What Makes Honors Classes More Than a Name?

Honors Classes

Many middle schools offer advanced, pre-AP, or honors classes in order to provide challenging learning experiences for students who demonstrate advanced readiness. Often, schools use strict criteria for students to get into these classes including test scores, grades, and teacher recommendations, but once students are placed in these classes, we see little differences in instructional approaches and curriculum compared to standard classes. Students in advanced classes might be assigned more homework, a different novel, a few additional “critical thinking” questions from the textbook, or a long-term project, but do these adjustments to the standard curriculum adequately challenge students?

Affirming from The Successful Middle School: This We Believe that every student is held to high expectations, all middle school students indeed need to engage in content deeply through problem-based learning, critical and creative thinking, and higher-order questioning, but what should differentiate advanced and honors classes from standard classes in ways that add sufficient challenge for students to continue to progress in their learning? In this article, I articulate criteria schools might consider to be essential in instructional planning of advanced or honors classes. Imagine these features on a continuum. Aligned with AMLE’s belief that all students need access to curriculum that is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant, it is important to acknowledge that a student’s zone of proximal development, where learning occurs with the presentation of something just beyond a student’s reach, varies student to student. This means rigor is relative to readiness. What’s challenging to one student is not to another. While the qualities of challenging curriculum presented below can be considered for all students, advanced classes should include these to a larger degree with more intensity to match the level of challenge needed for a student to stretch, grow, and be in a zone for true learning to occur (zone of proximal development). These qualities of challenging curriculum and instruction are presented as the acronym “HONORS” and are based on high-quality curriculum standards in gifted education (National Association for Gifted Children, 2021).

H- High Level Content with Higher Order Thinking

O- Opportunities to Think as Experts

N- Next Steps in Learning

O- Open-ended Inquiry

R- Real-world Applications

S- Sophisticated Products

High-level Content with Higher-Order Thinking
First, the content presented should indeed be advanced content. This means that materials, resources, and texts can be at a higher grade level or teachers may incorporate above-grade level standards in instruction.  Content can also be presented at an accelerated pace, where lessons are designed using a combination of multiple standards. The accelerated content should additionally be integrated with opportunities for students to engage in deep learning through critical and creative thinking.  Every lesson in every classroom, advanced or not, should include higher order thinking from Bloom’s levels of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis, but teachers of advanced classes may consider adding additional layers of critical thinking, complexity, and context to questions and tasks so that students are stretched into even deeper levels of application and transfer. Table 1 shows ways additional layers can be added to Bloom’s taxonomy.

Opportunities to Think as Experts
Advanced classes can focus on building experiences in which students engage with and think about the content as experts in the discipline do. For example, advanced language arts teachers can intentionally incorporate ways for students to critically examine texts as literary scholars think about them. This might include adding layers of interpretation through reading a short story through the lens of archetypes or guiding students to comprehend the interactions among multiple literary elements in shaping meaning rather than focusing on the more isolated development of theme, character, and plot. In mathematics, it includes an emphasis on defending mathematical arguments, developing proofs, and understanding what mathematics is really about: studying quantity, space, and change around us by examining patterns and relationships. Overall, the emphasis is on inviting students to think about the overall big picture and purpose of the discipline and its related fields, preparing students for deeper learning and exploration in their future careers.

Next Steps in Learning
No matter how good we are at something, there is always room to grow. Even professional athletes are coached to improve their skills, top musicians deliberately practice difficult parts of musical pieces to sharpen their technique, and chefs continue to play with recipes to fine-tune their end-product dishes. High performers need coaching and support for continued advancement. Likewise, as teachers, we must think, what does this student need to continue in order to progress in the next steps in learning? Perhaps it is exposure to mentoring or learning directly from an expert in the field (through online virtual learning or in person guest speaker) or providing accelerated learning options to learn above-grade level content.  Teachers might consider “what’s next for this student?” and find ways to incorporate this into their learning experiences.

