Seven Strategies for Implementing Honours Communities

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

This is an article by landing page “Talent development of students“ and the article “Developing talent together in an honours community” on this website. Contact: Pierre van Eijl (

Building an honours community

                                                  Figure 1: Building an honours community

Seven strategies for implementing an honours community

  1. Match students for the honours programme based on willingness and capabilities to cooperate
  2. Shared experiences are the key issue in honours communities.
  3. Facilitate student initiatives can be a powerful way to strengthen student ownership of an honours community.
  4. Create of an intense period of interaction to deepen and enhance bonding within an honours community.
  5. Organize a series of interactive activities during the whole programme to stimulate community.
  6. Highlight the performance of a teacher/coach as a role model.
  7. Involve community activities in feedback procedures and student evaluations.


The seven strategies refer to the Circle of Talent Development
Strategies for implementing an honours community refer to step 5 of the “Circle of Talent Development“ (Van Eijl & Pilot, 2016). This circle is 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.

Circle of Talent Development

                      Figure 2: Circle of Talent Development (source picture: Van Eijl & Pilot, 2016)

Honours communities foster productive interaction among students, teachers, and other professionals during their affiliation with the honours programme and beyond. In this article seven strategies are described to implement an honours community.

Stages for the development of a community
The structure and dynamics of learning communities vary, depending on the characteristics of the persons (students, professionals, teachers) involved, the programme and the context.

Wenger (1998) distinguishes five phases in the life cycle of a "community of practice" of professionals: potential, coalescing, active, dispersed and memorable. These are the (1. potential) phase in which people need knowledge sharing, (2. coalescing) the phase in which people find each other and discover the possibilities of knowledge sharing, (3. active) the phase in which the community is active, (4. dispersed) the phase in which the intensity becomes lower but the community is still a center of knowledge, and (5. memorable) a final phase in which participants still remember the community's interest in their development, but the community as such has ceased to function.
Tuckman (1965) developed a sequence of phases based on the development of collaboration in groups: “forming', “storming”, “norming”, “performing' and 'adjourning'. For the success of a community, many factors are mentioned in this regard, for example: "Does the participation in a community give participants something?" And "Is the group adequately heterogeneously assembled?"

Ludwig-Hardman (In: Wilson, Ludwig-Hardman, Thornam and Dunlap, 2004) observed that bounded learning communities have a developmental life cycle. With bounded learning communities they mean a community of students within the boundaries of a course or a programme. Three stages were identified in this life cycle initiation, participation, and closure. They explain these stages as follows. In (1) the initiation phase, the development of safe and supportive conditions is central as well as the formation of an identity of the community. During (2) the participation phase, the focus is on shared goals, cooperation and respectful integration. Then the student focuses on the constructive discourse, mutual benefit in support and knowledge development. In (3) the closing phase, the community identity is reviewed and reflected in the intensive activities of the participation phase. Students build up their knowledge in this final phase, consolidate their learning experience to better align themselves with expectations at the end of the course. If students are really involved in the learning community of a course, the completion phase can lead to further activities outside the course, with the students staying in touch with each other. While such a thing is not common with a learning community in a short-term course, one can promote this by creating the right conditions for long-term relationships.

Within such a community, not every member is equally active, and layers of participation can develop: the core group, active members and passive members (Hanraets, Potters & Jansen, 2006). Another characteristic of the community structure is the existence of significant networks (Roxå & Mårtensson, 2008) between some students that take place in both formal and informal situations. Students rely on a small number of significant others for conversations that are characterized by their privacy, by mutual trust and by their intellectual intrigue. Discussions in these “significant networks” provide a basis for conceptual development and learning.

Seven strategies for the implementation of a vibrant honours community
In a study of Van Ginkel, Van Eijl, Pilot and Zubizarreta (2012), seven strategies were identified for the implementation of a vibrant honours community. Both teachers and students can use these strategies; the teachers are often in the best position to initiate communities even though the ultimate goal is that students own their community and develop the initiative themselves further. As an honours student says (Van Eijl & Pilot, 2016, p.69 ): ‘The honours students themselves have to show initiative, for example, jointly go to a special lecture or set up a committee together and organize things.’ The seven strategies are listed in Table 1 and reflect the “life cycle of an honours community” for a group of students. The three stages mentioned earlier by Wilson et al. (2004) in the life cycle of a bounded community can be more or less distinguished. Strategy 1, 2, 3 and 4 refer to the initiation stage. Strategy 3, 4 (overlap with initiation!), 5 and 6 with the participation stage and 7 with the closure stage. The feedback of strategy 7 is also important in the participation stage.

