Guidelines for Leading Effective Honors Seminars

Click HERE to view a sample seminar proposal form.

Why do students take Honors Seminars? Honors students must complete a given number of seminars as part of their program of study. Factors such as when a seminar is offered can influence enrollment, but generally students sign up because they are interested. Seminars are typically rated highly by Honors students because they give students a high degree of responsibility for their learning. The small-group setting (the enrollment limit is 17) and opportunities for discussion lead to some of the best students and educators at Iowa State University actively engaging in novel, stimulating and meaningful intellectual exchanges.

What kinds of topics are covered in seminars? Seminars are as varied as the interests and knowledge of those teaching them. Seminars can be thematic, topical, or creative; they can be as practical as financial literacy and as playful as Harry Potter. Some seminars can be geared toward specific audiences, for example science-related seminars for students who are not science majors, or computer science students who want to learn about cutting-edge developments in the field. Each term, the program seeks a balance of seminars on science, social science, humanities, and personal development.

What’s the expected learning atmosphere? The atmosphere is generally informal. Students may need help getting acquainted at the beginning of the semester. Although they are all in the Honors Program, students may come from all years and all colleges and may not know one another. Many instructors use name cards to help everyone remember names at once- or twice-weekly meetings. This technique helps students feel comfortable about participating.

Am I expected to lecture? Honors students prefer guided discussion over a lecture format. Even so, many will have had little experience in discussion-based classes and need encouragement to participate. As the instructor, invite participation by asking questions with multiple answers (e.g., What impressed you most about the reading?). Some students may need you to draw them into discussion, while others may need to be moderated occasionally. However, students themselves often do an effective job of regulating those who monopolize discussion. When lectures or mini-lectures are used, especially by outside experts, remember to allow time for questions and follow-up discussion, and for informal conversation between students and guests.

How much work should I expect from students? For one credit, students generally expect to read a number of articles, or perhaps a book, and to make 1-2 class presentations, or one presentation and several short reflective papers. Two credits imply more outside work. Several brief, informal responses are preferable to a single formal paper, and brief presentations by an individual or group are more effective for learning than a written paper that is simply turned in.

Are there effective practices for seminar meetings? Have a takeoff point for each meeting's discussion: a common reading, brief report by a student, or mini-lecture from you or a guest. Take a few minutes to summarize the discussion at the end of each meeting. While the Honors Program conducts student evaluations at the end of the semester, you may find it helpful to do informal, formative evaluations as well.

Where are Honors Seminars taught? Informal settings, such as rooms with movable chairs and tables or departmental seminar rooms are optimal. The Jischke Honors Building holds three classrooms which are often available in the evenings and during spring semester. All classrooms have multimedia available.

When should I schedule my seminar? There are many possible formats. While most seminars meet for a one-to-two-hour block each week, some are offered on a more intensive basis for shorter periods (e.g., a half-semester). You may also propose other variations, such as the use of reading periods during which the group does not meet.

What is the attendance policy? Since seminars typically meet once a week, missing a class seriously affects the student's understanding of the seminar topic. Most seminars limit absences to one or two per semester. If a student is missing, please inform the Honors office, as it may be possible to add someone from a waiting list.

How should I duplicate materials for distribution to students? The Honors Program has limited copying funds for seminars. If possible, please use Canvas or other methods to distribute material electronically. However, if you do have a need to duplicate materials physically, please contact the Honors Office for help.


Honors Program staff would be pleased to direct you to former instructors who have led successful Honors Seminars and are willing to discuss seminar techniques with you. Please direct questions and comments to Laurie Smith Law ( or call 294-4371).