Date of this Version
Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council Vol. 12, No.2 (Fall/Winter 2011). ISSN 1559-0151
Several recent issues of the Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council have devoted considerable space to questions of grading and assessing honors student work: the 2006 Forum on “Outcomes Assessment, Accountability, and Honors” (Frost et al.), the 2007 Forum on “Grades, Scores, and Honors” (Andrews et al.), and Greg Lanier’s expansive piece in 2008, “Towards Reliable Honors Assessment.” One target of assessment is the honors thesis, which is either a required or optional component of many honors programs and colleges and which poses a myriad of assessment challenges. What follows is a description and analysis of the attempt at the University of Maine Honors College to improve communication and assessment throughout the thesis process and to support both honors thesis students and the faculty members who work with them. As is often the case in honors, this initiative had an informal beginning: a chat between a professor of educational psychology, who was advising his first honors thesis student, and the dean of the honors college.
THESES AND THE HONORS COLLEGE
The first four UMaine honors theses were written in 1937. The honors program began as a small endeavor among liberal arts faculty members but became a university-wide initiative in 1962 and then an honors college in 2002. Even in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the number of honors theses was typically on the order of twenty or so, but numbers have steadily increased over the past decade; now at least seventy, and in some years more than eighty, students write theses annually. This dramatic growth has meant an expansion in the variety of theses, the breadth of disciplines in which theses are written, and the number of individuals involved as advisors or committee members.
These increases have prompted the honors college community to consider questions of expectations and performance from a global perspective. Each student has a thesis advisor who chairs a committee of five, selected by the student in consultation with the advisor. Nearly all advisors and most committee members are UMaine faculty members; other committee members (who, for convenience, will all be referred to as faculty members) include scientific staff, faculty members at other institutions or laboratories, local professionals in private or governmental positions, and doctoral students. Following a two-hour oral defense, the committee determines the degree of honors awarded to the student: no honors, honors, high honors, or highest honors. This decision is based on the written thesis, the student’s oral presentation of the thesis, the discussion between the student and the committee about the thesis, an annotated reading list of twelve to fifteen texts significant to the student’s academic career, and discussion of the reading list.