Thankfully, there is no single answer to this question. The specific qualities that make an Honors course may vary widely from discipline to discipline and professor to professor. Therefore, the following criteria are general guidelines, not prescriptive policies.
Perhaps the only definitive statement that can be made about Honors courses is that they should be qualitatively different than non-honors courses. This difference should not be based on simply assigning more work, be it pages to write or problems to solve. Rather, the Honors difference should be substantially designed throughout three broad and interrelated course elements: structure, content, and assignments.
When the Mahurin Honors College considers a proposal for a departmental Honors course, it looks for specific evidence that the course will have some of the characteristics listed below in order to create a substantial Honors experience for students. The points below are meant to serve as general starting points and aid in the creative process of designing an Honors course. They are not intended to be prescriptive and limiting, and we do not expect any single course to feature all of these traits.
- Honors courses are small enough to provide a richly interactive environment among the members of the class.
- Honors students are expected to take greater responsibility for the process of learning than in non-Honors courses. This responsibility includes spending non-class time learning and reviewing basic course material, which allows for more discussion, activity, and application in class.
- Learning can take place outside of the formal classroom setting (e.g. site visits, service projects, conducting interviews, field research, etc.).
- Students have opportunities for independent research.
- Written and oral communication skills are stressed, even in disciplines where this is not considered typical pedagogy.
- In-class activities and assignments stress synthesis, analysis, and critical thinking.
- Course uses teamwork, collaboration and opportunities for peer-to-peer learning.
- Students have the opportunity to publicly present or publish their work.
- Honors courses often focus on primary material, sources, and data, rather than textbooks or secondary readings.
- Course material can be approached from a thematic or unconventional perspective.
- Theories and principles are applied to “real life” applications and situations.
- Students critique, analyze, and evaluate course material to a greater degree than in non-Honors courses.
- The class may explore connections among various fields of study.
- Students learn the scholarship behind the discipline’s core principles.
- The content shifts from one of closure to one of exploration and discovery.
- Basic course material may be more complex and mature than in non-Honors courses, but difficulty in and of itself is not the goal.
- Assignments in Honors courses typically allow for more student input, creativity, and control.
- Students are asked to confront primary material in deep and meaningful ways, perhaps by critiquing them, comparing them and applying them to other contexts.
- An assignment’s outcomes may be made explicit, but the means to reach those outcomes are left to the student to a higher degree than non-Honors courses.
- Students are required to reconcile conflicting findings or to synthesize different points of view on assignments.
- Assignments are constructed so that students familiarize themselves with the professional practices and standards of research within a discipline.
- Students are encouraged to explore and take intellectual risks on assignments.
- Assignments can be case studies or complex problems that blend multiple aspects of course material.
- Students are always encouraged to articulate their knowledge, preferably to audiences other than just the professor.
- Students have frequent assignments, rather than only a couple, large assignments.
- As most Mahurin Honors College students continue on to graduate and professional schools, the course’s assignments give students the skills, knowledge and competencies to be successful at the post-graduate level.
Because of the prevalence of online courses and remote content delivery systems, it is important to briefly state why the Mahurin Honors College requires that all Honors courses be taught through face-to-face instruction. The Mahurin Honors College realizes that online and remote courses can have high academic quality and can possess many of the criteria listed above. However, the Mahurin Honors College’s mission is to create for its students a small, closely interpersonal, high-achieving environment akin to those found at the nation’s best small colleges. The Mahurin Honors College’s commitment to this type of intellectual community is found in its housing, programming, staffing and classes. Online and other remote-access courses, while suitable for some institutions that have different goals than the Mahurin Honors College, are not compatible with the nature of our small-college community.
Honors Colloquia bring the form and style of a small, collaborative seminar to Mahurin Honors College students for a challenging and distinctive academic experience. There are four key ingredients that make Honors Colloquia qualitatively different from other courses offered in the Mahurin Honors College and at WKU: an emphasis on active discussion rather than lecture; critical-thinking based writing assignments rather than exams and quizzes; the use of primary documents instead of textbooks; and an innovative, interdisciplinary subject matter. With these distinct features, an Honors Colloquium will challenge and engage students with the course material, with the professor, and with one another, for a unique academic experience that is at the heart of an Honors College education.
Active discussion instead of lectures
- A key difference between Honors Colloquia and a traditional course is that discussion is used as the primary method of instruction, rather than lectures, in order to promote active learning and meaningful dialogue between fellow students and between the students and professor.
- Colloquia should have an adventurous air of joint discovery where a professor takes the lead in shaping the discussion, but students actively participate in discussing and debating the material. Strategies for promoting active learning include class discussions, debates, simulations, group work, experiments, case studies, fieldwork, etc. For example, a strong colloquium course can include a set of readings on both sides of a contentious issue that engenders debate and discussion across a wide spectrum of positions. Lectures should be kept to an absolute minimum.
