Written by Honors Director Art L. Spisak, PhD (January 15, 2015)

  • What is Honors Education?
  • General Characteristics of Honors Courses
  • Grading the Honors Class
  • Bibliography

What is Honors Education?

For those considering teaching an honors course, a definition of honors education may be a good place to start. Honors education, which has existed in the United States since the 1920s, has been difficult to define because of the various forms it has taken in its development over the years and especially because of its various settings. In the last three decades, however, the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) has identified common practices in honors education so that it can be meaningfully defined. The NCHC's definition of honors education is:

Honors education is characterized by in-class and extracurricular activities that are measurably broader, deeper, or more complex than comparable learning experiences typically found at institutions of higher education. Honors experiences include a distinctive learner-directed environment and philosophy, provide opportunities that are appropriately tailored to fit the institution’s culture and mission, and frequently occur within a close community of students and faculty. (http://www.nchchonors.org/directors-faculty/definition-of-honors-education)

This is an abbreviated version of the full length definition. That full length definition, complete with so-called “Modes of Honors Learning” that detail the common approaches honors education takes (e.g., learning in depth with research and creative scholarship; inter- and multidisciplinary learning), is available at http://www.nchchonors.org/uploaded/NCHC_FILES/PDFs/Definition-of-Honors-.... The descriptions of these modes of honors learning may be helpful in developing or adding to honors courses. The longer definition of honors education also has a fairly extensive list a references, some of which can be useful in understanding what should happen in an honors class. That bibliography is below.

An Underlying Principle for Teaching Honors

Although honors courses will always vary in format and reflect different pedagogical and personal styles, an underlying principle is that honors courses differ qualitatively rather than quantitatively from non-honors courses. In other words, contrary to popular perception, honors courses are not normally more (or just more) work than a non-honors version of that course. Rather, although honors courses may on occasion proceed more rapidly through the subject matter – or at least through the rudimentary material of the subject, they are characterized by a different type of treatment of the subject: they cover the same material in different ways and in some cases may even move more slowly through the material.

General Characteristics of Honors Courses

If honors courses are not just accelerated versions of non-honors courses, how do they differ? Among other things noted in the NCHC’s definition of honors education, honors courses “are measurably broader, deeper, or more complex than comparable learning experiences typically found at institutions of higher education.” What broader, deeper, and more complex mean in this context is defined below.

Four Basic Types of Honors Pedagogy[1]

  1. Breadth: Honors education emphasizing breadth refers to integrative and interdisciplinary learning, or a multidisciplinary approach.  Honors-as-breadth models prefer small, discussion-based classes that are speaking- and writing-intensive. What distinguishes them from “deeper” educational opportunities is that courses are delimited by topic (e.g., a problem-based approach) rather than discipline, and students are more likely to be drawn from majors all across campus than a single department.
  2. Depth: Honors education emphasizing depth refers to specialized learning that delves deeper into a discipline’s body of knowledge and methodology (e.g., use of primary sources instead of secondary sources). This often takes place in departments (as contrasted with university-wide honors programs or colleges) and uses approaches most common in graduate school— e.g., mentored scholarship in which the student pursues original research or creative expression under the guidance of a faculty advisor; also small, discussion-based classes in which students present readings and interact with one another about shared scholarly interests.
  3. Complexity: Honors education emphasizing complexity refers to learning objectives at the higher end of the cognitive domain in Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy (e.g., synthesis, evaluation). As students move from actions such as remembering, identifying, and understanding to actions such as applying, synthesizing, and evaluating, the work becomes more complex, ambiguous, and pluralistic; alternative and innovative methods are common, as are experiential, learner-directed pedagogies. In general, the goal of honors-as-complexity is to give students the ability “to respond to new situations rather than rehearse old scenarios. Old situations are good for practice, but the test is how students perform under new sets of circumstances, which is the only way to test skills apart from content.”[2]
  4. Acceleration: Honors education will sometimes emphasize accelerated learning – especially for foundational or rudimentary material, although this is rarely the distinguishing difference between honors and non-honors courses. Accelerated learning is much more common in the United States for gifted and talent development programs in primary and secondary education.

Other Characteristics of the Honors Classroom

  • Learner-Directed Environment: Another characteristic that distinguishes honors from non-honors courses, as expressed in the NCHC’s definition of honors education, is that honors courses (and experiences) typically “include a distinctive learner-directed environment and philosophy.” What this means is that instructors lecture less and facilitate learning more. A good part of this approach is setting up the classroom environment so that students feel that they can safely influence and direct the learning process. For example, students may suggest an alternative approach to the topic or even exploration of another topic. In this type of pedagogy the instructor does not lead as much as facilitate the students exploring the topic and questions it presents. Thus, the students become a resource for each other and the instructor.
  • Experiential Learning: Honors may promote learning outside the formal classroom (through service learning, research, and co-curricular activities), with the emphasis on exploration and/or discovery rather than acquisition of specific knowledge sets; a focus on hands-on, usually supervised, practical engagement with usable outcomes can also occur. Programs often include undergraduate research, international experience, and internships.
  • Experimentation: Honors courses are more likely to encourage experimentation with new and different methods. This is a chance for instructors to stretch by trying new ideas, methods, and technologies; also by being open to direction from students on how they might learn best and be best evaluated.

Grading the Honors Class

Honors students are not an academically typical population and hence are exempt from suggested grade distribution guidelines (e.g., cf. the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ grade distribution guidelines at https://clas.uiowa.edu/faculty/teaching-policies-resources-grading-syste...). Please do not use a forced distribution in assigning grades. Rather, for an honors class you can expect a grade distribution to be heavily weighted at the top end instead of the more normal distribution. 

Selected Bibliography

Clark, Larry and J. Zubizarreta, eds. Inspiring Exemplary Teaching and Learning: Perspectives on Teaching Academically Talented College Students. Lincoln: National Collegiate Honors Council, 2008. NCHC Monograph Series. (link)

Fuiks, Cheryl L. Fuiks and L. Clark, eds. Teaching and Learning in Honors. National Collegiate Honors Council, 2000. Monographs in Honors Education. (link) [see especially pp. 103-126 for an overview]

Wolfensberger, Marca V.C. Teaching for Excellence: Honors Pedagogies Revealed. Waxmann Verlag, 2012. (link)

Wolfensberger, Marca V.C., L. Drayer, Judith J.M. Volker, eds., Pursuit of Excellence in a Networked Society: Theoretical and Practical Approaches. Waxmann Verlag, 2014. (link)

[1] From Rick Scott’s “Reflections on Varieties of Honors Education,” a white paper dated June, 2013.

[2] Quotation from Scott and Frana’s article, “Honors 2025: The Future of the Honors College,” (2008), p. 30; Honors in Practice   – Online Archive. Paper 67. (link)