NTLF Vol. 8 No. 6 1999 - Fundamentals
The National Teaching & Learning Forum logo
 Volume 8 Number 6

Teaching Academically-Talented Students

Some Perspectives from Honors Programs

Jane Fiori Lawrence, Director
University Honors College
Washington State University

Those of us assigned to teach academically-talented students for the first time wonder what, if any, special challenges such students might present. As someone who has taught academically-talented and honors students for over ten years, I have thought a great deal about this issue. In my years directing honors programs, faculty have often told me that their honors teaching is the most rewarding, but also the most difficult. Why? Shouldn't teaching a class of motivated, bright students be a dream assignment?

Background on Honors

About 1200 colleges and universities--from liberal arts, community, and historically black colleges to research universities--currently have established honors programs or colleges. The primary rationale for them is the belief that in any college or university with a heterogeneous student body there are two groups that are at a disadvantage:

  • students whose skills and backgrounds have not adequately prepared them for the college curriculum

  • and students whose skill levels and background are such that they would not be challenged by the regular curriculum.

Honors programs obviously attempt to serve the latter group, usually with enriched courses and curricula.

Misconceptions about Academically-Talented Students

Many faculty members approach teaching academically-talented students with misconceptions. Often they believe these students are going to be better and smarter than graduate students and thus able to handle more material--10 books, three research papers, numerous group presentations. This notion, wherever it comes from, offers a recipe for failure and disappointment for everyone involved. As William Whipple, longtime honors director, puts it: "Make the special challenge of your course the way in which the material is approached--not the quantity of material included."

A second misconception is that academically-talented students will be more open to different types of assignments and teaching strategies than other students. Often this isn't so. Bright students have been successful working and studying on their own. They know how the "academic game" is played--how to take lecture notes, answer multiple-choice questions, and produce an acceptable bibliography. Like many of us, they prefer what is known and comfortable.

Indeed, faculty who attempt innovative pedagogy often complain that their academically-talented students are "grade grubbers" interested only in achieving high grades, not in learning. There are bright students who fit this definition. These students often feel pressured by their parents to achieve or by the institution that requires maintenance of certain grade point averages to retain scholarships. And for some students there is the constant worry about admission to nationally ranked graduate or professional schools.

The major challenge of teaching academically-talented students lies in creating an intellectual environment that nudges students out of their comfort zones, supports them in trying new things, and challenges them to understand ideas, fields of study, themselves, and the world in new ways. It's a challenge not unlike the challenge of most teaching. illustration

Honors Findings

The most important thing that honors programs have learned is that it is the qualitative differences, rather than quantitative ones, that make successful teaching experiences with academically-talented students. There are, however, no special secrets that honors colleges have discovered about teaching--not about teaching in general or about teaching gifted students. Honors programs have been more systematic in the adoption of pedagogical "best practices" than other parts of the Academy, and thus have accrued concentrated experience that confirms them as "best practices."

Some irony may lurk around the fact that honors students learn best in response to the same "best practices" other students respond to, but some comfort loiters there as well. Even as it acknowledges diversity, honors teaching confirms important commonalities in learning.

What Works Best

The following pedagogical approaches have now become widespread within the Academy, but they are ubiquitous in honors colleges.

  • Emphasize active and collaborative learning. Bright students have generally succeeded by being passive learners. To engage them, honors faculty have been among the most fervent advocates and employers of active learning techniques. In general, much less lecturing and much more discussion and group interaction occurs in an honors class than in a regular class. To de-emphasize the competition often found among bright students, honors faculty often use collaborative projects. Case studies, group work and presentations, student team teaching, chat rooms, listservs, debates--all are common in honors classes.

    Earl Brown at Radford University consults and writes about how to teach teachers to teach honors courses. In his workshops, he emphasizes the use of active learning techniques, and how to lead discussions and create assignments that will encourage critical thinking and collaborative learning. Professor Brown indicates that all of these "methods are ultimately ways to encourage students to take greater responsibility for their own learning."

