Fostering Honors Communities among Commuter Students
Stan van Ginkel
Wageningen University, The Netherlands
Pierre van Eijl and Albert Pilot
Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Columbia College, U.S.
Ginkel, S. van, Eijl, P.J. van, Pilot, A., Zubizarreta, J. (2014). Fostering honors
communities among commuter students. In: Pursuit of excellence in a networked society.
M.V.C. Wolfensberger, L. Drayer, & Volker, J.J.M. (eds.). Münster/New York, Waxmann,
Research has shown that honors programs often involve networks of students that
contribute to the development of the students’ talents (Van Ginkel, et al., 2012). These
networks are also described as “learning communities” (Wilson, et al., 2004) and “honors
communities” (van Eijl, Pilot & Wolfensberger, 2008). Such communities foster
productive interaction among students, teachers, and other professionals during their
affiliation with the program. As a result of such connections, students discover new
learning opportunities and gain experience in organizational and leadership skills. In
honors programs, in particular, these contacts are an essential component of what
defines honors activities as special enhancements of a student’s overall educational
experience. Our study focuses on strategies for the development of honors communities.
We focus particularly on commuter students because they comprise the majority
of honors students in the Netherlands. One of the challenges for an honors director is to
create a vibrant honors community within this specific context. We make the assumption
that for commuter students a more careful and intentional implementation of an honors
community is necessary because most students leave campus when classes are finished
(Jacoby, 2000). And, as Kuh, Gonyea and Palmer (2001) found in their research,
commuter students are overall less engaged than students who live on campus. Extra
activities have to be organized and strategically timed to suit these students, and the
challenge is complicated by competition with numerous other events taking place in the
city. Our study analyzes five different honors communities of commuter students in order
to suggest some best practices for creating maximum benefits for students.
Our focus on communities in education is supported by constructivist learning theories,
which assume that learners by preference 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 as frequently occurs in a
classroom. The related learning theory of situated cognition (Greeno, 1998) states that if
learning is embedded in social interactions among people in a specific situation, then it
has a positive effect on personal development.
McMillan & Chavis (1986) describe that a community in general is characterized
by “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” (p.9). Cross (1998) defines learning communities more
specifically as "groups of people engaged in intellectual interaction for the purpose of
learning" (p.4). Cross combines the concept of learning communities with the design of a
curriculum and cites the structuring of the program and the frequency of contacts
between students as important factors.
Wilson et al. (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 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 online; the teacher plays a crucial role in facilitating the creation of such a
learning community. 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, model effective collaboration, monitor and assess
learning, provide feedback, troubleshoot and resolve problems, and establish trusting
relationships with students (Wilson et al., 2004).
Such 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 contact networks can influence the extent to which students interact
outside classrooms (Tinto & Russo, 1994), and create a “sense of community” (McMillan
& Chavis, 1986). This latter aspect is a challenge for many honors directors and teachers
(Koh, Chaffee & Goodman, 2009) because education tailored to high-achieving,
motivated, and talented students—particularly those in honors programs—should also
take place in a culture of excellence in order to empower students (van der Valk,
Grunefeld & Pilot, 2010). This culture of excellence is frequently mentioned as an
important characteristic of an honors program (Ford, 2008; Mariz, 2008; Slavin, 2008).
Previous research has shown that communities are essential to many honors
programs (De Boer & van Eijl, 2010), but we know little about the specific factors and
mechanisms for success. This new knowledge we aim for in this study is needed to
establish strategies for community development of commuter students in honors.
In this exploratory study, a mixed methods approach was used for data collection and
data analysis (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2007). Within this approach, qualitative and
quantitative methods are combined because the aim of this study requires a combination
of different types of data. To achieve a set of strategies for community building among
commuter students, we conducted a cross-case analysis in the Netherlands. From four
universities, the following five cases were selected: Utrecht Law College (ULC);
Professional School of Arts (PSAU); Top Class Healthcare; Honors Program in Biology;
and Interdisciplinary Honors Program. Our data collection was based on interviews,
questionnaires, and document analysis. Furthermore, we interviewed teachers and
students from different American honors programs to gain insight into (1) key
characteristics and additional qualities of honors communities, (2) their functions, and
(3) development strategies. The results of these interviews and insights were arranged to
present a basic set of strategies to develop honors communities. This framework was
used to conduct an interpretative analysis of the five Dutch case studies with a member
check for confirmation and case details.
