Ok, with very late notice, the faculty has introduced an Honours Program (very late as in after all planned courses should have been reported, so now we have to do it all again to include honours courses).
The lateness is actually not what I am going to rant about. It is the honours courses.
So, the idea with honours courses is (quoted from the link above):
The concept of Honours courses is introduced at the Faculty of Science, Aarhus University in order to provide its PhD and MSc students with the possibility of studying selected topics during the studies in depth and with special academic challenges.
The aims of introducing Honours courses at the faculty of Science are briefly
• to stimulate the academic curiosity of talented MSc students and hence to improve the quality and quantity of recruitment for its PhD programme
• to provide its PhD students with a larger variety of relevant advanced courses when composing their programmes of study.
Now, in theory, I think this is a great idea. After we changed our teaching terms from two 14 week terms to four 7 week terms we have had an explosion in “introductory courses” and lost the advanced courses since there is only so much you can introduce in seven weeks and since the courses are supposed to be modular so without too many dependencies.
Since we are still teaching in seven week terms, I’m not sure how much of a change calling some classes “honours courses” rather than just plain old courses is going to change this, though.
Anyway, having a category of classes somewhat more challenging is not a bad idea.
There are some practical issues, of course, such as finding the time to teach them. We are already teaching the topics we find interesting (and face it, any advanced class is going to be based on the teachers interest and not mandated by the studies committee as are the mandatory introductory classes).
It is cooler to teach an advanced class, so we can just start calling them that, of course, but that would be cheating. So to have honours classes, we really should start thinking about making new, more advanced classes, and that would mean a lot more teaching (of smaller classes, of course, since the number of students do not scale with the number of classes we give them to choose from).
Of course, the faculty has already thought about this problem, so they have this plan (emphasis mine):
Any MSc course at the Faculty of Science may be offered also in an honours version. Honours versions of MSc courses are accepted by the MSc Study Board as usual. The overall requirements are that the learning objectives of the two versions are clearly distinguishable, and that the implementations of the two versions clearly reflect this distinction (alignment).
The implementations of two versions of an MSC course may be more or less integrated, e.g. ranging from
• two separate implementations with independent teaching activities
• two implementations with a common set of teaching activities, but with identifiable elements of the honours version e.g. in terms of special assignments reflecting the difference in learning objectives.
Okay, so we can teach the same old classes and call them honours courses. We are not cheating, ’cause we have different learning objectives! (Which in practise means different levels in the SOLO taxonomy).
Yes yes, I know, I am not being completely fair here. It is not just that, they do specify that there should be clearly distinguishable differences between the honours and the Msc parts of the class.
Still, that is not exactly going to “provide its PhD students with a larger variety of relevant advanced courses when composing their programmes of study”, is it?
Even ignoring that, I must admit I doubt in the feasibility of this approach. Just piling extra material on some of the students here and there is not going to work, but that is what is most likely to happen. And most likely, it means an extra project or some extra tasks in projects.
To me, it doesn’t sound like this is going to do much to provide more stimulating classes. Working harder doesn’t mean you are having more fun. Yes, yes, it could, if you start teaching the honour students a bit more than the rest and give them some exciting challenges, but doing that without leaving the rest behind is not going to be easy.
I don’t know, I don’t think the honours courses are going to “stimulate the academic curiosity of talented MSc students and hence to improve the quality and quantity of recruitment for its PhD programme”. I fear it will just be the same old classes, but now with a new label.
A rose by any other name is still a bloody rose, though.
I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but the pessimist in me tells me not to hold my breath.
Oh yeah, and finally, the thing that prompted this whole rant — and without which I would just be shaking my head and ignoring the honours program — is an email I got specifying that one possible way to provide an honours course would be (translated from Danish; emphasis mine): “provide parallel or even identical teaching, but different learning objectives and possibly different curriculum and examination form”.
So I can teach exactly the same as the MSc class, even have exactly the same curriculum and exam, as long as I have different learning objectives.
When I wrote that I wasn’t being fair when complaining about this above, I was wrong. I was being fair.
So what does it matter that we have different learning objectives?
Well, the idea is that the way we grade at the exams should reflect the learning objectives, so having different learning objectives but teaching exactly the same can only mean that we are required to give different grades for the same performance.
What else can it mean?
Oh I do hope I am wrong in this interpretation or that I am misunderstanding something fundamental…
At least I cannot make that instruction fit with the official “with identifiable elements of the honours version” requirement.