Inside Honors: Class Sizes, Classes by Discipline, Sections Per Student

By John Willingham, Editor

I thought it was time to raise my head from the ocean of data I am crunching for the 2016 edition of our Review.

Since we have much more–and much better–data this time around, the book itself will be even more data-driven than its predecessors. We will still have narrative profiles for each program/honors college under review, but it’s likely that within each narrative there will be a table that summarizes our findings.

Here is some of what readers will see in the new edition:

Class Sizes–Instead of reporting only the average class size for honors-only classes, we will show, in addition to honors-only class sizes, the average class sizes for mixed sections (classes with honors credit but including some or many non-honors students), and even the class sizes for honors contract sections (regular classes in which honors students do extra work for honors credit). What I can say at this point is that the total class size metric will be based on a combination of the above. This change alone could result is some significant changes in our ratings.

Contract Sections–In the past, we have focused on regular honors sections, and we are somewhat tardy in giving some attention to a fairly widespread practice in honors education: contract sections. These are sometimes called honors options, honors enhancements, etc. As noted above, these sections generally feature an agreement between the honors student and instructor (as approved by honors staff) according to which the student does extra work to earn honors credit. In a few programs, honors contracts may account for more than 30% of the total honors class enrollment in a given term. The 2016 edition will present views on the relative value of these types of classes. There are many pros, as well as some cons. Stay tuned.

Course Offerings, by Academic Department–In the 2014 edition, we tried to give readers an idea of the general range and type of honors classes offered by each honors college or program. Although we did approximate estimates of honors classes by academic discipline, I thought that that aspect of the 2014 ratings was surely the most subjective. This time around, the number of classes by discipline will be strictly quantified so our readers can know how many honors sections are available, and in a ratio to total honors participants.

Courses in “Key” Disciplines–It goes without saying that one person’s choice of “key” academic disciplines will probably not be the same as another person’s choice. What we plan to do is emphasize the classes in disciplines that we believe should be offered by honors programs, regardless of how popular the discipline might be as a major. For example, relatively few college students major in philosophy and many students (and parents) might not place much “value” on courses in that discipline. But honors students are supposed to be different–more motivated, more curious, more open, and more capable of in-depth critical thinking. From the more obviously practical perspective, we also place speech and communications classes in the key group. (One reason we favor small classes for honors students is that those classes typically require students to develop argumentation and group communication skills.)

Other “key” disciplines that we will quantify are biology; business and related disciplines; chemistry; computer science and related disciplines; economics; English; engineering; history; math; physics; political science; psychology; and anthropology/sociology.

So, if you want to know how many honors chemistry sections a program offers, or how many of those relatively scarce honors polysci, econ, or physics sections are available, we will tell you how each program stacks up.

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Inside Honors: What 9,000 Class Sections Can Tell You

By John Willingham
Editor, Public University Honors

When parents and prospective students (not to mention college junkies) want to “know” about a college, what they want most is to get a sense of what it’s “really like,” the inside story so to speak.

Most college rankings focus only on what can be measured: test scores, class sizes, financial resources, selectivity, grad and retention rates, the salaries graduates can receive. Some non-numerical ratings–the famous Fiske guide, for example–focus less on formal measures and do offer narratives that provide impressionistic glimpses of campus life. Taken together, rankings and good rating guidebooks provide much excellent information.

But surely a big part of the “what’s it really like” story has to be not only the graduation requirements but also the actual classes and coursework required for graduation. How many courses are available in your student’s proposed major? Are there interdisciplinary seminars? How about access to mentors and support for undergraduate research, both more likely if small classes are offered.

Yes, you can read about courses if you work your way through undergraduate catalogues. In some cases there will be course descriptions. But what you probably won’t find in catalogues are the number of sections and the actual enrollment in each one. What I have found during five years of analyzing public honors programs and colleges is that one cannot come close to understanding the real nature of these programs without poring over the actual class sections–and course descriptions.

When the first edition of A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs appeared in April 2012, I realized that it was a tentative step in the process of trying to analyze and report on the most important characteristics of honors programs in prominent state universities.

What I failed to understand was just how “tentative” that first effort was.

The original emphasis was on honors curriculum and completion requirements, and the overriding idea was that the more honors classes a student had to take, the more that student would benefit from what I called “honors contacts” at the time.  Honors students would have more contact with professors in smaller honors classes; they would find a ready cohort of serious students like themselves; they would have far more research opportunities, again allowing more contact with professors.

If honors programs sought to provide an Ivy or liberal arts education in the midst of a large public university setting, then the extent of honors contacts within that larger context would measure how well the program was meeting its mission.

I continue to believe the curriculum completion requirements are at the heart of an honors program or college. But those requirements only quantify the total number of credits a student must earn to graduate; they do not speak to the range of honors courses offered in each academic discipline, or to how small the classes really are, or to the type of class experiences that are available (seminars, lectures, labs).  The credit requirements do not yield an impression of how creative a program is or how interesting its courses may be.

In other words, the emphasis on the bare curriculum completion requirements does not get at the heart (some might say guts) of an honors program.

Now, with more than 90 percent of our data for the new 2016 edition in house, we have begun to explore the inside of honors education at 60 public universities, which means a somewhat tedious analysis of data for approximately 9,000 honors class sections.

Here are examples of what we learn from this work:

  1. How to develop basic classifications for the honors programs and colleges. The courses tell us whether a given program is a “core” program, a “blended program,” or a “department-based” program. A relatively small program with small, honors-only seminars along with relatively few set science and math requirements is a core program. Generally larger programs (some with more than 6,000 students) can be “blended” or “department-based.” If blended, they will have a large number of all-honors seminars, perhaps one-third to one-half of the total honors courses available, and the remainder of courses will be more narrowly defined by the academic departments. Department-based programs might offer a few seminars but offer most honors sections through the academic departments. If a blended or department-based program has a lot of “mixed” class sections (honors students plus non-honors students in the same sections), we can then pass along this information to readers, who may or may not care that many sections are mixed.
  2. How to asses the size of class sections. We have actual enrollment levels for the 9,000 class sections we review. This will allow us to tell readers about the overall average class size for all honors sections, including mixed sections which tend to be larger. From this, readers will gain an idea of how much close interaction with “honors contacts” is likely.
  3. How many honors classes are “contract” or “add-on” sections. Contract sections require an honors student to sign an agreement with the instructor specifying the extra work the student will do to earn honors credit. Most contract sections have only a very few honors students. The same is generally true of “add-on” sections, but these are somewhat more formal in that they are regularly offered term after term and have more established requirements that honors students have to meet to earn honors credit in a regular section. Readers may or may not like the idea of this type of section. Are they less rigorous? Is the flexibility they allow worth it? Our data indicate that in our data set of 60 programs, these types of classes may be about 25 percent of total honors sections. Please note that about two-thirds of programs offer contract or add-on sections for credit, but only five or six offer them on a large scale.

So…to know what “it’s really like really like” in honors program A or honors college B, you have to put yourself in the classroom, so to speak, and get a feel for the characteristics and subject matter of those class sections. Do you want the feel of a small, closely-knit program with a well-defined curriculum and rigorous seminars? Do you want the intimacy of seminars but also the nuts and bolts offered by a broad range of departmental honors classes? Or, are you mainly interested in having as many class choices in as many disciplines as possible, even if some of your classes will be mixed and relatively larger than the all-honors sections.

Once we have finished our “classroom work,” we should be able to give you a better sense of what 60 prominent honors programs and colleges are, in fact, like.