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Most honors programs offer multiple options for scholars to complete their honors credits each semester. Students may, for instance, take honors courses on campus or abroad, participate in honors independent study, or take upper-division courses as freshmen or sophomores. In some cases, especially if a scholar has a scheduling conflict between courses required for the major and honors courses, he or she may select to develop an honors contract, allowing the student to take a non-honors course and work with the faculty instructor to develop an honors experience in the course.
At our institution, honors students must complete a minimum of six honors credits per academic year. Of the fifty honors students enrolled in our honors program, approximately ten each semester satisfy honors requirements through honors contracts (called “honors options” on our campus). We communicate that the honors contract is not supposed to be an add-on to the routine assignments but should provide alternatives to some or all of the assignments. The honors contract should not simply require more work but should go more deeply into methodology, structure, and theory; attack more sophisticated questions; and satisfy more rigorous standards than are generally expected for the non-honors students. Honors contract advisers, who are the instructors for the course, commonly design the contract as an inquiry- or community-based project. Such projects are typically rigorous enough to then qualify for presentation at a conference.
Although the honors contract may be the only opportunity for a student to satisfy the honors credit requirements in a semester, several challenges may occur with the execution of an honors contract project. Some projects may not get started until well after the semester has begun if, for instance, a student needs to learn appropriate content knowledge before knowing how to proceed or if there is a delay in getting institutional review board (IRB) approval to work with human subjects. Unanticipated changes may occur in access to necessary resources; a scheduled interview with a distinguished speaker may become impossible, for instance, because of a cancelled campus visit. Most often, we see that there is not enough time in the semester to complete the honors contract project. Everything from lab work to the construction of an art installation can take longer than anticipated. As a semester draws to a close, a scholar may become frustrated in not being able to complete the honors contract or may not produce the quality work of which he/she is capable because of a firm deadline to earn a grade in the course.
No motivation or incentive usually exists for a scholar and the supervising faculty member to continue an honors contract project beyond the end of a semester. Once the course concludes, students receive a grade for their honors contract work that is averaged into their overall course grade. Students cannot earn any additional honors contract credits for the same project since it was tied into a specific course. However, there may be an opportunity for students to continue the project in a future semester as an honors independent study if the student is not graduating and if the faculty member is available.
Great value to the scholar and the project outcome can result when an honors contract project is voluntarily extended and refined. This paper describes an example of one honors contract that expanded into a much larger project, benefitting two honors scholars in the growth of their content knowledge and skills sets in addition to producing a higher-quality product.