How We See an Honors Course at MU
A Guide For Faculty
We greatly appreciate your interest in teaching an honors course.
Honors courses, offered either through individual departments (designated as H) or the Honors College (designated as GN_HON), provide MU professors with the opportunity to teach the university’s top undergraduate students in an intimate seminar setting. These courses set the stage for additional mentoring and teaching possibilities, including honors research and theses.
To graduate from the Honors College, a student needs to complete successfully a minimum of 20 honors credits (if student enrolled prior to fall 2017) or 24 honors credits (for all students enrolling in or after fall 2017), which can be accomplished through a variety of options, including not only departmental and General Honors courses but also independent study, approved internships, Honors Learning-by-Contract (HLBC), and approved graduate-level courses in the junior and senior year. Honors courses are generally offered as 1-5 credits, depending upon the discipline, course, and structure.
This document presents our philosophy of honors education and offers specific guidelines for developing an honors course. Like all useful documents, it is intended to be adaptable.
Part of the fun of developing a course is to think through it with colleagues. The leadership team of the Honors College would be happy to meet with you about your proposed course. In addition, you’re welcome to attend any of our group conversations with honors faculty about best practices, challenges, and opportunities. These are held periodically throughout the year.
The following sections are available for your consultation and reference:
- General Philosophy
- The Four Goals for an Honors Course
- Specific Guidelines for Developing an Honors Course
- Specific Guidelines for Developing an Honors Learning-by-Contract Course
Our aspiration for an honors curriculum is to have it embody the ideals of higher education. We promote all that constitutes great teaching and learning, from quality mentoring to a spirit of innovation. We do so in partnership with the other colleges that serve MU’s undergraduates, by capitalizing on their best practices and pioneering new pedagogical approaches.
Our curriculum also upholds the traditional value of a liberal arts education, which seeks to broaden the mind by developing and nurturing intellectual curiosity about many subjects. In the honors college, this emphasis gains particular expression in our focus on interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Since our college seeks to bring faculty from different disciplines together, team-teaching is welcome.
This interest in an interdisciplinary education complements our emphasis on providing ample opportunities for honors students in their specialized areas. We seek to enhance honors students’ professional training by offering courses in their fields as well as opportunities for earning honors credit through research, internships, graduate level courses, and honors Learning-by-Contract. Many departments on campus have their own honors program, which allows students to pursue honors in their major by enrolling in an honors capstone course and completing original research in the form of a senior thesis or project; these courses count toward our honors certificate as well.
Lastly, honors courses should create an atmosphere of intellectualism, which we define simply as the love of learning, contemplation, and analysis. Students should be encouraged to think deeply about the subjects covered in the course and be given ample opportunity to express their thoughts in discussions and writing assignments.
The Four Goals for an Honors Course
Every honors instructor is different, so every honors course is different. In working with faculty to offer our honors curriculum, our motto is “respect the discipline.” However, honors courses also need to have a set of identifiable, common characteristics that unite them in a common purpose.
In preparing your course, then, please keep in mind four main goals we have for our curriculum:
- To strengthen students’ aptitude for critical thinking
- To produce effective communicators, both in speech and in writing
- To create a community of thinkers who share ideas, offer constructive criticism for each other, and collaborate on projects
- To nurture each student’s creative potential
While many courses at MU are designed to achieve these goals, we at the Honors College do so with greater push and a greater expectation of success. Not all four of them can be promoted equally, but they should inform each course to varying degrees, so that students graduating with an Honors Certificate can claim true strength in these areas no matter what their discipline or future career.
- Strengthen an Aptitude for Critical Thinking. Students need to learn how to think through complex problems; they also need to think in complex ways about problems that may seem simple. Therefore, your course should provide students with ample opportunities to think and produce on their own while they also receive regular feedback. Students might be asked, for example, to keep a reflective journal in which they summarize readings, record personal responses to new knowledge, and generate questions for further investigation; or, they might be asked to collaborate on a design project, where they take the tools they have learned throughout the semester and apply them to an open-ended problem.