Table 1 Seven strategies to implement honours communities

  1. Matching students based on willingness and capabilities to cooperate
  2. Programming challenging teamwork activities that are student-regulated
  3. Facilitating students’ initiatives without taking the lead as teachers
  4. Creating an intense period of interaction to deepen and enhance bonding
  5. Organizing a series of more interactive activities during the programme to stimulate the community
  6. Highlighting the performance of a teacher as a role model for development of talent and as a coach for community building
  7. Involving community activities in feedback procedures and student evaluations

Ad 1) Matching students based on willingness and capabilities to cooperate
The procedure for matching and selection should focus on the extent to which students would like to work actively with other students and interact with teachers and professionals. For example, at the Honours Law College at Utrecht University (Van Ginkel et al., 2012) the following criterion for selecting students played an important role: “students need to want to contribute to the programme, instead of passively follow the programme.” At the start of the programme, arranging the students into small groups is important. Depending on the type of assignment, teachers need to encourage interdependence among students by matching students’ complementary passions or disciplines in order to fulfill a particular goal. In the example of the previously mentioned Physics Research Course at Utrecht University (Westerveld et al., 2008) students could choose this course as an elective. It turned out that students liked to choose a research topic themselves and to form groups around these topics. The self-chosen topic gave them a common goal, a feeling of shared interest and a motivation to dive in the research on this topic.

Ad 2) Programming challenging teamwork activities that are student-regulated
The programming of challenging teamwork activities that are student-regulated focal events, as in the case of the Game Design Programme (Van Ginkel et al., 2012) and the Physics Research Course, did enhance strong collaboration among students. Furthermore, the interaction among students and between students and faculty mentors can be improved by facilitating a personal project space, by providing a budget, and by supporting the use of social media and communications platforms. Interdependence in producing an actual product is another strategy that promotes teamwork among students, as was demonstrated in the Honours Programme Biology (Van Ginkel et al., 2012) where a team of students write a book. Mutual interaction was further enhanced by the use of peer feedback. Interviews with American teachers and students showed that "common ground" is an important prerequisite for stimulating student interaction, but the study of the interaction patterns among students of the Game Design Programme showed us that not every student has to be equally active in a group and that this pattern may change during the year (Van Ginkel et al., 2012).

Ad 3) Facilitating students’ initiatives without taking the lead
Facilitating student initiatives that fit into the aims of the honours programme and its culture can be a powerful way to strengthen student ownership of an honours community, as demonstrated in the cases of the Honours Law College and the Honours Programme Healthcare (Van Ginkel et al., 2012). The staff can encourage such initiatives through contacts with researchers, industry, project budgets or appropriate facilities (including physical spaces) for the honours students. It is important in an honours culture that students feel free and confident to come up with new ideas, questions and initiatives. Interesting is a research project at Google (2016) about the effectiveness of their teams. After an analysis of the data of the functioning of 180 teams it turned out that psychological safety was the most important factor. It refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea. Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson (1999) of Harvard University first introduced the construct of  “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” In her TEDx talk (2014), Edmondson offers three simple things individuals can do to foster team psychological safety: (1) Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem;(2) acknowledge your own fallibility; (3) model curiosity and ask lots of questions. Psychological safeness and accountability are in her opinion both important for good results of a team.

Ad 4) Creating an intense period of interaction to deepen and enhance bonding
Implementing an intense period of interaction in the initial phase of a programme is important for creating a sense of community. Some programmes start with a workshop or an orientation weekend, as in the Honours Programme Healthcare with its course on leadership skills (Van Ginkel et al., 2012). The Interdisciplinary Honours Programme in Leiden University of Applied Sciences (Van Ginkel et al., 2012) is another example where interaction among students was strengthened after an international seminar in Brussels, Belgium. In both cases students are a couple of days together at a place outside their usual living place. The new environment and the mix of formal and informal activities creates multiple opportunities to get to know each other better. It turned out that these students got a connection together which created trust in each other.

Ad 5) Organizing a series of interactive activities during the programme to stimulate the community
Organizing a series of interactive activities with formal and informal meetings during the programme stimulates community building in honours programmes. A site visitor of American honours programmes (Van Ginkel et al., 2012) described this in a concise way: “shared experiences are the key issue.”


Shared experiences are the key

                              Figure 2: Shared experiences are the key (source picture: Pixabay)

In the Physics Research Course (Westerveld et al. 2008) a model for guided discovery learning was used where each team of students had meetings with the teachers at critical moments in their project. At the Law College, for example, the student association of this College organizes many activities for the honours students. The Law College and the Game Design Programme (Van Ginkel et al., 2012) also provide important stimuli for an active community life through fixed groups and regular meetings within the programme. Ideally, a strong sense of community leads to continued mutual contacts after the termination of the programme, as in the Game Design Programme where students continue meeting with each other on a monthly basis.

