Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Variability and Similarity in Honors Curricula across Institution Size and Type

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Variability and Similarity in Honors Curricula across Institution Size and Type

Article excerpt

As Samuel Schuman argues in his seminal introduction to honors administration, "The single most important feature of any honors program is its people: the students who learn there and the faculty who teach them" (33). Next, argues Schuman, comes the curriculum; the context of the learning that takes place when honors faculty and honors students come together is framed by the curriculum. Honors curricula provide opportunities for honors students to endeavor challenges beyond what traditional undergraduate curricula provide. For faculty, honors is a unique opportunity to blend research and teaching and to provide a curricular laboratory for experimenting with varied topics and pedagogical approaches.

The National Collegiate Honors Council provides guidelines for such curricula in its "Definition of Honors Education," including the following:

1. "Curricula are characterized largely by core-curriculum honors courses, often with seminars that provide greater depth (not necessarily disciplinary depth)";

2. "Programs confront students with alternative modes of inquiry, exploration, discovery, tolerance of ambiguity, and enduring questions. Coursework often requires integrative learning: both local and global learning with connections across time, genre, and disciplines, not always in classroom situations"; and

3. "The products often involve creative integrations of evidence from several disciplines with an aggressive emphasis on interdisciplinarity Assessment of the products emphasizes process rather than product, focusing on metacognitive questions such as 'how do you know?'"

Honors programs and colleges thus offer various forms of unique curricular and extracurricular experiences. Typically, the honors curriculum is designed to incorporate the following developmental scaffolding:

1. A required course emphasizing basic skills in communication and critical reasoning;

2. A sequence of general education and/or special topics courses;

3. A research seminar that prepares students for senior-level research;

4. A thesis or capstone experience of individual research or creative work.

The honors thesis or capstone experience is often recognized as the most rewarding experience in an undergraduate program of study (Anderson, Lyons, and Weiner).

When a well-developed honors curriculum is paired with co-curricular opportunities, it serves to distinguish an institution's honors education Together, these curricular and co-curricular experiences are described as best practices in the NCHC's "Basic Characteristics of a Fully Developed Honors Program." The fourth characteristic specifies that honors curricula feature "special courses, seminars, colloquia, experiential learning opportunities, undergraduate research opportunities, and other independent-study options," and the fifteenth characteristic specifies that honors programs emphasize active, participatory learning through provision of, among other features, "international programs, community service, internships, undergraduate research, and other types of experiential education." The NCHC's "Basic Characteristics of a Fully Developed Honors College" goes still further in emphasizing undergraduate research: "The honors college requires an honors thesis or honors capstone project" (Characteristic 9).

In order to incorporate these best practices within an undergraduate program, honors administrators need to consider the interface of honors requirements with the general education curriculum and the major field of study, the type of thesis or capstone experience, and the relative emphasis on, for instance, communication skills, inquiry, and critical analysis (Taylor). Curricular enhancement is also accomplished by designing co-curricular opportunities such as credit-bearing service learning, internships, and other experiential education offerings. Required service learning, internship experiences, study abroad, and other experiential education provide unique learning contexts and often are resonant with the institution's mission. …

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