Characteristics of Honors Courses

*Adapted from Southern Regional Honors Council and the National Collegiate Honors Council

We expect all Honors College courses to foster a learning environment that…

  • Promotes dynamic, thought-provoking classroom discussion, where students are constantly engaged, making eye contact with one another, and involving themselves in the group’s conversation.
  • Serves as a laboratory within which faculty feel welcome to experiment with new subjects, approaches, and pedagogies.
  • Encourages exploration and/or discovery rather than acquisition of specific knowledge sets.
  • Confronts students with alternative modes of inquiry, exploration, discovery, tolerance of ambiguity, and enduring questions.

Among the characteristics that we strive for in our classes are…

  • Limited class size. Classes ideally have fewer than 20 students. In some cases, the lecture section of Honors classes will have more students, but in those cases students will also have a small Honors discussion or lab section.
  • Active learning and student participation. Honors classes typically involve much more student discussion and student-faculty interaction. The model approximates a graduate seminar for undergraduates.
  • Group work. Providing opportunities for students to work together on projects when clear objectives are provided frequently leads to excellent work.
  • Engagement with primary sources. Exposing students to primary sources and scholarly work in the field in the form of professional journal articles or the equivalent, rather than relying entirely on secondary texts, is highly desirable.
  • Writing. Honors classes are likely to involve more writing and critical analysis of material than would be expected in non-honors courses.
  • Enrichment rather than extra work. Honors courses should not require more work than non-Honors classes. Because Honors students typically master material more rapidly, presentation of material can be faster paced. Subject matter may be explored more thoroughly and at a higher level of academic rigor.
  • Realistic grading. Grades should be assigned based on the instructor’s perception of content and skills mastery. Be explicit about assignments, expectations, and method of assessment. Given the rigorous criteria for admission to Honors, students in Honors courses are likely to perform at high levels academically. Grade curving within a class of Honors students is not appropriate.
  • Involvement. This may include field experiences, exposure to sophisticated research equipment, or more “hands-on instruction.” Honors classes ideally stimulate and reinforce students’ intellectual excitement and engagement.
  • Interdisciplinary work. Honors work may draw from a wide range of disciplines while concentrating on material within the professor’s own area of specialization. The result may be to give students a broad and integrated perspective on human knowledge.
  • Honors students. While there may be a few non-Honors students in an Honors class, the overwhelming majority (usually at or near 100%, and always at least 80%) will be Honors students. It is this population of Honors students that is the primary element that makes the class Honors– the greater ability and perception, greater willingness to participate in class discussions, and higher expectations of themselves, the professors, and their fellow students.

Additional Characteristics of Honors Interdisciplinary Courses

  • Consciously draws on more than one disciplinary tradition in terms of sources.
  • Deliberately incorporates methodologies from more than one disciplinary tradition.
  • Works toward conscious integration of insights from multiple disciplines to address issues, through construction of a more comprehensive, interdisciplinary perspective.
  • Strives to show the possibilities for integrating knowledge and arriving at deeper understanding of complex problems via the use of multiple disciplinary perspectives.
  • Provides some background to different disciplinary traditions being used and puts in context.

Putting together an Honors Interdisciplinary Course

  • Identify pertinent disciplines and assemble a team, if the course is to be team-taught.
  • Develop a topic; consider how to balance breadth and depth. Unlike discipline curricula that depend on individual classes providing discrete chunks of knowledge that a student uses to build on from one year to the next, interdisciplinary courses are worlds unto themselves. Do not try to cover a huge topic; instead, focus on one part of the topic or one part of a problem.
  • Give students some background to the different disciplinary traditions used, but only as much as they need from each discipline to do what they will need to do for the class. Let the rest go. Unlike disciplinary courses, where we generally have a certain body of knowledge to cover in a class, interdisciplinary courses take models, approaches, and ideas from more than one discipline to address a problem, issue or idea. The point is not to go deep into the heart of any one discipline. Consider what the course is really about. This is important both to ensure focus and clarity, and to make sure you and your teaching teammate(s), if the course is team-taught, are really on the same page.
  • Identify outcomes. Knowing where you’re trying to go is essential to the success of an interdisciplinary course.
  • Interdisciplinary teaching involves a conscious effort to apply knowledge, principles, and/or values from more than one academic discipline simultaneously. The disciplines may be related through a central theme, issue, problem, process, topic, or experience.
  • In order to satisfy the Honors Interdisciplinary course requirement, the course must be taught as an upper-level course, with readings and assignments appropriate at the 300 level or above.

Benefits of Interdisciplinary Study

  • Students doing interdisciplinary/cross-curricular study learn to apply knowledge more effectively in thinking and reasoning.
  • What is learned is more readily “portable” to different content areas.
  • Critical thinking learned in interdisciplinary courses can be applied in any discipline.
  • In contrast to learning skills in isolation, students see the value of what they are learning and become more actively engaged.
  • Interdisciplinary courses provide optimum conditions under which broad-based effective learning occurs.
  • Students get a practical example of how the liberal arts model effectively addresses real world problems by imparting portable knowledge applicable to diverse circumstances.
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