Ad 6) Highlighting the performance of a teacher as a role model for development of talent and as a coach for community building
The performance of the teacher as a role model is indispensable. In honours programmes, contacts between students and teachers are extremely important. A site visitor highlighted this as follows (Van Ginkel et al., 2012): “the interchange between faculty and students is one of the hallmarks of honours.” The teacher is expected to give individual attention to the learning process, provide students with the opportunity to pose questions and challenge students to find new paths. The teacher must involve students in decisions about the content of the programme, give students responsibility for specific tasks, emphasize cooperation instead of competition, stimulate presentations to a relevant public, and take initiative in providing feedback to community members. Thus, the teacher functions not only as a regulator but also as a catalyst to promote and coach the community. The teachers in the Physics Research Course report that the contact with their students became “discovering together how the research problem could be tackled”. They gave room for students to make mistakes. Evaluations showed that students learned a lot of the problems which occurred in their research and felt at the same time supported by their teachers. An American honours student described this dimension of a faculty member’s role in helping to build community as follows: "The faculty should help to shape the ideas, but not originate the ideas.”

Ad 7) Involving community activities in feedback procedures and student evaluations Community activities can be considered as part of the honours diploma. Some programmes use honours portfolios and meetings with tutors or coaches to review the involvement of individual students in the programme and in community activities. This is done by the Honours Law College at Utrecht University. These meetings take place both during the community activities and at the end of the programme. The first are more formative for the learning of the students, the latter more summative.

Ad 1) – 7) Combination of strategies
Finally, the strategies to build a vibrant honours community should be more than separate interventions; the combination of these strategies is what produces a well-functioning honours community. The first strategy typically refers to the start of an honours programme. But also during the honours programme this matching can be important when subgroups of students are formed for special tasks of projects. They too had to match with the task on hand and each other.

The other strategies can be used at different times during the period of honours activities. Often the teachers help to get started, to inform about possibilities and constraints and to provide coaching. Students can become growingly active in applying these strategies themselves to bring the honours community alive, take ownership of the community and get honours activities going.

This article describes seven strategies for developing and stimulating an honours community. These strategies are formulated on the basis of literature, interviews and experiences in a number of case studies and they are in line with a theoretical framework about the life cycle of a bounded community. The first strategy typically refers to the start of the life cycle and the last strategy to the completion of the programme involved, and the concluding evaluation of the students at the end. The second strategy “Programming challenging teamwork activities that are student-regulated”, the fourth strategy “Creating an intense period of interaction to deepen and enhance bonding” and the fifth strategy “Organizing a series of more interactive activities during the programme to stimulate the community” referring to the educational design of the programme to foster the learning of the students and to promote the functioning of the honours community at different moments in the life cycle. The third strategy “Facilitating students’ initiatives without taking the lead as teachers” and the sixth strategy “Highlighting the performance of a teacher as a role model for development of talent and as a coach for community building” refer more to the coaching of the students and the community all over the life cycle.

The seven strategies can be used by teachers and students as a framework to discuss ways of implementing an honours community. This discussion can reinforce strategies out of the past that turned out to be successful, but may also lead to new ideas.

Applying the strategies in a regular programme?
Often honours programmes are laboratories of educational innovation (Wolfensberger, Van Eijl & Pilot, 2012). But to what degree the ‘seven strategies for implementing an honours community’ can be applied in a regular programme? A problem with this is, that the first strategy “Matching students based on willingness and capabilities to cooperate” cannot be used in the way it is done in honours programmes with a group of more able and motivated students. So, probably adaptations are necessary to fit the group of regular students. If a course is not compulsory but an elective one, this strategy can be applied to some extent.

In case a teacher likes to apply strategy 2, “Programming challenging teamwork activities that are student-regulated”, these activities had to be challenging for the regular students. The student-regulated aspect had to be in accordance with their capabilities and ambitions. In a recent study students and teachers were asked about the opportunities to use honours activities in the regular programme. They proposed different kinds of adjustments: make it shorter, organize group projects around achievable assignments, give more workshops, use a stricter schedule, offer more guidance, provide credit points, , offer the course as an elective, and lower the course level somewhat (Eijl, Peeters, Moesker, Dillen, Pilot & Ginkel, 2017). Also, strategy 3, “Facilitating students’ initiatives without taking the lead as teachers”, is still valid for a regular programme. But enough teaching time and resources had to be available to respond adequately to students’ initiatives. However, implementation can be done in a modest way as in the case of a teacher that offered the students in a blended learning course (van Eijl, Pilot, & Voogd, 2005) the possibility to replace a course assignment with a self-chosen assignment which could be done with other students, but which had to be approved at forehand by the teacher.


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