What Is An Honors Course?

An honors course can and should be many things. There are potentially infinite arrays of valuable and useful approaches. One thing every true honors course should feature is the offering of an active, rather than merely a passive, learning experience. One can distribute information pretty effectively using lecture methods, but only if the lecturer is skilled at the art, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic. When presented this way, the lecture can even be exciting for its recipients. It is difficult to "educate" people, in the highest and best sense of the term, unless the intended beneficiaries of the process are actively involved in it. To this end, all of the courses offered in our program's special curriculum use predominantly seminar and discussion methods of instruction, rather than lectures.

One of the most important features of both teaching and learning in honors is the engagement of risk. The risk is both intellectual and practical. Honors faculty need to be willing to take risks in conceiving courses that stretch their comfortable disciplinary expertise. This is one reason why interdisciplinary approaches are such a common theme in honors courses. It forces teachers to stretch their knowledge and skills and to think beyond the routine borders of content courses and departmental turf.

Students in honors need to be open to risks, too, and willing to actively take part in developing their own education. They should be willing to suspend traditional forms of assessment for the sake of exploration and willing to put aside competitive structures of education in order to engage collaboratively and constructively in learning. In honors, students and faculty discuss motivation, challenges, critical thinking and service. They discuss how to improve honors, even when that involves risk taking. Professors are encouraged to ask questions such as, "How do we change a syllabus?", "How do I alter my reading list?", "What kinds of different assignments should I construct?", "What in-class and out-of-class activities should I devise to support honors goals?", "How do I assess my work and students' work differently to reflect different course philosophy?" and "How do I know honors students in an honors course are learning differently/faster/better/more deeply?"

Answering these questions and applying the answers are the first step to any successful honors course.