Developing talent together in an honours community

Pierre van Eijl, Albert Pilot (Utrecht University, The Netherlands) and Stan van Ginkel (HU Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, The Netherlands). Contact: Pierre van Eijl (

Development of talent

Figure 1: A variety of students in an honours community

Key points of honours communities

  • Students in honours programmes often form networks of contact: honours communities a form of learning community.
  • The participants in such an honours community experience a ‘sense of community’ that binds them together.
  • Honours communities consists of students, but also teachers and external partners can participate.
  • Honours communities, but also other networks of contacts, are important for talent development.
  • Contact can be face-to-face as well as online.
  • Activities can be educational but also informal (networking, social)
  • New initiatives and cooperating with others in an honours community on challenging tasks, are important for talent development.

Research has shown that honours programs often provide active networks of students (figure 1) that contribute to the development of the students’ talents (Van Eijl, Wolfensberger Schreve-Brinkman & Pilot 2008; De Boer & Van Eijl, 2010). These contact networks are described as “honours communities” (Van Ginkel, Van Eijl, Pilot & Zubizarreta, 2012) a specific form of “learning communities” (Wilson et al., 2004). This refers to step 5 (Developing talent together) of the ‘Circle of Talent Development’ (Van Eijl & Pilot, 2016). This circle is presented in figure 2. In step 4 students are meeting challenges, but in working on these challenges with other students they start interacting with each other and form interaction networks. This can develop into an honours community (step 5). Coaching (step 6) can stimulate this process.


Figure 2: Circle of Talent Development

Honours communities foster productive interaction among students, teachers, and other professionals during their affiliation with the honours programme and beyond. This is illustrated by an experience of an honours student with his ‘personal’ honours community:

"I worked within a team on an assignment for a business organisation. I consider that team as my personal honours community. The way of working and the working atmosphere within the honours programme are a world of difference compared with the regular programme. I often feel that within my study groups in the regular programme several teammates only focus on getting their diploma. In a team with honours students I felt that this was surpassed and that everyone participated because of their intrinsic motivation. Honours students just do that little bit extra to get an excellent result, for example by agreeing to meet at an evening off on Skype and get the project going." (in: Van Eijl & Pilot, 2016, p. 67).

As a result of interactions in an honours community, students discover new learning opportunities and gain experience in organizational and leadership skills. In honours programmes, in particular, these contacts are an essential component of what characterizes honours activities as special enhancements of a student’s overall educational experience (van Eijl, Wolfensberger & Pilot, 2010).

Theoretical Background
Our focus on communities in education is supported by constructivist learning theories, which assume that learners construct knowledge in an active manner within an authentic context (Brown & Campione, 1994). Socio-constructivist learning theories further suggest that learning is more effective when it occurs in a social context (Wenger, 1998) rather than as an individual, isolated activity that usually occurs inside or outside a classroom. The learning theory of situated cognition (Greeno, 1998) states that learning is embedded in social interactions among people in a specific situation and has a positive effect on personal development. For example, when newcomers join an established community, they develop critical knowledge and practical skills by observing and performing tasks in that community while learning how the group works, thus in time becoming full participants.

McMillan and Chavis (1986) describe that a community in general gives “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together”. Cross (1998) defines learning communities more specifically as "groups of people engaged in intellectual interaction for the purpose of learning". Cross combines the concept of learning communities with the design of a curriculum and describes the structuring of the programme and the frequency of contacts between students as important factors.

Wilson, Ludwig-Hardman, Thornam and Dunlap (2004) also stress the connection with the curriculum by introducing the concept of a “bounded learning community.” According to these researchers, a learning community is bounded by a particular course, project or curriculum. Participating students collaborate with other students and a teacher, working together within a fixed timetable and with an explicit requirement to seek contact with others by communicating and working both face-to-face (F2F) and online; the teacher plays a crucial role in facilitating the creation of such a learning community. Encouraging mutual contacts through planning joint meetings and peer feedback sessions (Van den Berg, Admiraal & Pilot, 2006) and working in teams are examples of this facilitation. A lecturer in an honours programme said for example about community education (Van Eijl et al. 2016, p. 75): ‘In the beginning of the Honours Programme Health Care we did not know the term community development. Over time, I noticed that community formation was very important. We started the programme with a two-day introduction camp. Prior to that, the students had done an open assignment: organize a "Beautiful Day" for people in a difficult situation. During the introduction camp they presented their results. This was all part of the start of the first course in the honours program. The group formation in the camp was very much appreciated. They met there like-minded students, they went there through the same experience. They missed that in the regular program. They said: “In the honours community you can have crazy ideas, but you are taken seriously and feel understood.’

