Teaching Honors Courses
Honors courses at Kent State University differ from most regular courses in the expectations and abilities of the students, the role and involvement of the faculty, and the very nature of the courses themselves. While it is difficult to ascribe minimum requirements for Honors courses, there is agreement that these classes, purposefully kept small, ought to contain unique aspects which set them apart from other courses.
The Nature of an Honors Course
An Honors course is an experience and a process. Its major characteristic is its emphasis on the principles of the discipline. Material should be treated in depth and instructors should lead the student to explore the manner by which things are known and the means by which questions are asked and problems attacked.
The course should be conducted in a manner that challenges the students to produce, requires them to think critically, and encourages them to take some initiative in determining the direction of the course. Such goals are most likely to be achieved in an atmosphere of open communication among students and between students and the professor. While a predominantly lecture format may be appropriate for some Honors courses, most should encourage the active engagement of minds; hence, such methods as discussion, debate, oral reports, etc., are essential to the typical Honors experience.
The Honors College places a premium on student writing and the intellectual skills that can be developed and honed thereby. Therefore, unless a professor can make a strong case for an exception, Honors instructors are expected to require significant writing from their students. This can be done, as appropriate, by way of a major paper or different essays or exercises. In courses dealing with performance (as in music or drama) or creative activity, writing can be made to support or enhance other forms of creative activity. The intent of a writing requirement is to give students opportunity to collect, generate, and refine their thoughts on a given subject and to produce polished communications. In order for students to learn through writing, however, the professor should establish close contact with the student and the writing involved, and he/she should evaluate such writing in a timely, constructive, and clear fashion.
Examinations should be conceived not only as measurement instruments but as instructional tools. In most cases, tests should compel or invite active and creative responses; hence, reductive formats such as the exclusive use of short-answer, true-false, or multiple-choice answers should be used with extreme discretion, if at all. The final examination is especially important as a way of leading the student to integrate elements of the course.
Quality rather than quantity separates Honors courses from the non-Honors curriculum. While the work requirements in an Honors course may involve larger and harder assignments than would be given in other courses in the University, the goal of the Honors College is to encourage the student to extract more intellectual value out of the work that is assigned rather than simply to do more assigned work.
The participants in Honors courses have a special set of responsibilities. The intellectual vitality of the Honors program is dependent on the interaction of students with one another and with the professor. It depends upon an openness and honesty in approaching what may be new and controversial and upon dedication to rigorous thinking.
Honors faculty should be active members of the intellectual community and should seek to include the students in that community. The College encourages in the professor a flexibility of method and creative approach to engaging students in sharing the learning experience.
Honors students share a great opportunity and the responsibility of making the Honors program successful. The student must bring to the class an eagerness to learn, a willingness to participate, and the same commitment to openness and excellence that is expected of the faculty.
Guidelines for Instructors of "Mixed" Honors Courses
Occasionally the Honors College offers courses whereby several seats in an otherwise non-Honors class be set aside as a separate Honors “section." This permits students to receive Honors credit for that course.
Although such "mixed" sections fall short of our ideal Honors experience, it can still offer a vital and exciting learning opportunity for some of our students. The Honors College agrees to such sections when an outstanding faculty member is teaching an intriguing special topics course or when we have several students in a particular major who would benefit from an upper-division offering in that major. The Honors College does not offer mixed sections of general education, Kent Core, courses.
It is impossible, of course, to set fixed guidelines for the Honors learning experience in mixed Honors/non-Honors courses; however, we hope that what follows will provide some measure of guidance for you, if you are interested in teaching such a course or have accepted such a course assignment. It will be most useful if it stimulates your thinking about teaching so that you devise your own creative solutions to this very complex classroom environment. All Honors teaching should be innovative and dynamic, and the mixed sections simply offer a different avenue for innovation.
However, teaching a mixed Honors/non-Honors class presents challenges beyond those of teaching an all-Honors section. You will need to find ways to engage the Honors students in a deeper, more focused learning that reaches somewhat beyond the experience of their non-Honors peers in the same classroom. Moreover, Honors students receive no additional credit hours for these courses, so you need to be careful not to simply assign additional work. Students should not feel penalized for their Honors standing. As is true with all Honors coursework, we encourage emphasis on the quality of the work assigned rather than on the quantity of assignments.
The learning experience for students in the Honors section of a mixed class should be richer and more sophisticated. Students should have the opportunity for in-depth research, field work, collaboration, or presentation. The kinds of work Honors students have completed in these sections have included web-sites, class presentations, interdisciplinary demonstrations, group projects, and more extensive research papers. Depending on the number of students in the Honors section, instructors have worked with the whole group on one project, assigned several smaller group projects, or had students work independently on research appropriate to their individual interests. Other instructors have used service learning as a way to enhance the Honors experience in these classrooms.
We encourage you to allow students to participate in designing the Honors component of the course where appropriate. While you need to begin the semester with clear and reasonable expectations, part of those expectations may be that Honors students reflect upon their own goals for the class and how they can best meet those goals. In this way, students are invited to become active participants in their own learning. Much of the most ambitious and creative Honors student work has come from these kinds of collaborative classroom experiences.
Instructors teaching these mixed classes accept the responsibility and the time commitment inherent in such an unusual circumstance. Along with that responsibility, however, comes the opportunity for innovation as instructors experiment with pedagogical methods unsuited for a larger, more traditional class section. Rewarding, too, is the mentor relationship with bright, highly motivated students.
There are several models in place for the mixed Honors class, some of which are listed below:
- Meet with each individual Honors student as needed during the semester. This works well if very few students are registered in the Honors section.
- Arrange meeting times with the Honors students as a group as needed (typically 3-4 per semester).
- Include an additional separate weekly meeting in the Schedule of Classes. Honors students then build that meeting time into their schedule. (This can be excessive and inconvenient for many students and is discouraged except in cases where the number of students enrolled, or the nature of the course, makes it necessary.)
These models are simply examples of some of the most common ways instructors approach the mixed Honors/non-Honors classroom. They are not meant to limit the possibilities.
We encourage you to consult with colleagues in your department who may have experience teaching these classes for additional insights into what may work well in a particular discipline. Also, all Honors faculty members should have a copy of the National Collegiate Honors Council's publication Teaching and Learning in Honors, which is a valuable resource for pedagogical techniques specific to Honors. Please request a copy of this monograph from the Honors College if you do not already have one.
Frank Congin, the Coordinator of Curriculum for the Honors College, is happy to meet with faculty members to discuss course descriptions and to offer suggestions.
Whatever method is finally used, it is important that your expectations, including the expectation that Honors students design the Honors component, are made clear at the very beginning of the semester. A description of the course, including those expectations, should be made available so that students can make an informed choice during pre-registration advising.