In general an Honors program or college is designed to ensure that the most academically motivated students are challenged to achieve at their highest potential as individuals while preparing for their responsibilities to the community. Although each Honors program and course is unique, all Honors courses are expected to develop Honors students’ ability to think critically, and many if not most also emphasize critical reading and effective writing.
Honors curricula encourage students to pursue active learning experiences, such as independent study, undergraduate research, and study abroad, or to seek learner-centered courses that fall outside of the typical curriculum, such as field study, seminars, mini-courses, or internships.
What is the student profile for Honors? Honors students tend to be highly motivated and high achievers. They respond with intensity to ideas, classroom discussions, and problem-solving. They can be highly creative and innovative. They are frequently willing to take on difficult and in-depth projects. They are often involved in the campus community to a greater extent than other students.
Honors courses tend to be both reading- and writing-intensive. Therefore, it is appropriate to include numerous writing assignments of varying lengths and types: formal analytical essays perhaps 5 to 8 pages in length; literature analysis and synthesis and research papers from 10 to 20 pages in length; book reports; reports appropriate to specific scientific disciplines; reaction papers; in-class writing; informal writing (1-to-3 page assignments that have students explore a particular topic, answer a specific question, or accomplish particular objectives set by the instructors); and revisions of any or all of the above. Other components could include small group work and write-ups, oral presentations, or community service components that tie in to class concerns.
Honors instructors should assess student writing with the goals of honing each student’s skills in such things as composition mechanics (grammar, spelling, punctuation); analysis and logic; style (sentence structure and diction); thesis construction; writing effective introductions; paragraph development; and the use of supporting evidence; as well as the skills to write for particular “genres” of writing, such as literary analysis, historical analysis, scientific studies and reports, film reviews, analysis of art, and so on.
You will find many Honors students very capable in the classroom: they are eager to talk, to contribute their ideas, and to critique the ideas of others. Therefore, the quality and nature of your discussions become central to the success of your course. Many instructors opt to use one or a mixture of the following kinds of discussions to enhance the flow of ideas in the classroom: call and response (the Socratic method) led by the instructor, free-flowing discussions led by the students, small-group discussions within the class room that are focused on particular issues, structured debates and student-led discussions prepared ahead of time through student-generated lists of questions or topics relevant to the reading materials.
Because many Honors students can be very verbal, it may be useful to establish guidelines for communication, sharing the floor, respect for the speaker, and so on.
Outside the classroom, you may want to encourage your students to participate in the larger academic community: university lectures, films, and so on. Consider building some extracurricular events into the syllabus of your courses; or have students attend lectures or events on an extra-credit basis.
Students often enjoy meeting and socializing with their instructors outside the class setting. You might think of hosting a pizza evening at your home or arranging an informal get-together to discuss the class’s issues in another venue besides the classroom.
Many instructors assign office conferences as part of their syllabus requirements. Students find it particularly helpful to attend conferences on their writing assignments, drafts, or research.
It is very important to set high expectations for your Honors students and to do so in a timely fashion, e.g., at the beginning of the term. Difficulties that arise in any given semester, and in any given Honors class, often have to do with particular expectations not being clarified at the outset. In Honors classes, it might be helpful to immediately convey to students that the course will be enriching and challenging; that it will spend considerable time honing the students’ abilities in critical thinking, analytical writing, close reading, cogent speaking, and attentive listening; and that students are, to a large extent, responsible for the quality of the learning experience that they will have. They will be expected to participate thoughtfully and fully in all aspects of the class.