Understanding the Four Types of Honors Classes

Editor’s Note: The 2018-2019 edition of INSIDE HONORS is out, and this is a good time to emphasize one of the most important components of an honors college or program: the four types of honors class sections typically available to students.

Very few people outside of the honors education community know about or understand the different types of honors classes. To make an informed decision about choosing an honors college or program over a liberal arts college or an elite private university, parents and prospective students really need to consider the types of classes and how those offered by a given honors program will match the preferences and needs of the student.

First, there are four major types of honors classes are honors-only classes, mixed sections, contract (option, conversion) sections, and “experiential” sections.

In most selective private colleges and universities, a class is a class. By this we mean that within each class section, there is not a mix of especially talented students with “regular” students. At the most elite level, this means that all classes at the college are presumably equal in their elite-ness.

Yes, elite private universities do have some large classes, especially in the sciences and in extremely popular lecture sections. But most classes are relatively small, with the amount of discussion being limited more by the subject matter than by the number of students involved. Debate in a linear algebra section of 15 students is unlikely to be extensive; but in a seminar in history, philosophy, literature, or political science the same number of students might bring the roof down.

In public university honors programs, about 25%-30% of an honors student’s total coursework will be in honors classes, although in a few programs that can be as much as 40%. Some of these honors classes will be large, typically in the introductory science courses, but also perhaps in marketing, management, economics, and political science courses. The honors-only classes, especially in the first two years, are likely to be small—averaging 18 students across the 41 rated programs in this edition. So, in these classes, the comparability to liberal arts and private elite classes is greatest, especially in honors seminars and interdisciplinary sections in which class discussion is a prominent feature. These classes, along with an honors thesis requirement if there is one, are, in the public university setting, most likely to differentiate the honors and non-honors experience.

Unlike liberal arts colleges and elite private universities, some honors classes in the academic disciplines (e.g., biology, chemistry, computer science) are mixed honors sections or, especially in the last two years, honors contract sections, in any discipline. The offerings of some mixed and contract sections are still the norm, even though 76% of the honors sections offered by the rated honors programs in this edition are honors-only classes.

The percentage of honors enrollment, by section type, for all rated programs rated in this edition is 75.8% in honors-only sections; 15.4 % in mixed honors sections; and 8.8% in contract sections. Compared to the 2016 programs we reviewed, the percentage of mixed and contract sections in 2018 has increased. Honors colleges and programs are growing rapidly; sometimes the only way they can keep up with additional enrollment is to add honors students to already existing sections.

So…what is a mixed section? In honors programs, a mixed section for honors credit usually takes one of two forms. The majority of mixed sections are larger than honors-only sections, averaging 68.6 students, including honors and non-honors students (this is what makes them “mixed”). This average has gone up since 2016.  Some of these sections have no honors-only labs or discussion (breakout) sections in addition to the main mixed section. For these classes, the honors students may do extra work for honors credit, but often the sections are advanced and include students majoring in the discipline or pursuing departmental honors, as well as students in the honors program. Other mixed sections include “regular” students along with honors students, but the honors students meet in their own labs or in 1-2 credit discussion sections outside of the main section. In either of these instances, the mixed section is very likely an improvement over a regular class in the subject.

A contract section (also called an honors option, honors conversion, honors enhancement) is a regular section in which one or a few honors students enter into a written agreement with the instructor to do extra work for honors credit and, preferably, also to meet with the instructor one on one at regular intervals. Generally, honors staff must approve these agreements, but the amount of administrative oversight and quality of the extra work can vary considerably. In the best case, there is consistent oversight and evaluation of the contracts; in the worst case, which does exist, honors staff have little or no involvement in the process and might not even have a record of what the extra work was supposed to be.

This is not to say that honors contracts are necessarily inferior to honors-only courses or mixed honors sections. Even though the quality can be uneven, the contract courses can lead to extremely valuable mentoring relationships between instructors and students. Another positive factor is that students often take upper-division honors contract courses, sometimes including courses needed for majors, minors, or for graduating on schedule. The contract courses are also a way for motivated students to continue to be challenged while working on an honors thesis outside of class. Contract courses do tend to be larger, averaging 56.6 students per section. (This class average is better than in 2016.) Proponents of honors contracts contend that the larger class sizes are more than offset by the one-on-one contact that should occur between the student and instructor outside of class. Out of 41 rated programs, 26 allow credit for contract courses, and 15 do not. Arizona State, Penn State, LSU, and Oklahoma State all have 20% or more of their honors enrollment in contract sections.

Experiential sections are the honors response to a fairly recent revival of “learning by doing” in higher education. The idea is that students should combine classroom learning with (usually) related experience outside the classroom. In principle, and probably for the most part in practice, experiences directly tied to a specific course do enhance student learning and promote enthusiasm for the subject. The implementation of more of these courses is not limited to public universities. Liberal arts colleges, especially in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession, seek to respond to the sense of vocational urgency that most parents and prospective students now feel. Like their public honors counterparts, liberal arts colleges offer internships, leadership training, and group projects, at least in part to boost the resumes of their students. Service learning, which aligns students with community needs, is often the altruistic side of the experiential coin. So from one direction colleges are pushed to respond to material self-interest, while from the other they are tasked with the rejuvenation of community involvement.

A certain amount of experiential learning is all to the good, so to speak. Students in engineering classes surely benefit from group projects; history majors—if they still exist—should by all means take that internship at the state capital (and enroll in an econ class); finance majors will love the idea of an internship at a major brokerage firm; and just about any student will delight in three honors credits for studying Spanish during a Maymester in Seville. Community gardens, fundraisers, tutoring disadvantaged children, all of these are good things. One question, however, is whether experiential learning untethered to classroom work should count for as much as a third or more of honors completion requirements. This is a more recent development. Another is that even non-credit experiences can count toward honors completion.

Honors programs seek to combine the best of the liberal arts/private elite education model with the advantages of large research universities. But an admittedly non-scientific search for experiential learning programs at the nation’s leading private colleges found many examples of such learning connected to coursework or simply offered for students to do on their own time, but nothing to indicate that non-course, non-credit work could be counted toward graduation.

A final question is whether public honors colleges and programs should carve out a unique place in higher education where activities unrelated to actual classes or earned credits expand to the detriment of rigorous academic coursework?  Experiential learning can be valuable, and experiential programs might cost less to implement than academic course sections; but the identity, the “brand” of honors programs, to use a commercial buzzword, will not be the same.

Much less typical than any of the four class types discussed above is the honors tutorial. In a tutorial, made famous by the British universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the whole course is a series of one-on-one meetings between the student and instructor. The only honors program to make extensive use of this method is the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, but most honors students have at least one tutorial experience, especially if they are doing an honors thesis. Tutorials can be the most demanding, rewarding, and anxiety-producing experiences in undergraduate education (and graduate school, for that matter), depending on the personalities and expectations of the participants.

So what is the main takeaway for prospective students? Try to understand who you are, who you want to be, what you need in the way of change and development, which fears you want to overcome, and which subjects you want to study. Then decide if an honors program offers the right combination of honors classes and course types for your purposes. If you are comfortable with being assertive and participating in small classes, then look for those small classes and a sizable number of honors seminars. If you are uneasy about asserting yourself in class, then you can choose to confront that issue or select a program that emphasizes honors classes in the academic disciplines, especially courses in your proposed major. And if you want as much individual attention as possible, then look for a program with a good mix of class types and activities, including small seminars, undergraduate research opportunities, an honors thesis requirement—and maybe a couple of those contract courses too.