- Teach Effective Communication. The promotion of strong writing skills and verbal acumen are the hallmarks of all honors courses. So is the promotion of informed and thoughtful discussion. In addition, our Honors College puts particular emphasis on the value of public scholarship, which we define as the ability to translate what a student learns within the walls of academe to the public in a manner that is clear, lively, and engaging. Consider assignments that have students presenting their work outside of class, in venues such as the local library, elementary schools, or MU’s Undergraduate Research Forum held every April.
- Create a Community of Thinkers. Knowledge today is not produced exclusively in ivory-tower seclusion; rather, it emerges from the act of thinking together, whether that’s with others in your discipline or in an entirely different discipline. As an honors instructor, take advantage of the unique student population you have! Your students will be agile and diverse thinkers, and powerful synergy comes from having them collaborate. Having said this, we also recognize that some honors students prefer to work in isolation; this preference should be respected, though you should encourage your students to see that their work is always in conversation, somehow, with those of others and that many forms of collaboration exist. Even those students who prefer to work independently should be expected, for example, to conduct peer evaluations and offer constructive criticism to each other.
- Nurture Creativity. Honors courses should push students to hone their creative skills by asking them to solve problems or address subjects in new and exciting ways. When possible, try to promote divergent thinking (finding many solutions to a problem, even those that may initially seem far-fetched) and convergent thinking (finding the most logical solution to a problem). Challenge your students to come up with new ways of tackling issues, interpreting material, or constructing arguments. Be experimental with your assignments. Students might, for example, conduct interviews, develop new designs for projects, produce videos, or publish a book together through the university’s Espresso Book Machine.
Specific Guidelines for Developing an Honors Course
In addition, we encourage you to consider some of the more specific guidelines below as you develop your honors course. Please keep in mind that the list below is not a set of prescriptions but of suggestions.
- Aim to use different evaluation methods in your honors course from those you use in your regular courses. Every honors course should take advantage of the small numbers of students to use individualized examination techniques, such as open-ended examination questions, oral exams, and/or portfolios.
- In your upper-level honors courses, consider your students as potential contributors to the field—and thus show students how knowledge in the discipline is discovered, developed, evaluated, and applied. Primary sources, seminal papers, and discipline-related examples should be introduced and emphasized.
- Cultivate a spirit of adventure and risk-taking. In many honors courses, a palpable sense exists among the students and the faculty member that they’re engaged in an experiment, a “trying out” of new assignments and new approaches.
- Encourage original research, especially at the upper level. In some ways, original contributions to a field are more possible now than they ever were before, given the increasingly interdisciplinary and technology-driven age we live in.
- Interact with your students outside of class, whether that is at your home, local coffee shop, or Shakespeare’s Pizza.
- If appropriate, try to involve students in the pedagogy of the course. Students in an honors course could, for example, be asked to contribute to the design of course assignments or tailor existing course assignments to reflect their particular class’s own interests.
- Resist a sense of closure in regard to course content and instead embrace a sense of open-endedness and discovery.
- Think of your honors courses as springboards for future work with honors students.
Approved by the Honors Council Curriculum Committee March 28, 2014.
Specific Guidelines for Developing an Honors Learning-by-Contract Course
When working with a student to prepare a general, non-Honors course into an Honors Learning-by-Contract (HLBC) course, there are a few guidelines and requirements to keep in mind.
- The proposal must present a set of assignments or approaches to learning that is the equivalent of making the entire course into an Honors experience for the student, and run for the entire length of the semester. Thus the proposal design should put forth assignments or tasks that effectively transform the course, are substantive, and require concrete submissions or performance elements to be completed at specified intervals.
- The assignments are graded as distinctive elements and thus are in addition to the existing coursework.
- The following activities are either not sufficient (by themselves) or permitted to serve as an HLBC experience:
- A research paper can only be a part of a Honors project; additional elements, such as an in-class presentation, a poster presentation, publication of a website, or some other format for dissemination must be included.
- Tutoring is not acceptable.
- All HLBCs must include a detailed schedule / timeline with specific requirements due at various intervals throughout the semester. An HLBC is not something that can or should be done all at once or at the end of the semester, thus undermining the integrity of a semester-long experience.
- HLBCs should be built upon the assumption that at least five (5) additional hours of out-of-class meeting time will be required to meet the instructor-student interaction.
- Allow the student to enhance or develop a lesser-known facet of the knowledge or course experience.
- Promote the work as if it were an extension of a research or artistry project, in all of its manifestations.