Category Archives: Honors

Risk and Innovation: The Most Important Elements of Honors Education


imageI’m attending the National Collegiate Honors Council annual meeting in Denver today, and I just participated in a workshop on faculty development in honors. Honors directors from across the US and Europe asked ourselves “How do we communicate what honors teaching is?” “How can we convince our faculty that honors teaching does not mean more, it means different?”

Workshop leaders Donnie Nobles, of Auburn University-Montgomery and John Zubbizarreta of Columbia College, South Carolina distributed a list of elements involved in learning-centered teaching:
Intellectual Engagement
Motivation, Self-Direction
Experiential Learning
Challenge (quality and process over quantity and products)
Risk, innovation
Discussion-based classes
Undergraduate Research
Freedom and flexibility

The honors directors in the room agreed that the most important element, and the most difficult one to implement, would be risk and innovation. These notions challenge both students and instructors. Students want to maintain a high GPA, so they avoid risk. Professors need good student evaluations, so any new assignment is inherently risky. Both groups are uncomfortable with ambiguity or even chaos.

How can we encourage risk-taking in our classes? Possibly by assigning ungraded activities that encourage risk? Possibly by encouraging peer review for professors so less emphasis is placed on student course evaluations? Maybe by embracing a culture of freedom and flexibility?

A Bridge to Belize 2014


A Bridge to Belize 2014 – Actun Tunichil Muknal

“Make sure you have no cameras or anything else that would hinder you from using your hands today,” the tour guide told us. Reflecting on the day I am really glad I didn’t even carry a water bottle because boy did I need my hands! After a 1.4 mile jungle hike with three rivers along the way we got to the real adventure… the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal. From the moment you strap the flashlight to your helmet the “real” adventure begun.

Our tour guide Emil was not only a native Belizean, but a walking encyclopedia of Mayan and archeological knowledge. He guided the group through some of the smallest and amazing crevasses of the cave with ease and grace as he explained the rich history every inch of the way. What was interesting about the tour was that as we rose up to higher levels of the cave we were beginning to gain a deeper understanding of the Mayans ideology behind their practices. As in most ancient Mezzo-American societies the Mayans believed in many different gods. Based on archeological evidence it is believed that the higher up in the cave one would go the closer they thought to be to their gods.

I believe that being able to go and experience and climb and explore in the pitch-black cave as the Mayans did was very eye opening and really allowed me to be fully immersed in the culture. As I now constantly strive to be less ethnocentric it was important for me to put the practices of the Maya people in the cave into another perspective; in relation to my religion now and where I would go to worship my God. Seeing the pottery and the skeletal remains of past sacrifices performed by Mayans and listening as Emil shed some light on the different theories of their collapse allowed for an experience mentally I can never forget.

Taylor Peck

Hidden Opportunities: “Undermatched” Students


In recent years there has been a great deal of conversation surrounding the phenomenon known as “Undermatching”, which describes the enrollment of high achieving students in less-selective colleges and universities – even when their qualifications suggest that they could have easily enrolled in more selective, Tier I institutions. This past weekend a research paper was presented at the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) 2014 annual meeting titled “Selectivity and The College Experience: How Undermatching Shapes the College Experience Among High-Achieving Students”,  which was based on data analysis of the 2010 self-reported student responses to the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement (BCSSE). An abstract of the research paper that highlights its findings was recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which includes unmatched students’ reporting less academically challenging environments, lower student satisfaction rates and fewer self-perceived gains during the first year of college.

While these results have become talking points to several professors advocating against undermatching for the nation’s elite public and private post-secondary institutions, they fail to address important points that influence student choice.  Indeed, the mention of the benefits that can be attained by students through undermatching is buried under the other areas that have been sensationalized, but if you look it is in there! The positive data that says that within the first year, students that enrolled in a less selective institution also reported more frequent interactions with faculty and engaged in more active and collaborative learning activities has been virtually ignored.