Open-ended Inquiry
Advanced classes may incorporate the use of more ill-structured problems that do not have clear-cut right and wrong answers. Students need the space to grapple with the unknown and ambiguous, where multiple ideas, interpretations, perspectives, and solutions are explored. Borrowed from the creative problem-solving process, posing tasks that start with “In what ways might we improve, produce, create…” can open doors for students to explore multiple solutions to a given problem. In addition, when we add “so that” this builds in a parameter for students to apply critical thinking and consider the purpose and focus of the problem.  For example, in studying a piece of literature, students might be asked “in what ways might the character respond to the problem so that he can strengthen his relationships with the other characters?”

Real-World Applications
All learning is ultimately about transfer. Of course, real-world application should be included in all middle school classrooms, but it is included as part of “Honors” criteria here because there are so many ways it can and should be included in advanced classes. Part of “next step” learning may include presenting a project or product for a real-world audience. For example, beyond learning about important battles of the Civil War, students in advanced classes may take this to a local level and create a mini museum exhibit showcasing a specific event that happened through their local community’s perspective during the Civil War. This could be featured at the local library or other community location. In Science, if students are studying about the honeybee population declining, the next step in learning might be to develop a solution-based proposal or campaign for the local community.

Sophisticated Products
It is important that the types of projects students create reflect the deep learning. Often advanced students are tasked to create presentations or poster projects that merely reflect facts and details of a topic. Developing products should be more about a student showing the processes they use to “think” about the content rather than simply reporting what they know about the content. Sometimes, in the name of incorporating “creativity” students might be assigned a task such as creating a diorama, a comic strip, or a podcast, but still the product may not actually reflect creative or critical thinking, especially applied to the discipline.  Of course, middle school students enjoy showcasing their learning in a variety of creative ways, but we must be intentional in incorporating criteria for thinking “like an expert” as they develop their creative product. This means they must apply a deep critical analysis of the text within a podcast, perhaps highlighting how symbolism is used to enhance the reader’s understanding of a character.

Overall, advanced classes should not just be courses that give more homework, move a lesson or two ahead, or use harder problems from a textbook, rather, they should be intentionally designed to prepare students for their next steps in learning, placing middle school students on a path to engage with the discipline in meaningful and relevant ways. When students go through school “friction-free” they do not have the opportunities to develop their strengths and talents to their fullest. Advanced courses should provide students an opportunity to learn something new every day,  provide experiences for productive struggle, and invite students to engage authentically with content at deeper levels.

Table 1

Adding Additional Layers to Bloom’s Taxonomy

Analyze Evaluate Create
Typical Example Stems What are the parts? How do they relate? Which is better___ or ___?

How would you decide___?

Create your own ___.

Develop a solution to ___.

Additional Critical Thinkinga




Point of View


What part is not necessary to the system? What would be the long-term result if it were missing? What assumptions are involved in making a decision on which is better? What perspectives should we consider? Create your own version to show a different perspective, including assumptions associated with that perspective. What are the implications of thinking about it differently?
Additional Complexityb

Relationships Interactions

Multiple Elements

How do the parts establish cause-effect relationships? Let’s look at this through a theme, time period, and point of view. What criteria would you develop to determine the best___? How does this criteria relate to your overall goal? Create your own version/model to show how___ affects______ and____.
Additional Application



How might this system of parts/interactions apply to other settings? Can you think of situations in which ___would be better? Create your own version of ____ that would fit the context of ____.

a – based on Paul & Elder (2019)
b – based on VanTassel-Baska & Stambaugh (2006)

Emily Mofield, Ed.D. is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Lipscomb University and recently served as Chair of Curriculum Studies for the National Association for Gifted Children. She has co-authored several award-winning advanced middle school curricula and leads professional learning on deep learning and differentiating for gifted and advanced learners. Contact: emily.mofield@lipscomb.edu.


National Association for Gifted Children (2021). NAGC curriculum rubric. Retrieved May 5, 2021 from https://www.nagc.org/sites/default/files/Network_Newsletters/NAGC%20Curriculum%20Rubric%20updated%20guidelines.pdf

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2019). Critical thinking: Tools for taking charge of your learning and your life (3rd ed.). Pearson.

VanTassel-Baska, J., & Stambaugh, T. (2006). Comprehensive curriculum for gifted learners (3rd ed.). Pearson.