One way to extend the reach of your best students is to have an Honors Program that, perhaps, runs over several years.

One model is to have a special program to which students are invited. Participation extends over several years, perhaps with separate classes.

If you have experience with such a program, either as a participant, faculty member, or creator, what was the model and what worked and didn't in your program.

I was a faculty member for students in one such program but had little influence on its general structure. Students could designate any course(s) in the curriculum as honors option. If the professor agreed, then the student and prof made a mini contract for extra work in the class. This was sort of small scale from my perspective but worked well in my (limited) experience. There were no special lectures for these students and the other students weren't affected. The honors student had to do more to earn an A in the course, but that was part of the contract. I had to design a more complex project for the (compiler course) students was the only real difference.

When I was an undergrad at a liberal arts college we had a general honors program. I studied math and philosophy, but the program was tailored to the liberal arts. Students were invited at the end of the first year (of four). A faculty committee was responsible for invitations, though I suspect that a student could petition for entry. Every term the program had a different theme, literature, science, psychology, history, etc. depending on faculty interest.

The students read a book on the topic of the term each week and met in seminar for a few hours once a week. The faculty said little as the students discussed the book. At the end of the second year of the program (third year of study) one of the seminars was public, held in an auditorium, with a reception following. These were well attended.

The final year was different. We developed a "thesis" paper in our major study area, so mine was in the philosophy of math area.

Since my major was fairly narrow (but also required science study) I cam away with a nearly perfect Liberal Arts education. The only area of the Medieval University course of study that I missed was Astronomy.

However, the honors courses were in addition to the regular student load. The courses were pretty intense, so could lead to burnout. Also, someone already studying, say philosophy, didn't get as much "broadening" as I did since they already studied many of the HP topics anyway.

I liked that Honors Program model, then and now, but here I'm more interested in something specialized for Computer Science students. I think that both small scale and large scale programs are interesting and might serve as models for others to consider.

Much later, I helped design a doctoral program in computing that had many features of the above honors model. Three years, two of study and one of dissertation. The years were calendar years with no breaks and dissertation topics were expected to be ready to go by the beginning of the third year.

My personal context is the United States where undergraduates take many courses in many fields with one chosen as a specialty. My examples are from the US of course. However, other places, in which students are much more specialized as undergraduates have, in my view, similar needs: foster a good learning environment for the best students who want to go beyond and can use faculty guidance. What would an "honors" program look like in such a situation?

  • $\begingroup$ I think there is both a question and an answer here. Your personal experience is probably better served as an answer since the question is buried in the text here. Consider bolding it to make it stand out amidst everything else. Also, I have a feeling this might be better asked on Academia.SE since the focus sounds university-specific. If you are looking for models of CS programs, then you might find there a model to emulate from a non-CS program. $\endgroup$
    – Peter
    Jul 11, 2017 at 5:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Peter On questions like this I like to prime the pump a bit to get people thinking. Especially when I don't think there is "one true answer". Institutional context matters in this stuff, but people with interest can get good ideas from a variety of answers. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Jul 11, 2017 at 13:29
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what you mean when you say "questions like this." Can you clarify this statement? It's helpful for there to be a clear difference between a question and an answer; a self-answered question can serve the same purpose of inspiring thought for further answers. That might be the better approach to take in this circumstance. $\endgroup$
    – Peter
    Jul 11, 2017 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ For an UP program in CS, a common component is an internship with a allied organization, governmental, for-profit or non-profit, just outside academia for the "real world" exposure. $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2017 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ This question might benefit from a united-states tag. It could as well be written in Greek for (non-Greek-speaking) people from other academic cultures. $\endgroup$ Sep 19, 2017 at 14:50

3 Answers 3


First, I will describe my university's program, and then I will give my thoughts on its efficacy as a participant of this program.

My university makes a distinction between the general "University Honors" program and specific "Honors in the Major" programs. Students are invited to the honors program based on particular GPA requirements, which then need to be maintained to remain in the program. You can complete University Honors without completing Honors in the Major (although the latter fulfills the second criterion for the former, which I will elaborate on below), but not the other way around. Honors in the Major has specific requirements for each particular major (although almost always means writing a thesis on some form of undergraduate research), whereas University Honors is standardized.

The criteria for fulfilling University Honors are two-fold: First, the student must fulfill 12 semester hours of honors courses. This can be done in several ways: taking specific honors courses/seminars (which are intended to provide a broad, liberal arts education), courses in their major which have been designated as honors, or as you describe, contracting a course to count for honors credit. This entails approaching a professor and agreeing on an honors project to complete by the end of the semester.

The other criteria that must be filled is what is called "experiential learning". This involves getting "12 semester hours" via doing things like participating in undergraduate research, getting internships, being a TA, etc. It's a fairly extensive list, with each particular experience counting for a different amount according to the duration/time commitment involved.

In my experience, I think the latter portion of this program is much more effective than the first. It incentivizes students to apply themselves beyond immediate academic rewards, a trap that I have noticed many honors students fall into -- obsessing over their GPA at the expense of everything else. The first is relatively trivial -- the requirement can be fulfilled during a single semester, and often is -- and honors courses are not excessively difficult when compared to their regular counterparts at my university.

I think the purpose of an honors program should be aligned more towards the second criterion if the intention is to create exceptional students. If the focus is mostly on courses, you risk trivializing the program (in my case) or burning out your students through excessive work (in your case). I think putting the emphasis on ensuring students apply themselves, rather than just taking more difficult courses, is a better model for developing students personally and professionally.

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    $\begingroup$ Very nice first answer. We always appreciate the thoughtful student perspective. Welcome to Computer Science Educators, I hope we hear more from you in the future. $\endgroup$
    – Ben I.
    Jul 11, 2017 at 16:47

Although it is not exactly what you are looking for, here, some of the best students are invited to join a research group even if they are in an early stage in their studies (say 1st year). It is not a program per se, but it is a way to motivate the best students and take some advantage of their knowledge. Most of the time the students are paid.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the answer is useful and shows an alternate model. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Jul 11, 2017 at 13:30

This describes another possible model of an honors program that may be feasible internationally.

Students normally take a certain set of classes. For those in the honors program, some of those may be specially designed just for them. These courses go beyond the normal requirements in some significant way, perhaps including additional research.

However, in this model the key feature is that it is possible for a professor and a student to form a contract in a "normal" course that transforms it into an honors course. The contract will involve additional work of some kind appropriate for the course. The student does the normal work of the course and the fulfills the additional requirements as well. The work might involve additional research and/or writing, up to and including publication. The professor judges the student work as usual and assigns or withholds the honors designation at completion. The work should ensure that the student attains some deeper understanding of the topic of the course, rather than just preforming additional tasks.

A student in the honors program, in this model, may have a minimal number of such special courses or not.

Typically, if the overall curriculum of the student does not require a thesis, the honors student will write on to achieve honors at graduation. For those who are normally required to write a thesis, some additional requirements might be imposed, such as publication, or at least submission for publication.

Managing such a program is a bit challenging. Someone with a deep commitment to the philosophy should be available to assist faculty and students in setting appropriate standards for each such course. A faculty member may be able to amortize the work of guiding such a course over more than one term/student or not.

Such a program could, in fact, be used as part of a program of training future teachers. Some of the additional tasks of an honors course might be teaching part of the course itself, or a closely related course. If this is used, I would assume that the teaching would be supervised and even assisted by the guiding professor.


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