Critical thinking based writing assignments rather than exams
- Assignments should encourage analysis, application, inquiry, and synthesis rather than rote memorization. When possible, writing assignments should be employed as the method for students to express their understanding of the course material.
- The key is to encourage a sophisticated engagement with the material that is unlikely through memorization and exams but is fostered by written assignments. Colloquia do not include exams or quizzes as part of the course grade. With regard to assessment, the focus of a colloquium should be on quality of writing assignments, written or oral debates, presentations, group work, participation in discussion, etc.
- For a 1.5 hr colloquium, it is suggested that each student write approximately 10 to 12 pages of original content, with 20 to 24 pages being appropriate for a 3 hr colloquium. This page total may be reached through frequent short assignments or longer assignments. These are, of course, just guidelines, so there is a fair amount of latitude on the types and length of assignments based on discipline.
Primary sources instead of textbooks
- Readings should come from primary sources, rather than textbooks, whenever possible. Reading primary sources stresses "close reading" skills and encourages sophisticated critical thinking far more than pre-packaged, second-hand information explained in textbooks.
- Just as colloquia encourage students and professors to engage in dialogue with one another, by reading primary sources, students connect with the key ideas of the course on their own terms, are more likely to think critically about them, and can better understand them in all their complexities and nuances.
Innovative, interdisciplinary subject matter
- Colloquium courses should be themed on creative interdisciplinary topics. The overall topic of a colloquium should be accessible to all majors, regardless of the college from which the colloquium course originates.
- We encourage 1.5 to 3.0 hour colloquia; thus we encourage faculty to co-facilitate a three-hour colloquium, with both faculty receiving 1.5 hours of credit. This is particularly encouraged for professors teaming from different disciplines to develop an interdisciplinary colloquium.
- The theme/topic of the colloquium course should not be found anywhere else in the WKU curriculum. Equally, colloquia topics should be distinctive from one another and avoid repetitious offerings.
- Readings should be interdisciplinary and from a variety of perspectives.
For Further Consideration
- Many students develop their Honors Capstone Experience/Thesis from their colloquia. Ideally, the interdisciplinary subject matter, stimulating activities, and rigorous writing assignments will serve as a catalyst for CE/T projects.
- The professor typically serves as a facilitator, rather than the sole expert. The professor should share in the learning process with the students. Rather than relaying information to students as in a typical lecture course, the professor and students can work together to set the pace and direction of the course.
- The professor should model methods of learning, thinking and discovery. The professor can help students to become lifelong learners by revealing that he or she is continually learning and staying actively engaged within his or her discipline and the broader culture of academia. By modeling methods of learning, thinking, and discovery, the professor is not only teaching the students more about his or her discipline, but is also teaching the students about he process of scholarship.
- Colloquium courses should have no prerequisites. The only prerequisites for colloquium are good standing in the Honors College, sophomore standing and/or permission of the instructor.
HEECs allow departments more flexibility in offering Honors courses and create more Honors options for students in the major or minor. HEECs can only be offered in upper-division courses.
The best way to think about HEECs is to consider them similar in organization to a split-section graduate/undergraduate courses: physically there is one “class” that meets with the same teacher during the same class times, but there are two sets of syllabi and two different sections being conducted. The class instruction is necessarily the same, but for the “embedded” Honors section there are added opportunities and responsibilities that make the class an Honors experience.
What types of activities make for an “Honors experience” with the HEEC?
Of course, it varies greatly for different disciplines, courses, and professors, but the nature of the HEEC necessitates that the students have some sort of enriched experience outside of the classroom that improves the quality and depth of their knowledge of the course. This could be through additional assignments, more sophisticated assignments, more sophisticated course material, oral presentations, different methods of grading, special trips or activities, group work, or even special meetings with the professor outside of the scheduled class times (such as scheduled discussion groups).
They key is that while the classroom experience for the HEEC and non-HEEC sections will be very similar, if not identical, the HEEC’s out-of-class work needs to provide a creative, active and enriched learning experience for the students. Often faculty will reduce the in-class assignments to create space for more inventive Honors projects/assignments.
How do I set up a HEEC?
HEECs are the prerogative of the professor’s home department and thus must be accepted by the department chair. They are not a new course number, just a new course section, and thus they do not have to go before the University Curriculum Committee.
The Honors College does not provide professors with extra compensation for a HEEC; however, individual colleges or departments may provide some compensation. Also, there are many nonmonetary advantages to offering a HEEC. A HEEC does not increase the cap of a course. The HEEC is advantageous to professors because they can attract Honors students to your course, provide a stimulating classroom environment, provide professors with engaging and creative pedagogical opportunities and potentially increase the number of Honors students majoring or minoring in the department.
Please keep the Honors College in the loop.
As you propose and develop your HEECs, please notify the Academics Director in the Mahurin Honors College so we can advertise your HEEC to the Honors students and discuss with you activities and assignments to complement your HEEC.