  • Create structures and assignments different from those in comparable classes within the curriculum. Two ways to signal quickly to academically-talented students that a course will be different are to change the structure and assignments. For instance, classes can be scheduled on a weekend, in a long block, in a location other than a classroom, or in an intense two week period. Besides the structure, the class content and assignments in almost all disciplines can be specially designed or redesigned for academically-talented students as well. (Of course, this presumes a reluctance to adopt "best practices" in regular classes, which may be an unfair presumption. Certainly, many of those classes might benefit from similar restructuring.)

    One science course that I observed at another university had special lab sections for academically-talented students. In these sections, students were organized into teams and asked to solve a series of problems throughout the semester. None of the traditional lab assignments were used; instead the faculty member and TAs acted as consultants to the student teams.

    Here at Washington State University one of our most talented geologists designed an introductory geology class for freshmen honors students. The content is virtually identical to that covered in the regular introductory geology class, but the structure and assignments are very different. Instead of meeting in a classroom, the instructor designed a totally field based experience for the students. Working in teams and making extensive use of the Internet, the students are given a new aspect of geology to research each week. The students are then expected to find a solution(s) to a problem relating to the topic, present it to the class, and write a brief scientific paper that reports the results of their research. The student evaluations for this course are among the very best I've ever seen and it was clear that once the students adjusted to the difference in structure and assignments, they learned a great deal.

  • Use primary source material. Primary sources set the foundation of many fields and yet all too often we assign textbooks to undergraduates, including academically-talented students. Most honors programs encourage faculty to make frequent and extensive use of primary sources. For example, psychology classes might read Freud or Jung, students in history or political science courses might read The Federalist Papers or do archival research, and science students could read Watson and Crick's article in Nature that first described their discovery of the double helix. To quote Professor Brown again, "We stress that the value of [primary sources] is to teach students to become better critical thinkers and readers, and to become active members of a larger community."

  • Team teach and offer interdisciplinary courses. Team teaching can be particularly effective with academically-talented students. The interplay between the faculty members and the opportunity to hear more than one opinion or point of view can challenge students to think even more critically about the issues being discussed. Team teaching can be especially effective if faculty from different departments are paired around themes or topics.

    Honors programs often involve students in the teaching process by putting them into teams and having them present some aspect of the course content. Some honors colleges even offer student-taught courses as part of their regular curricula. Many honors programs are known for their interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary course offerings. Bright students easily see the connections or can easily be encouraged to see the interrelationships between and among ideas and fields.

  • Support learning outside of the classroom. Research has demonstrated the numerous educational benefits of experiential and service learning. Often bright students are quite idealistic and interested in providing service to their communities. Many honors programs have mandatory service learning requirements. Others sponsor special education abroad opportunities, cultural activities, internships, and organized trips to extend and deepen the learning that takes place in the classroom.


So what can we, as faculty who care about teaching, learn from the experience of honors programs/colleges? We can learn that there are no magical tricks; teaching bright students well is hard work requiring great creativity. Faculty who are successful at it know that their students are not superhuman and that both content and process are important. These faculty also know that bright students, like other students, learn more and are more engaged in their classes if active and collaborative learning techniques are employed. The success of honors programs/colleges confirms that best teaching practices should be available to all students, and not just to academically-talented students.

Jane Fiori Lawrence
University Honors College
Washington State University
Bryan Hall, Room 206
P.O. Box 645120
Pullman, WA 99164-5120
Phone: 509-335-4505
Fax: 509-335-3784 I E-mail: lawrencj@mail.wsu.edu

Multi-Purpose Grading Information System

Conventional grades remain part of most faculty lives. What grades mean and how they may affect learning is open to question, but if--to any extent--grades reflect learning progress and help students in self--assessment, timely feedback is important.

The mechanics of reporting scores can become time-consuming, especially for large classes, and privacy issues often slow the process even more. Two faculty members at Colorado State University have developed a means of maintaining students' privacy while reporting grades rapidly via the World Wide Web. Dennis and Melanie Middlemist of the College of Business have developed a very useful set of procedures and macros that, working with popular spreadsheet software, make it possible to keep even very large classes full of grade-hungry students up to the minute on where they stand.

A full report on their system with links to samples and a site from which to download the macros is posted with the Supplemental Materials for this issue of the Forum at www.ntlf.com.

HomeCreditsBack Issues

Home | Credits | Back Issues

© Copyright 1996-1999. Published by Oryx Press in conjunction with James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved worldwide.