As a positive stand-alone characteristic of less-selective institutions, the faculty interaction presents a silver lining that is extremely difficult to duplicate at a Tier I or Research I institution, given the high demand for faculty research, grant writing and publishing. The positive benefits of undermatching may not be immediately recognizable in the first year core curriculum at many institutions that are considered to be “less selective”, but University of Baltimore has made significant strides towards institutionalizing them as part of the First Year Experience. For the low income, high achieving student – UB offers several innovative approaches to constructing a challenging academic environment, creating a sense of community and increasing student satisfaction. These approaches include (but are not limited to):

  • Helen P. Denit Honors Program provides spaces for high achieving students to network with each other, opportunities to interact with faculty on a more intimate level, and support for academic endeavors outside the classroom (including study abroad and independent study). New, Transfer, and Currently enrolled students are welcome to apply.
  • Freshman Learning Communities consist of a set of two or three thematically linked courses in which new students will learn and develop skills alongside their classmates during the freshman year.
  • Enhanced Courses are unique course offerings that demonstrate a commitment to certain high-impact practices. These courses are designed to offer opportunities for both students and professors to push themselves to engage in challenging learning experiences, and consist of a mixture of honors and non-honors students.

While these UB initiatives and programs certainly do not address all of the issues associated with undermatched students, they certainly make it clear that this institution (considered by some to be less selective) is deeply invested in student success and satisfaction of its students regardless of background or preparation. If institutions similar to UB take on the challenge of serving this unique student population and begin to initiate campus structures similar to what has been mentioned above, there will be a growth in new educational opportunities for highly talented students that are otherwise bound by the restraints of cost, location and availability when it comes to college choice, satisfaction and degree attainment.

Call for Workshop and Poster Proposals


save the date

The Service-Learning & Civic Engagement Conference will feature concurrent workshops led by faculty, staff, students, and/or community organization representatives.  The SLCE planning committee is now accepting workshop proposals on the following topics:

1. Community Partnerships-What are the best practices in community-campus partnerships, and what are we learning? Examples in this area include the process of initiating and sustaining community-campus partnerships, setting short and long-term goals, the outcomes and impacts of these efforts, and innovative initiatives with community organizations. Presentations should include partner voice.

2. Social Change Leadership-How do our campus communities encourage active citizenship and promote social change? Examples include campus advocacy efforts, awareness campaigns, student led service initiatives, postgraduate social justice work and careers, innovative ways to discuss diversity topics such as race, oppression, privilege, and social identity.

 3. Academic Service-Learning-How do we integrate experiential learning for mutually beneficial outcomes? Examples include service-learning course design and best practices, faculty development, reflective practice, student success stories, next steps after a service-learning course, community-based research initiatives, living-learning communities, service-learning course assessment and impact.

•   Workshop proposals due by Friday, January 31, 2014 by 5:00 pm.

•   You will be notified of a decision by Friday, February 14, 2014.

Proposal submission questions may be directed to Meg Rego, American University, at 202-885-3629 or

SERVICE AWARDS – Know a Community Service Superstar? Have a Favorite CBO? Submit an Award Nomination!

Are you or someone at your campus passionate about and active in community service? Would you like to earn recognition for your favorite community organization? The 7th Annual Service-Learning & Civic Engagement Conference, “Putting Our Passion to Work” is happy to recognize faculty members, staff members, students and community partners for their contributions to service-learning and civic engagement in the State of Maryland and Washington D.C. Nominations are being accepted for undergraduate or graduate students, faculty and staff members and/or community-based organizations.

For specific criteria information of each award, please view the nomination form [pdf].

