National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version



Honors in Practice, Volume 10 (2014)


Copyright 2013 by the National Collegiate Honors Council


One of the NCHC Basic Characteristics of a Fully Developed Honors Program is that it creates opportunities for undergraduate research, opportunities that frequently culminate in a senior thesis or capstone project (Spurrier 200–201). The senior research project typically distinguishes honors students from their non-honors counterparts in a significant way. The emphasis on undergraduate research may also distinguish an honors program or college (“or college” will be understood throughout this essay) within the university, where honors often becomes a de facto center for undergraduate research. Increasing opportunities for undergraduate research thus not only benefits honors students—by giving them a greater range of educational experiences and making them stronger candidates for jobs, fellowships, and graduate or professional school—but also helps honors programs institutionally as they seek to create alliances and obtain resources in both the university and the larger community.

Promoting undergraduate research within a comprehensive university also presents a number of challenges, perhaps the most basic being how to define research. Many honors programs acknowledge this difficulty by making a distinction between a thesis and a creative activity, but research varies much more widely, as is readily apparent to any honors administrator faced with reading projects well outside her field of academic specialization. The difficulty of defining research within honors in many ways reflects challenges within universities and even individual disciplines. Some of these differences are longstanding: between qualitative and quantitative methodologies in the social sciences, for example, or between more or less overtly politically informed scholarship in the humanities. Other differences are more recent, such as the move to promote entrepreneurial research or to make universities more socially accountable by addressing “wicked problems” such as poverty, illiteracy, and climate change (Thorp and Goldstein). A second new challenge involves what might be called (to adapt a term from Alfred North Whitehead) the differing rhythms of education across a comprehensive university.