Academic journal article NACTA Journal

An Alternative Method of Instruction for Honors Students in the Life Sciences1

Academic journal article NACTA Journal

An Alternative Method of Instruction for Honors Students in the Life Sciences1

Article excerpt


Increasing class size and a subsequent reliance on lecture-based instruction are growing challenges facing undergraduate education in the life sciences. Within these confines, the opportunity for discussion and peer-directed learning are decreasing, making it difficult for honors students who readily grasp basic course material to advance their intellectual development. In an effort to more completely meet the needs of these students, the Genetics Department at North Carolina State University sponsored the creation of an Honors course for undergraduates interested in genetics. Enrollment was capped at twenty students to allow for a nontraditional course design including in-class discussion, debates, comprehensive exams, guest speakers, and service-learning. Peer-led discussion and debate assignments encourage students to develop a greater understanding of genetic concepts and social issues surrounding genetics while improving their communication skills. The service-learning project and guest speakers expose students to real-life examples of how genetics interacts with the greater community. Course evaluations indicate advanced students are receptive to this alternative course design, describing their experience as both demanding and rewarding. This article illustrates the components of the Genetics in Human Affairs Honors (GN301H) course that distinguish it from traditional pedagogy and discusses the potential benefit of this design in the instruction of honors students.


For gifted high school students, average class size and faculty-to-student ratios are important considerations when deciding on an institution of higher learning. At large, research-based universities, enrollment in many courses often exceeds one hundred, making interaction between a student, their peers, and the professor more difficult. In particular, the trend toward increasing class size has been noted as a concern in courses pertaining to science and technology (Kuh and Shouping, 2001). In order to accommodate the growing number of students in life sciences courses, universities have often found it necessary to enlarge enrollment caps. The science curricula lends itself to lecture-based instruction, allowing for adaptation to larger class sizes, but ultimately inhibiting the use of more interactive methods of teaching.

The honors student is said to have a "greater proclivity to understand complex interconnections of ideas, enjoy theory, and learn by insight (Glutting, et. al., 2000)." Laura Lunsford, Director of the Park Scholarships Program at NC State University, relates that honors students have the ability to learn faster and at deeper levels than non-honors students (personal communication). They have a tendency to push harder in classroom settings with other honors students as they are naturally stimulated by the interaction with their peers (Winebrenner, 2000). Academically gifted individuals may therefore benefit from nontraditional methods of instruction that challenge them to apply course material to reallife situations and encourage their active participation in the learning process (Campbell, et al., 1996). Unfortunately, growing class sizes limit the available time for and feasibility of class discussion, peer interaction, and innovative teaching techniques. Studies show that increasing class size also results in a rise in absenteeism as students feel they can perform equally as well by gathering the necessary information from textbooks and internet resources in lieu of attending class (Hassel and Lourey, 2005). For advanced students who more quickly comprehend the basic material and have a desire to uncover deeper issues, this type of learning situation may not be the most useful or productive.

While some believe that honors work is simply a matter of increasing quantity, educational experts disagree, suggesting that true Honors courses are delineated both by the depth of the material and the extent to which they challenge students' entire intellect (Watters and Diezmann, 2003; Winebrenner, 2000). …

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