When You Have Honors Students in the Classroom

Because we are so short of faculty, I have a section of 30 honors students in my lecture class along with the 500 regular students. Although the 30 also have a recitation with some additional assignments, five-sixths of their grade is based on the same tests, quizzes, and short essay as the other students.

What grading scheme for each group would maintain equity while creating incentives for each group to put forth the maximum effort (a question in mechanism design)?

The honors kids are on average better students than the regular students, but there is a substantial overlap. I decided to make up the grade scale on each test based solely on the regular students’ performance; I then assign the honors grades based on how the honors students would have done if they were in the regular section. This way, the scale for the regular students isn’t raised by the honors students’ performance. The regular students don’t get discouraged and they exert the desired effort; and the honors students aren’t penalized by being compared only to each other (and thus are not penalized for having enrolled in that section). This might reduce incentives for the lazier honors students to exert the maximum effort, but I couldn’t think of a better scheme that solves all the problems I foresaw.


Why not grade the regular students relative to themselves and the honor students relative to the honor students? I guess you'd argue that a relatively poor honor student would have a low grade while in reality they are about the same as an average regular student who would get an average grade, but they would also have the benefit of being listed in an honors class.
Alternatively, you could note that you have 30 honors students compared to 500 regular students; averaging the honors students in with the regular students doesn't move the average more than a couple points for any test with reasonable performance (a test where 500 students get 80% and 30 get 100% still has an average of 81%). You wouldn't hurt anyone to average in the honors students.


I suppose grading on a scale is a foregone conclusion, then? I don't recall having college courses that graded on a scale. Then again, virtually all my classes were in the grade-inflated humanities and were relatively small (got away with few big lectures), so what do I know?

Wes Y

As a recent engineering graduate, I'm intimately familiar with the issues regarding grading on a scale. If the honors kids want the halo effect of having honors courses on their transcript, they should be graded like they took an honors course, against other honors students. If a high-achieving student wants to take a regular class (I did many times) it shouldn't show up as 'honors' simply because they take a variety of other, more difficult, courses. Extra assignments on the same material don't make a class 'honors', just more time consuming - that would require faster material progression, more in depth discussions, and insightful assignments that require a more complete understanding of the subject at hand.


I wouldn't scale the grades, it is such a silly notion to me personally. Just give every student the percentage grade they scored and leave it at that, if the test was far too difficult, you can give free points and/or lower the number that the test it out of. This treats everyone fairly and doesn't make the flawed assumption that the average grade for the cohort is (or should be) the same as the average grade for any other cohort.


I teach graduate medical classes. We always have some "already MDs" who are taking the classes to get their MS or MPH. We also have employees who are taking classes to try to get their MS. Finally, we have MD-PHD students and PHD students.

I grade them all on the same "high curve" (high because nobody gets a C or D unless they are really low outliers. These are grad students and already selected for top academics). But I lump everyone together in the grading because the point of the class is to get them to know and understand the information presented in the class.

So I'm confused by your post. It's hard to believe that the main point of your classes is to "encourage" the students. Don't you teach any actual things that the students need to know? And if so, why can't you grade them on whether they either know it or they don't?

Otherwise, it seems to me your grading approach should indicate that the students were actually taking different classes with different expectations for credit.



Extra credit that's optional for regular that are mandatory for honor student, in both test and project

And in instead of those "choose 2 out of 5" question, honor student would need to do all 5


How about having the regular students choose between regular grading and honors grading, where honors grading automatically rewards an extra point or two, but they must also compete against the 30 honors kids.


First of all, how does one fairly grade 530 essays?

Second, if one presumes that the honors students can somewhat glide through the regular coursework, I think basing five-sixths of their grade on the regular coursework is reasonable, but the last sixth should include a rigorous assessment of both their performance in the recitation and a quality washing/waxing of the professor's automobile.

Tom Church

What about grading normal students relative to one another, and grading the honors students relative to both regular + honors students?

The honors students would have to do a little better than regular students to achieve the same grade, but they would have not to compete solely with one another.


As an honors student at the University of Mississippi, I would be sorely disappointed if my honors section was forced to attend the same lecture as the regular section of the class. For me, at least, the primary benefit of honors classes is the increased interaction between students and professors facilitated by the smaller class. Your university and honors program should be ashamed for putting you in this position.

As for grading, would it be possible to integrate more material from the lecture section into the honors' students recitations section and place more weight on that section? Increased focus on the recitation section would better the honors experience for the students while providing them with an increased incentive to perform at a higher standard.


Grade everyone on an absolute scale, then inflate the honors students' grades by 20%. An honors student who receives a score of 80% on a test gets a grade of 96. A non-honors student receives an 80. Work done by honors students that is not done by regular students requires no multiplier.

20% is an example - another number may be more appropriate. I picked it as it seems the honors students have 20% more work to do for the same class.


I always wondered just how much more was taught in honors classes. I was a perpetual C+ student. I worked hard to get that grade in tough classes and slacked off to get that grade in easy classes. There is no doubt in my mind that I would still have been a C+ student if I had taken honors classes.


As a former honor student, I think you have the right of it. And Grant, maybe it's the era? I'm 33 and I remember almost all classes being graded on a "curve" or "scale."