Besides factors such as “shared goals of the community” and “safe and supporting conditions,” teachers are a critical component of learning communities (Sherin, Mendez & Louis, 2004; Shulman & Sherin, 2004); their task is to provide the infrastructure for work and interaction, inspire students, model effective collaboration, monitor and assess learning, provide feedback, troubleshoot and resolve problems, and establish trusting relationships with students (Wilson et al., 2004). The teacher has also to take into account the variety of students in an honours community. Each student is different but they share being intrinsically motivated.

Structure of a learning community
Within a learning community, not every member is equally active, this creates layers of participation: the core group, active members and passive members (Hanraets, Potters & Jansen, 2006).

learning community

Figure 3: A learning community with a core group, active members and passive members

Students can be grouped in classes during a longer period in the curriculum, informal dyads, project groups, teams in a laboratory course, an online course group and many other ways. This grouping of students is important for the interaction between students during a longer period and the formation of a learning community. But grouping of a community in smaller groups can split up community life which had to be restored if the work of these smaller groups had to be integrated. In a course students can work in project groups, and have activities together with other project groups within a course. In a Physics Research Course for example, students worked in self-chosen teams to do a small research project they thought up themselves. When the project plan of their team was accepted, they split up and worked also in subgroups in their project team. The subgroups of 2 – 4 students worked rather effectively but integrating the results of the sub groups turned out to be a challenge for the students. It marked a dynamic stage in this community when subgroups with their ‘mini community life’ and different tasks, had to become again one community with the other subgroups. (Westerveld, Van Hoof, Huisman-Kleinherenbrink, Van der Stam, Wils, & Van Eijl, 2008).

Effects of a learning community
Learning communities can enhance learning outcomes (Lankveld & Volman, 2011); Tinto & Russo, 1994), increase the pace of study (Eggens, 2011), raise the level of reflection (Cross, 1998); Tinto, 1995), improve the attitude of students (Tinto & Russo, 1994), and strengthen emotional support among students (Lankveld & Volman, 2011). Furthermore, these learning communities can influence the extent to which students interact outside classrooms (Tinto & Russo, 1994), support a positive evaluation of the programme (Light, 1992), and create a “sense of community” (McMillan et al., 1986). This latter aspect is a challenge for many programme directors and teachers (Koh, Chaffee & Goodman, 2009), especially if the education programme is tailored to high-achieving, motivated, and talented students.

Education —particularly those in honours programmes— should take place in an atmosphere of excellence in order to empower the students (Van der Valk, Grunefeld & Pilot, 2010). In the Physics Research Course (Westerveld et al. 2008) students report to have learned a lot about doing research, formulating a problem themselves, working as a team, communicating in written and oral form and dealing with setbacks. The perception of the learning outcomes by their teachers agreed well with those of the students. They managed to work productively together. They considered a team of four students optimal. The students indicated however that the next time they would better document their discussions and would try to arrive at clear appointments and deadlines.The atmosphere or culture of excellence is frequently mentioned as an important characteristic of an honours programme (Tiesinga, 2014; Ford, 2008; Mariz, 2008; Slavin, 2008; Van Eijl, Pilot & Wolfensberger, 2010).

Functions of Honours Communities
Learning communities within an honours programme, so called, honours communities, fulfill three main functions: (1) they encourage learning and development; (2) they enhance social and emotional well-being; and (3) they stimulate the organization of activities at the university. Based on interviews with American and Dutch honours teachers and students (Van Ginkel, Van Eijl, Pilot & Zubizarreta, 2012), cognitive development and personal growth were identified as two key functions of an honours community. Four honours programmes are in the following text explicitly mentioned as examples involved in this research: the Interdisciplinary Honours Programme of Leiden University of Applied Sciences, The Honours Law College (ULC) of Utrecht University, the Honours Programme (Top class)Healthcare of Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, The Game Design programme (PSAU) of the HKU University of the Arts Utrecht, The Honours Programme Biology, Utrecht University. Depending on the mission of the program, cognitive development might occur through a focus on various academic and communication skills. For example the Honours Law College focuses on developing organizational and debating skills while an interdisciplinary (honours) programme in Game Design champions the development of more professional, practical, and research skills. In the Honours Programme Biology, the development of writing skills was an important goal (Van Ginkel et al., 2012).