  Submit a nomination in one of two ways:

•   complete the nomination form online, or

•   download the nomination form [pdf], fill it out, and email it with the subject line “Nomination Form” to

Deadline to submit your nomination is Wednesday, February 19th.  Nomination letters should be no more than two pages in length and must specifically address the selection criteria.  Please submit any questions to

For more information, go to:

Walking to the Walters: Why Field Trips Pay Off




In the spring the Helen P. Denit Honors Program will pilot a series of enhanced courses intended to expand the honors offerings for UB’s students.  A faculty member who wants to enhance a course can apply to the honors program for funds to incorporate experiential  learning opportunities.  For example, a class could visit live productions of the plays they are studying, or take a field trip to a battle field, or conduct experiments in the Jones Falls, or visit an art museum.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but why fund it? Lectures and class discussions can be extremely illuminating. Why waste time shlepping around town? Well, a recent study of class field trips to the new Crystal Bridges art museum in Bentonville, Ark. demonstrated that the museum visits actually increased the critical thinking skills of the 11,000 school-age visitors.   “Art Makes You Smart,” an op-ed discussing this study was the most emailed article in the New York Times earlier this week.

Exposing students to real art, real performances, real object and real experiments gets them thinking. As the op-ed concludes”[V]isiting an art museum exposes students to a diversity of ideas that challenges them with different perspectives on the human condition.” At UB, that’s what we want for all of our students, so let’s get out there.




Honors Participation: The Gift that Keeps on Giving


I’ve already told you about the first findings of the University of Iowa team that researched the value of participation in honors programs in the first year of college.  Researchers found that honors students were exposed to more good practices in their classes and that they made significant cognitive gains over the course of their first year.  But another finding surprised even the researchers.

They looked at students who benefitted from good practices that honors classes offered in their first year but who took nonhonors classes as sophomores, juniors and seniors.  Researchers predicted that the growth that honors students had experienced in the first year would taper off as the students had less exposure to honors classes. However, they found just the opposite.  “Not only did the effects of honors program participation persist despite controlling for the good practice measures, they increased slightly in magnitude.” In other words, even when they weren’t taking honors classes, students who had participated in an honors program as freshmen continued to make gains at a rate that outperformed that of their nonhonors peers.  Interestingly, men and students of color were the honors students who benefitted most from first-year honors experiences.

Honors Programs and Cognitive Growth


Neurons in Tissue Culture.

The Holy Grail of undergraduate education is “cognitive growth.”  Universities want to admit able students, but they also want to teach them something during their years as students.  Today, universities must do more than impart knowledge – we must teach students how to think. Ideally, students would take a cognitive-thinking pre-test before they started college and could be tested at various points to see how they were progressing.

That’s just what students at eighteen four-year institutions did in a research project conducted by a team at the University of Iowa. The researchers’ main question was whether honors students actually made cognitive gains during their first year or if they simply came in strong and plateaued.

Since you are reading this in the blog of the Office of Academic Innovation, the office which houses UB’s Helen P. Denit Honors Program, you can probably guess the answer to their question.  These researchers found that when they tested students after their first year in college, “honors program participants scored 0.14 standard deviations higher on the composite cognitive measure of learning than did their nonhonors peers.  Honors program participants also scored 0.15 and 0.09 deviations higher than their nonhonors counterparts on the math and critical thinking measures, respectively.”

So if you are a strong student coming into UB, statistics show that you will make more cognitive gains if you enroll in the honors program than if you coast by in less-challenging classes.


Why Should Students Take Honors Courses in Their Freshman Year?


Honors courses can be intense and demanding.  Some first-year students may be reluctant to take on the added pressure of enrolling in an honors learning community.  Will the reading be overwhelming? Will the expectations be too high?

Qualified students should not be intimidated.  In fact, studies show that first-year students who enroll in honors courses encounter learning environments that consistently provide good classroom practices that in turn lead to student engagement and success, despite the higher expectations.  A team at the University of Iowa examined eighteen four-year institutions and found that honors students are exposed to more good teaching practices in their first year than their nonhonors peers.  First-year honors courses encouraged more course-centered interaction with classmates, more academic involvement on the part of the honors student, higher-order questions, more professor feedback, and more skilled and clear instruction.  Okay, these first-year students also had more required reading, but look at all the benefits!

You can’t argue with the data.  The bar may be high, but perks come with the territory.