary sources.
- The instructor has an opportunity to interest honors students in the discipline in which he/she teaches.
“Goals” of an Honors Class
- An honors course has “critical thinking” as a more intentional component of the course content.
- An honors course fosters divergent thinking and independent thinking.
- An honors course encourages the “independent autonomous learner.”
- An honors course is more student focused with less emphasis on the instructor as the dispenser of wisdom.
- An honors course pushes students to examine the “larger” questions and issues which are a consequence of the particular content of the course.
- An honors course focuses more on synthetic analysis and less on rote learning or testing.
- An honors course should provide opportunities for students to reflect on what is being learned.
John Spencer, Ph.D
Professor Emeritus, Theology & Religious Studies
Former Director, Honors Program