Inflated of course. I was a lazy jerk, but I abused the curve with my intelligence to obtain higher grades than I deserved.


As a chemical engineering graduate student, this situation seems similar to when both undergraduate and graduate students are taking the same class. When graduate students take an undergraduate level class, they are graded as the undergraduates, but the course number on their transcript is also that of the undergraduate level. However, often times the same class can be given both an undergraduate and graduate catalog number. From my experience, it is similar to your post in that most of the work is the same but the graduate (or honors, in your case) students will have to do extra more challenging HW problems, write a term paper, give presenations, etc. Often, the undergrads can do that work for extra credit. In any case, it has always been my experience that the undergrads are graded on a curve with themselves and the graduate students are graded on a curve with only themselves. Generally, if the graduate students were graded with the undergrads they would all get A's without issue and few or no undergrads would get the highest marks since the grads would occupy that part of the curve. My classes have been much smaller than the one in the post, but I see no reason to not grade the honors students only against each other. After all, they are supposed to be the smarter ones and just like for graduate students, so long as everyone does well, the curve (if necessary) can be centered around a higher point than what you might typically use.



Why don't you just develop some standards. Measure student performance to the standard and give them a corresponding grade. Oh yea, you crazy college professors can't figure out why students actually need to know. (I'm speaking from the experience of having a 17% as the high average that turned into an A and 13% being the C in one of my college classes) Nobody knew anything when the left that class. They didn't even know why they got what was correct, correct. What a total waste of time and effort.

Pick a standard. Grade off it. If everyone masters the material, well, good job on a successful job teaching it.


Oh, so the honors students actually are getting more credit for the same course or something like that.

I still wonder whether it's "fair" to the students to put the honors students in the same class as the others.

Aren't your lectures the same for both sets of students? & aren't your lectures the main "value-added" that the university uses to justify charging students so much per credit? (because the number of credits for each class is linked to the amount of lecture time for each class?)

If I was a parent paying for those "honors" students' credits, I'd be annoyed that the university offered only "regular" lectures and not a separate honors class at all. Don't know how they can justify this.


Everyone should be graded on the same level, honors student or no. And, perhaps more importantly, you should have the same expectations for all of your students (and these expectations should be high). Designating 'honors student' from 'regular student' somehow seems like you're labeling 'the kids who can achieve great things' and 'the kids who can't.' That notion gives an excuse for the majority of the student to 'be dumber,' or to need to put forth less effort.

Bottom Line: You are a college professor. Your subject matter is important to you, and by the end of your course, every student should be expected to learn A, B, C about your subject (and these concepts are the things that you, the expert, have deemed important and meaningful to master). The expectations and level of mastery you deem deserve an 'A' grade should be very high. 'A' does not mean 'they tried their best,' or 'they did an average' amount of effort. A means the student, honors or no, excelled to a level that met every expectation to its fullest capacity.

Challenge them.

Perhaps there will be a correlation between how many honors students meet this challenge compared to the number of 'regular' students who meet it, but perhaps not. You may be surprised.

The 'incentive to perform well' in this case, comes from personal desire to achieve, and hopefully, if you've done your job right, a love of the subject matter. The system you've come up with does too much to coddle the 'regular student.' Even the brightest 'regular' student, will only reach as high as you set the bar. By preventing them from being compared to the honors kids, you are sheltering them from a necessary reality; some people are brighter and/or work harder than you.

Some students are motivated by seeing what they could be, while others are discourage because they think that's what they CAN'T be. As an educator, you need to motivate and inspire the latter attitude out of your classroom.

I hope this comment has been helpful. Best of luck in a classroom with so many students... personally, I think meaningful learning is nearly impossible in that kind of setting.


Jason S

The key here lies in the final 1/6th of the grade. Based on your average 10 point college grading scale (I have been in schools that used this and ones that used much smaller scales as well) if they ace everything the normal class does they can only make a B-, because the final assignment is worth almost 17% of their grade. So you put your emphasis on what makes it an honors course in that one assignment and they have to earn that A whereas they would have skated by in a normal course for the A.
I think your main goal here is not hurting the other students based on grades you know will skew the data. By assuming they would be upper outliers you are just doing what you think is fair the students and that is a tough decision.
Or you could always throw an extra question that is extra credit for the normal kids and required for the honors on each test as was mentioned above.
And a comment to #3:
if you are done being full of yourself you would know that not all classes lend themselves to separated honors classes. Especially principle classes where the goal is laying a foundation so that you can have all those deep discussions later. Most schools I know follow this method of including both groups because of this and with the number of professors decreasing as well sometimes there is no choice but for them to do this.



I would grade based upon the union of the two sets. You don't want to penalize the GPAs of the honors students.

But I would also give the honors students a ranking from 1 to 30 so they know how they stood relative to the other honors students. They can decide for themselves if they want to expend the extra effort to stand out in the smaller set.


I don't think a student should be given "honors" for just taking the same class as everyone else. It's not at all like being in an actual honors class if they just have to ace the test or do another writing assignment. The lectures, the textbook, the in-class discussion are all different in true honors classes vs regular classes.

If the schools want to offer more classes, why can't they hire more professors to teach them? It can't be that expensive--usually they only hire cheap adjuncts anyway.