The second important function within the community is the development of social and emotional values (Van Ginkel et al. 2012, p. 206). All the honours communities in these case studies strongly encouraged students to help each other or to stimulate networking with professionals and teamwork to fulfill real-world assignments. In the case of the Honours Law College, the formation of a student association strongly promoted the function of socialization.

Multidisciplinary teams
A special way of community development takes place in multidisciplinary teams. Here differences between disciplines have to be bridged and it is essential to find a joint way to work on a wicked problem. In an Innovation Laboratory (I-lab) of the honours programme of the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences (Lappia, Weerheijm, Pilot & Van Eijl, 2014), students work with multidisciplinary project teams to address complex, wicked, authentic problems in the region. Issues that cannot be routinely resolved. Some examples of these open projects are: "What about the future of the district Heijplaat in Rotterdam? (Heijplaat is an old quarter of town that had to be renovated)”, “contribute to a treatment programme within a health care organization”, "Energy consumption in older houses" and "Problems in communication between authorities and organisations for crisis management in the coverage of flooding and communication with citizens. "

A study of these I-lab programmes (Lappia, et al. 2014) suggests that the challenge for the students was not only the problem as such but also the functioning of the multidisciplinary team. The way the problem was handled determines whether a project leads to a relevant solution. An honours student who worked in the I-Labs, describes that a systematic approach was effective, ‘First we analysed what the problem was, where this problem came from and how big it was. When we agreed about this we could identify sub problems and focus on them. After we had finished our individual research we shared the results of each other's investigations. We were able to bring it all together after we had examined every detail. On this basis, we have developed a "solution", in this case a new product.’
But how successful were the students in these communities to bridge the differences between the disciplines and jointly arrive at meaningful results? Trust and communication are two key words for them: "We trusted everyone's knowledge of his own field and gave everyone the same amount of input in the project," said an honours student. It turned out important for the students to know each other very well in the team: "In the I-lab it was very helpful that we started to get to know each other.” In another team it was good to discuss first what skills and expertise the various disciplines could offer. Interestingly, the students indicate that the multidisciplinary work has had for them special benefits, such as the experience to work together, even when coming from the various disciplines ". The different insights and expertise that come together were amazing" and "There was tremendous value in working with other disciplines, because you learn from those disciplines. This has two distinct advantages, first you learn to understand the other students, making the communication interface for subjects easier. Second you learn how the other discipline works and to customize your own work so that the transfer goes with minimal bumps. In my opinion both properties are essential in the professional field.”

Seven Strategies for Implementing Honours Communities
In the study earlier mentioned (Van Ginkel et al., 2012), seven strategies were identified for the development and maintenance of communities within honours programmes. In another article on this website they will be presented.

This article has illustrated the characteristics, structure and functions of honours communities in higher education. Honours communities are considered as a specific form of learning community, related to honours programmes. Honours communities vary in structure, duration, and programme scope, but they share a culture of excellence and passion for challenge. The intensity of interaction, group identity and content are nevertheless different for each community.

Research and experiences of many honours teachers in the field of honours education underscore that honours communities enhance learning and interaction. Furthermore, they fulfill multiple social and emotional functions for the participating students, encouraging them to support each other and undertake new initiatives while providing a platform for discussion and collaboration on both academic and social fronts.

Learning communities in honours and regular programmes?
Can the key characteristics of honours communities also be found in communities of students in regular programmes? What makes a learning community of students in honours different or more powerful than communities formed elsewhere across our various institutions? Do honours students have a different propensity for developing strong communities focused on learning, because of their presumed higher levels of motivation and talent? Do they subscribe in more dedicated ways to a “culture of excellence” which we have shown is a special characteristic of a successful honours community? Can viable models of a learning community be sustained with appropriate modifications to enrich the educational, social, and personal experiences of commuter students? These and other questions deserve our attention as we continue to explore the value of honours communities worldwide.


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