Student discusses research findings with faculty.
Student discusses research findings with faculty. Photo by Mike Jenn/ The University of Iowa.

If you have ever wondered what constitutes “honors education,” you would not be alone. Even though framing courses specifically for high-achieving—“honors”—students began in the United States in the 1920s, the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) did not craft a formal definition until 2013. 

“Honors education has become a distinct field of study," says Art Spisak, Professor of Classics and Director of Honors at Iowa. "Methods of honors teaching and learning that have formerly been hit-or-miss are now becoming more conscious, refined, and effective.” 

The full definition states that Honors education is “measurably broader, deeper, or more complex than comparable learning experiences” in non-honors courses and frequently occurs in learning communities of students and faculty. This approach to teaching rests on the principle that honors courses are qualitatively rather than quantitatively distinct from non-honors courses, and that simply adding more reading or “extra-credit” problems does not an honors course or experience make.

“With that definition, came criteria by which to identify, assess, and improve what we offer our high ability students,” Spisak says.

Spisak played a role in developing the national NCHC definition, and is the vice president of that national professional organization.  During 2011-12 and with input from faculty, staff, students, and the Office of the Provost, the Honors Program staff under his direction also created a new, rigorous honors curriculum for academically talented students who are motivated to challenge themselves through intellectual growth and self-discovery.

For more information about Honors at Iowa, including general characteristics of honors courses and pedagogy, see the program web site or contact Art Spisak (