Are Your Honors Classes a Joke?

Judges Panel for Honors Chemistry in Riyadh, KSA ~ Spring 2013

Judges Panel for Honors Chemistry in Riyadh, KSA ~ Spring 2013

I pit-patted arrogantly into my Calculus Honors class about eight years ago and continued to suffer through the term.  Once, as my fellow classmates and I purred together and continued to stroke each other's egos for enrolling in such a difficult course with our magnanimous--or so we thought--brains, our professor decided to kill our pride with one swift sentence.

"You should know," she stated, matter-of-factly, "That you take the same exams, quizzes, and homework assignments as my regular non-Honors students.  The only difference between your course and theirs is the bagel project."  Our "bagel project" that she was referring to was simply a weekend calculation that involved rotating some edible yummies around an x-y axis in order to find their respective volumes.

I was so unbelievably bummed out to hear this and my delicate ego left me for a suicidal skydive.  Later on, I kept recalling this feeling as I began to teach.  Why should Honors courses be so dang easy?

I have always appreciated challenge, and I have always been the kind of student to rise to the occasion if expected to, or, to lower my standards when expectations of me were low.  I believe most students--most humans--are like this.  I think Honors-level work should be something that only Honors-level brains can do.  Any idiot can throw together a project, even by hiring someone for help--so does that mean they deserve the title of an Honors student?  Should "Honor" represent work load more than a problem-solving ability or knowledge base?

Two years ago I founded the Honors program at my current school by using one Biology student as my pilot.  She had separate projects, quizzes, exams, and assignments than the rest of the class and hers were self-paced due to our lack of resources and scheduling concerns.  She suffered through the entire curriculum and in addition to that, had to practice for a SAT II Biology Subject test as well as answer some AP-level questions.  I felt very proud of where our program was going.  We were really setting a new level of achievement for Saudi Arabian all-girl schools, and I felt blessed to be able to map out this pathway for our school.  She is now applying to Stanford as a senior, intending on double-majoring in some form of biochemical engineering and pre-law.

Last year, however, a new supervisor was hired and she subsequently introduced the practice of a nine-week project that would suffice for the earning of a one-year "Honors" title added to student transcripts, including a boosted GPA.  Suddenly, dozens of our students were able to achieve the same transcript designation as my Biology student obtained after spending over fifteen hours per week extra throughout the school year.  

I didn't feel like this was fair, but I gracefully played by the rules, creating my own project.  Out of twenty general chemistry students, five succeeded to the end of the project, and we ended things with a beautiful judges' panel and them presenting their projects.

Judges Panel for Honors Chemistry Defense in Riyadh, KSA ~ Spring 2013

Judges Panel for Honors Chemistry Defense in Riyadh, KSA ~ Spring 2013

The girls had to use their general chemistry knowledge (most of them chose to use knowledge of mixtures and colloids) in order to create natural beauty products.  They then had to apply the scientific methodology and research their market.  Finally, they had to sell both their product and the science behind their product to our judges' panel--which consisted of several other teachers, my supervisor, and myself.  

We had a total blast, but something inside of me still didn't feel comfortable.  Regardless of how proud I am and continue to be of my students, I still believe that an Honors course designation should include, well, an entire course.  Also, in order to prove our school's worthiness, I feel that any honors coursework should be tracked via a standardized exam, such as a SAT Subject Test, in order to demonstrate the high caliber of the information received in comparison to students and schools around the world.

This year, I had the opportunity to fill-in for our new Head before she arrived, after the former Supervisor returned to America.  I chose to revive the original Honors program that I began three years ago.  I volunteered ten-plus hours per week after school with my Honors Biology and Chemistry students.  Only three of them scored significantly high enough on their midterm exams to actually sit for a SAT Subject Test, which proved to me that my gut feeling about needing standardized assessments was important for our school, and any school, in Saudi Arabia.  If only three out of twenty A or B level students are capable of passing a SAT II exam, what does that mean about the curriculum standards set within our program?

After my teaching load increased in the second term of this year, I was forced to cancel the program in order to focus on the new class I adopted from a coworker who was busy with her newborn baby at home.  Other teachers are suggesting that we now implement the idea of projects again this year, but I am preparing to fight to the death on this issue.  I feel very firmly that Saudi Arabian education should highlight the best of the global world, academically speaking, not the loopholes available in the west to grant recognition to all. 

Dena AtassiComment