Seven Strategies for Implementing Communities
From our study, seven strategies can be distinguished for the development and
maintenance of communities within the special population of commuter students in
honors programs. Both teachers and students can use these strategies; the teachers are
often in the best position to initiate them even though the ultimate goal is that students
own their community and take initiatives themselves. The seven strategies are listed in
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
4 Creating an intense period of interaction to deepen and enhance bonding
5 Organizing a series of interactive activities during the program 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
Table 1: Strategies to stimulate honors communities for commuter students in honors
First, the matching of students is important because students need to be informed
beforehand about the content and intentions of the program. The selection procedure
should focus on the extent to which students would like to work actively with other
students or interact with teachers and professionals. For example, at the ULC the
following criterion played an important role: “students need to contribute to the program,
instead of only following the program”. At the start of the program, arranging the
students into 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. At PSAU, for example, students
can design games for real clients only by combining their expertise as game designers,
graphic designers, and programmers.
Second, the programming of challenging teamwork activities that are student-
focal events, as in the case of PSAU, can enhance collaboration among students.
Furthermore, the interaction among students and between students and faculty can be
improved by facilitating a physical project space, providing a budget, and supporting the
use of social media and communications platforms. Interdependence in producing an
actual product is another strategy that promotes teamwork among students, as
demonstrated in the Honors Program in Biology where students write together a book,
and mutual interaction can be 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 PSAU showed us that not every student is equally active in a
community and that this pattern may change during the year.
Third, facilitating student initiatives that fit into the aims of the honors program
and its culture can be a powerful way to strengthen student ownership of an honors
community, as demonstrated in the cases of ULC and Top Class Healthcare. The staff can
encourage such initiatives through contacts with industry, project budgets, or appropriate
facilities (including physical spaces) for the honors students.
Fourth, implementing an intense period of interaction in the initial phase of a
program is important for creating a sense of community. Some programs start with a
workshop or an orientation weekend, as in Top Class Healthcare with its course on
leadership skills. The Interdisciplinary Honors Program in Leiden is another example
where interaction among students was noticeably strengthened after an international
seminar in Brussels.
Fifth, organizing a series of interactive activities with formal and informal
meetings during the program stimulates community building in honors programs. ULC
and PSAU also provide important stimuli to an active community life through fixed groups
in classes and regular meetings within the program during a long period. A site visitor to
an American honors program described this point as follows: “shared experiences are the
key issue.” Ideally, a strong sense of community leads to continued mutual contacts after
the termination of the program, as in the PSAU program where students continue
meeting with each other on a monthly basis.
Sixth, the performance of the teacher as a role model is indispensable. In honors
programs, contacts between students and teachers are extremely important. A site
visitor highlighted the following: “the interchange between faculty and students is one of
the hallmarks of honors.” 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 program, 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 mainly as a catalyst to
promote and coach the community. An American honors student described this
dimension of a faculty member’s role in helping to build community: "The faculty should
help to shape the ideas, but not originate the ideas.”
Seventh, community activities can be considered as part of the honors diploma.
Some programs use honors portfolios and meetings with tutors or coaches to review the
involvement of individual students in the program and in community activities.
Finally, these strategies to build a vibrant community should be more than
separate interventions; the combination of these strategies produces a well-functioning
Concluding Remarks and Future Research
Our research and the literature underscore that honors communities enhance learning
and interaction. Furthermore, they fulfil multiple social and emotional functions for
participants, encouraging them to support each other and undertake initiatives while
providing a platform for collaboration on academic and social fronts.. Depending on the
stage of the community’s development, three main factors improve honors education for
a given group of students: the honors program itself, the staff, and the resources. Our
study suggests seven strategies for developing an honors community among commuter
students. Empirical research is needed to determine conclusively if these strategies
provide the intended results.
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The authors may be contacted at email@example.com