The University Honors Program at Kansas State University is a University-wide honors program, so the definition of an honors course must be flexible enough to suit all programs—from the arts and humanities to the sciences and engineering.
An honors course should be a learning experience distinguished from traditional course work by qualitatively different and higher academic expectations impacting both the faculty member(s) and the students. We characterize an honors course with three elements broadly defined as: structure, content, and process/assessment. Ideally, these three elements will be combined with inspired instruction and a collection of superior students to create a dynamic, interactive environment that fosters deep intellectual development.
Honors courses should be small enough (generally < 20) to provide a richly interactive environment among the members of the class. The course enrollment should be composed of a majority of honors students to inspire high caliber academic performances in discussion, questions, debate, and coursework. Additional students should either meet the general criteria (minimum 3.5 overall KSU grade point average) or have achieved some advanced level of status (e.g., graduate student).
The purpose of an honors course is to show students how knowledge in the discipline is discovered, developed, evaluated, argued, tested, compared, and applied. In other words, honors students should learn the scholarship behind the discipline’s core principles. In addition, an honors course should provide students with a robust, engaging, and enriching experience. Contemporary primary sources, seminal papers, and discipline-related examples should be introduced and emphasized. Students should be made to confront these sources in deep and meaningful ways, with an emphasis on important implications to the discipline and beyond, as well as on relevant applications. The students should explore the complexities of the knowledge base sooner and more often than in traditional courses. The content should shift from a sense of closure and factual assimilation to a sense of open exploration and discovery.
It is, at times, important to distinguish the expectations for the content of introductory honors courses from those of advanced honors courses. Introductory courses will often survey the field of knowledge, but class time should not be devoted to the passive transfer of knowledge from an expert to the students. Instead, the introductory honors course should focus on the methods for learning how to think about the knowledge being introduced. Students should begin immediately to learn what research achievement and creative accomplishment looks like in the field. In an advanced course, the content should dispel disciplinary dogma, replacing it with insights and questions. It is in these courses that the student should practice and improve the skills and attitudes needed to experience research achievement and/or creative accomplishment.
In honors courses, students are expected to take a greater responsibility for the process of learning than in traditional courses. This responsibility includes spending non-class time learning and reviewing basic and straight-forward course material. Honors courses should use active and collaborative learning with considerable exchange among students and the instructor(s). Students may conduct interviews, keep journals, write term papers, work on advanced problem sets, produce creative techniques, or adapt methods to be applied to new situations. Students might, for example, be asked to produce a play, design a product, write their own problem sets, pose new solutions to a difficult problem, design an alternative approach, examine a design for flaws, or engage in some other kind of creative expression appropriate to the discipline. Assignments should stress theory, analysis, and synthesis of principles, concepts, and applications. Applications will often include case studies and complex problems that blend several elements of the course material. Typically, the students will be asked to read more complex material and to write more complex analyses. However, more reading and writing must NOT be interpreted only as greater quantities of the same type of work found in traditional undergraduate courses. Students should be required in most disciplines to learn how to do research or creative work – whether it involve the library, the internet, the laboratory, the studio, or off-campus fieldwork – culminating in a project that is shared publicly.
Typically, evaluation methods and assessment tools will be different from those used in traditional undergraduate courses. Appropriate critical thinking techniques and methods of assessment should be sought, used, evaluated, and improved, on a regular basis. Examinations in honors courses are expected to take different forms even within one course. They should test both the students’ abilities to articulate the knowledge learned as well as the students’ ability to think with that knowledge and apply it. Every honors course should take advantage of the small numbers of students to use individualized examination techniques, such as open-ended examination questions, oral exams, and/or portfolios.
In sum, honors instructors should expect high-quality academic performance from the students in an honors course and will very often find themselves challenged in new and different ways each time the class meets. Most honors instructors report the experience of teaching honors students in an honors course is a highlight of their career.
Text adapted from Schreyer Honors College Document, Pennsylvania State University, approved by the Honors Faculty at PSU in October, 2004.