Date of this Version
Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2017), pp 177-193.
Research in honors education generally credits honors students with elevating the academic experience for all students at an institution (see Andrews; Clauss; Brimeyer et al.). Honors students are seen as having a positive peer effect: setting a standard for other students to follow as well as stimulating and challenging faculty, thereby raising the level of the classroom for all ( Joseph W. Cohen, cited by Andrews 38). Thus, many assume that moving honors students into separate sections adversely affects the academic performance of non-honors students, an assumption we faced at our institution. In the context of a study done in a college of engineering, that perception is even stronger because peer-to-peer and group projects are such important pedagogical elements of the engineering undergraduate curriculum. We are unaware of any research on how honors sections of general education courses affect the academic performance of non-honors students taking those same courses, but our study indicates that the implementation of honors sections for selected core courses in the University of Iowa (UI) College of Engineering did not adversely affect non-honors engineering students taking those same core courses.
In the fall of 2015, the UI College of Engineering inaugurated honors sections of core engineering courses for two reasons. First, the undergraduate engineering population had become large enough for honors sections to be economically and logistically feasible. The college’s enrollment had increased from about 1,200 students to more than 2,000 over six years. New sections of the core first- and second-year courses were necessary, thus providing an opportunity to add honors sections. The second motivating factor came from the UI Honors Program, which had recently changed the criteria for eligibility and graduation requirements, reducing the total number of honors students and making an increased proportion of first-year engineering majors eligible for honors. Although engineering students had previously made up a large fraction of honors-eligible students, they were not easily retained because of scheduling constraints and the absence of honors courses in the engineering curriculum. The honors program and the college of engineering were both interested in attracting more engineering students to the honors program and graduating more engineering students with the honors credential.