Teaching in Honors
Characteristics of Honors Seminars
What are the features of an Honors course in the UNM Honors College?
Honors courses are diverse, yet there are some basic features that they all share. The shared features on the outside reflect a shared pedagogical vision, which is what is really important, but also can have different expressions and can be a bit subtle to describe. All the same, what unites these courses has remained remarkably consistent over the decades and is something that all who teach here have found themselves not only used to but valuing as ingredients in providing the best possible education to our students. We have implicitly developed a shared sense of what kind of teaching and learning really would be best, and which can be practiced once we lose some of the typical constraints that force educators into shoddier methods elsewhere.
One way to describe the character of an Honors classroom is that it can look a bit like what high level educational opportunities look like elsewhere: meaningful, intimate interactions between teachers and students, students taking ownership over their learning, and students being responsible for deeper kinds of learning and production than simple memorization of information. Our one sentence description has often been that our courses closely resemble graduate seminars. While this gives an incomplete picture of what we aim for now, it begins to suggest the seriousness and maturity we look to bring to our classrooms.
Honors classes are interdisciplinary. This word is diversely interpreted, granted. At its heart is a recognition that the world and its understanding and improvement is inherently more complex than any given field of study can subsume, though disciplines each bring something to the table. An Honors class is a chance to briefly navigate between different ways of understanding and acting on the world, of tackling issues because they are important, not just because one specialty lays claim to them, and to lead students in the names of these topics, not just building skills in their field. We do not have to restrict what we can build as a result of having only one hammer. Especially for students who will not specialize in a given area, it gives them a chance to practice new kinds of intellectual work.
Honors classes are small, capped at 18 students. This allows close interactions between students and instructors. Honors instructors have a chance to get to know their students, understand their backgrounds, develop their talents, and likewise for students to see each other as colleagues in learning. This opportunity can only be delivered if the classroom is designed to take advantage of this structure and the Honors instructor is up to leading in this fashion.
Honors courses assign just three possible grades to their students, A, credit (CR), and no credit ( NC). An A stands for excellence and is the only Honors grade that is included in GPA calculations. CR means that a student performed in the course at the level expected in Honors. NC means the student’s performance was significantly below the level expected in Honors.
How much time and opportunity is collectively wasted by students negotiating a few points on an exam or paper so that they make some objective sounding but honestly imprecise cut-off? How many courses are avoided by students for fear of tanking their GPA? The grading system most of us are most familiar with does not exist to increase learning and does the process much disservice. It prevents students from taking risks outside their comfort zones. It pretends to sort student achievement into fine categories which turn out to be heavily biased, inconsistent across both subjects and personnel, and only distantly connected to real achievement.
Honors has long practiced grading in a more restricted fashion which has proven to be consistent across a wide variety of disciplines and instructors, more objective, and gets grades out of the way of learning. Besides the honesty and reduced overhead of this schema, it also serves an important role in encouraging students to take risks with unfamiliar subjects and activities. This role is especially important in light of some of the other features of our classrooms, like the courses lacking prerequisites.
Honors courses do not significantly depend on students taking timed tests, especially multiple choice. There may be a place for timed, factual recall but the typical 3 exam + final structure is out of place here. Timed exams do not exist because they have pedagogical value but because they are simple to administer and deceive us into believing that we can quickly, simply and objectively assess student achievement and learning. Students should have the opportunity to work on and be evaluated on higher level educational tasks than this. Although by far the most common major assignment is a piece of writing, there are many diverse forms that student achievement in the classroom can take. Regardless of format, their work ideally does more, for us and for them, than allow us to assign them a grade.
In Honors courses, classroom discussion and interaction is a primary feature, regardless of topic. In particular, lectures should be minimal and rare. The instructor’s role is not to deliver information but to guide students in the production of knowledge and skills.
Honors courses do not have prerequisites. This rare feature allows us to achieve pedagogical aims which are important and rare. What value is advanced knowledge if we cannot share it and use it outside of very specialized circles? Why are important ideas and learning experiences so often reserved only for those who specialize in a subject? Many students are looking for a chance to do some real learning in a subject that is not their major. Students need to learn not just content, but how to work in multi-functional teams and across differences.
Elsewhere, courses are not parceled out in lock-step prerequisites and students sharply divided among them because it is good for learning. Again, this is a decision motivated by the desire for order, simplicity, and efficiency of administration and because there are often too few resources to share with everyone. Although most of us have become so accustomed to the usual hierarchies that we believe there can be no other way to organize learning, a little time and experience—either in the classroom or the world—quickly demonstrates how artificial and backwards these conventions are. Material carefully situated for only a single experience level will not be truly useful for anyone to learn, and the learning of it will necessarily be of a passive kind.
In mixed groups, students have much more ability to both lead and leave their comfort zones, and to take on multi-faceted experiences where multiple forms of expertise are relied upon. We also teach the lesson that one cannot prepare for life, only live it. These kinds of valuable learning experiences are too rare in school and much needed in life.
Honors classes do not use textbooks. Back when Honors was primarily teaching the Humanities, and Humanities always saw itself in relation to literal texts, this requirement was phrased as using only primary sources. Now that we teach a great variety of subjects, and live in a very multimedia, multimodal world, this idea is more subtle. But it remains vital. One way to phrase its intent is: only assign students to read things that someone, somewhere outside of the class, would want to read, works that have some authentic audience. This does not mean a privilege on pop sources. The authentic audience can be disciplinary and advanced, though real care should be taken in where students have the experience needed to dig into the works. In Honors we ask students to read things that are worth reading, not just containers of relevant material. Again, this can be subtle, and cannot be applied indiscriminately. There are books that are worth reading which also happen to be textbooks, but they are few. And even they usually only present one possible role for their audiences. The kind of diverse perspectives assumed by Honors indicates a need for this to not be the only thing our students are asked to read.
Honors classes strive for experiential learning. Field work, study abroad, community-based learning, project-based learning, and other similar structures give students a chance to learn in the world, not just about it. Likewise, significant student productions, like our long running Scribendi magazine, give students a chance to produce artifacts of their learning that live a life beyond their evaluation for a grade. This is another way in which our best courses involve students in a very active, vital sort of learning closely connected to worlds outside the classroom.
Above are the closest things we have to hard and fast rules around a very diverse set of courses and experiences. Each feature is important on its own but more so for how they work together to remind us to make the classroom a meaningful place for active, student-centered learning to take place, in the highest sense of those words. It is not a utopia of course, but a place where we try to make best on what drove us in our hearts to teach, where instructors are also the designers of their courses to offer our students the strongest possible learning experiences.
Having an opportunity to reach so high with one’s teaching is not a common thing, nor is it achieved automatically. Withing our teaching community we strive to continually discuss, critique and improve our efforts. We encourage prospective teachers to use our current and past courses to help them develop theirs, and indeed to collaborate with continuing Honors faculty to help develop their courses as well. Although a promising start is nice, we expect the true value of these courses to develop with thoughtful iteration, and continued interaction within the classroom and the HC more generally.