Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

"What Is an Honors Student?"

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

"What Is an Honors Student?"

Article excerpt

It is first necessary to recognize the distinction between the questions "What is an honors student?" or better "What are the characteristics of an honors student?" and "How do you recognize a student with those characteristics?" The first of these two questions is easier to approach since it is more a matter of prescription than of description, a presentation of an ideal rather than a recognition of an actual state. We can all list characteristics which we would like or expect those special students to have who are worthy in our estimation of the designation "honors." These expectations, I submit, are often informed by our own experiences as honors students ourselves or in association with others, when we were in college, who were considered to be honors students by official or by general agreement. It is quite another matter, however, to be able to detect, directly or indirectly, the presence of those qualities which constitute the character of an honors student; they may or may not be readily evident and, it seems, very often are not so. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, so-called objective criteria for judging the quality of students fail quite miserably when it comes to predicting success in honors curricula.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test fails to account for that imagination, creativity, and curiosity which I believe are integral to the personality of a true honors student; and high school grade point averages are often more indicative of the quality of the school and/or the teaching-to-the-test instruction which seems to characterize so much education at that level than they are of the quality of the student. As for Advanced Placement work, there are times when I feel that the number of Advanced Placement courses a student has taken is inversely related to that individual's potential for success in honors education. I say that for a particular reason. I would posit breadth of interest and commitment to ongoing learning in a wide variety of areas as major indicators of a good honors student. More often than not, I have found that students have taken Advanced Placement work to avoid broadening their experience in college and to facilitate narrowing their college curriculum to those areas in which they feel academically secure or which they feel will advance their professional or vocational agendas for college.

As in so many other areas, elimination of the negative is often more useful than accentuation of the positive in the attempt to identify promising honors students. The process may be facilitated by looking for evidence of characteristics which might disqualify someone for honors work, i.e., it may be easier to tell who is not qualified to do honors work than to tell who is. In vetting a candidate for admission to an honors college or program, I recommend, for example, looking and listening carefully for phrases like "get out of the way" in reference to subject areas in which Advanced Placement work has been taken. The original intent of the Advanced Placement Program, after all, was to afford students an opportunity to do more advanced work in subject areas offered in the Program rather than to avoid having to take courses in them to satisfy general or distribution requirements in college.

I would say that aptitude for honors depends at least as much on attitude as on accomplishment and furthermore that the presence of the latter without any indication of the former is not a good sign. The problem is, of course, that achievement can be quantified much more easily and so is more readily recognizable than is attitude; therefore, it is very tempting to emphasize achievement almost to the exclusion of attitude. As Director of the Honors College at a public institution which went from foundation to Phi Beta Kappa status in 31 years, I often said that the presence of curiosity is virtually the only personal characteristic necessary for determining a good honors prospect. Once a certain minimally requisite level of intellectual ability has been identified by whatever measure you please--and I would say that, between SAT scores and grade point averages, the latter are more useful in this regard--curiosity would be the only criterion necessary for granting a student admission to the Honors College. …

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