Honors Courses and the Pre-Health Curriculum
Many students in The Honors College plan on careers in one of the physical health fields. Students taking a pre-health curriculum are busy meeting requirements during their first two years - particularly if they intend to continue with their professional education right after graduating from UAlbany. The entrance exams for many professional programs are given during the junior year, requiring that several basic-science courses, initial courses in one’s major, and honors courses all be completed during the first and second years of college. In addition, most pre-health students know that receiving good grades in their courses, particular in their basic-science courses, is important.
The Honors College is fortunate to have the support of several departments that provide honors versions of courses that meet pre-health, basic-science requirements. The two first-year courses in chemistry, the two first-year courses in physics, and the first three semesters of calculus are all offered as honors courses. By taking six of these courses, pre-health students are able to meet some of their basic-science requirements and all of their honors-course requirements simultaneously. Students can also mix these basic-science honors courses with other honors courses, for example, taking two honors physics courses, two honors chemistry courses, and two other honors courses.
Pre-health students can choose to take the regular version of each basic science course, rather than the honors version. However, choosing this path makes it difficult to complete one’s basic science courses and one’s honors courses during the first two years.
Some students believe that the honors versions of the pre-health, basic-science courses will be significantly more difficult than the regular versions of these courses. Others believe that their grades in the honors versions of these courses will be considerably lower than in the regular versions. Consequently, they find themselves in a conundrum: take the honors versions of their basic science courses, which will allow them to meet honors requirements but may result in lower grades, or take the regular versions of these courses, which may result in their receiving higher grades but will make it harder to complete honors requirements.
It is difficult to comment generally on the relative difficulty of honors basic-science courses because an individual student’s science aptitude and preparation will have a significant influence on how much she or he can achieve in them. Some generalizations can be made, however:
- The honors basic-science courses are more challenging than the regular versions of the courses. They require deeper thought and deeper understanding of the material. Many honors students find this challenge to be what they are looking for in their science courses; they are interested in understanding the foundation of the science they are learning.
- Most students with good science attitude and good preparation (e.g., honors or AP versions of high school science courses), and who work hard, do well in their honors science courses.
- Achieving a particular grade in an honors basic-science course is likely to require more work than achieving the same grade in a regular version of the course.
- More students in honors courses receive high grades than do students in regular versions of those courses, indicating that more of them have achieved at a high level.
It is also worth noting that all honors courses are identified on each student’s transcript and that many professional schools may take increased notice of students who complete basic-science requirements through honors courses.
Honors Professors' Thoughts on Honors Courses
Professor Range, who teaches several of the honors calculus courses, states:
MAT 118 and 119 (the honors courses) cover essentially the same topics as the "regular" versions of the first two semesters of calculus: MAT 112 and 113. In the honors versions, there is more emphasis on understanding the key concepts and ideas rather than just learning/memorizing/drilling basic formulas, techniques, and templates for "canned" problems. The honors versions are certainly, and appropriately, more challenging, but surely are not intended only for math majors. In fact, my experience has been that the vast majority of students in 118/119 are not thinking of becoming math majors. But, with rare exceptions, they all had calculus in high school with good grades, many took AP courses, and some did very well.
Such students may feel more comfortable in a "regular" section, because it might be closer to the calculus they experienced in high school. Still, a student who gets a B in Math 118 would not necessarily get an A in 113, even if the student were to put in the same effort.
MAT 118/119 being more difficult is probably psychological - students may believe that they must be in a more difficult course so they experience it as more difficult. Honors students are probably used to being the stars in their high school, while here they are more like part of a little galaxy. I do not grade on any curve, so every student who does well can get an A. They are not in competition with each other for a fixed percentage of A's. My experience has been that the percentage of A's in honors calculus is higher than in the regular versions of calculus, due to the fact that the abilities of the honors students are higher than those of many other students.
Professor Hildebrand is one of the professors who teaches Honors Calculus II. He notes:
The topics covered by mathematics 113 (the regular second semester of calculus) and mathematics 119 (the honors version of this course) are the same for the most part. However, the honors course goes into more detail on some topics. For example, I would be more likely to include a proof in 119 than I would be in 113.
The structure of the assignments has some differences. While I give homework assignments, quizzes, and tests in both courses, 119 also has a project. This allows students to look at topics I do not cover or do longer problems than typically appear on homework assignments. I give a list of potential topics; a challenging potential topic is to fill in details of some calculus arguments in research papers I have published. That topic can give students a sense of the research that goes on in mathematics, even if a lot of the non-calculus details are beyond the scope of the course.
Overall the students in 119 do tend to be stronger than the typical students in 113. The students in my section of 119 do ask good questions, and they have kept me honest by pointing out inadvertent errors I make. While the exact distribution of grades is a judgment call that considers student performance, I suspect that the average grade in 119 this semester will be higher than the average grade in 113.
Professor Landford, who teaches the first-semester honors physics course sends this information:
The big difference between honors and regular sections of first-semester physics is that the honors section makes more use of calculus. I also give slightly more home assignment problems in the honors course. However, I will grade them so that the same level of work in the honors and the regular versions of the course will result in the same grade. I do not believe that students should receive a lower grade because they took the honors section. I feel I am in the position to do this because I have taught this course for many years and think I know what performance level in introductory physics should receive a grade of A, B, C etc.
Most of the students in my honors courses receive relatively high grades.
Professor Ernst is one of the professors who teaches the second semester of physics.
The topics in 150 (the regular version of second-semester physics) and 151 (the honors version) are the same. In 151, we cover them in more depth by shortening the discussion of some basic techniques.
Performance in math courses is a good predictor of how a student will do in honors physics, as significant math is involved.
We try to have 150 and 151 follow a similar schedule so that a student who tries 151 but finds himself or herself overwhelmed can switch to 150 during the semester.
Despite pushing the grade-scale a little for 151, equal effort in 150 and 151 would still yield a lower grade in 151. I believe that students should take a longer view of their grades, however. A huge effort and a B+ in 151 may initially look worse than an easier A in 150, but the investment struggling with 151 will likely lead to better understanding, more enjoyment, and better grades in upper-level courses in math or physical science.
Deciding How to Proceed
Talk with family members, your high school counselors and teachers, and your advisor in the UAlbany Advisement Services Center. All can help you think more clearly about whether you want to be a student in The Honors College and take honors versions of some of your basic-science courses. There are many advantages to being a student in The Honors College, but it is not the only place for every high-achieving student. Some students are more comfortable taking the regular versions of their basic science courses and foregoing being a member of The Honors College community.
Those of us in The Honors College are eager to see every honors student succeed, and we are willing to work out individual strategies for success with students. For example, if an honors student needs to take one of his or her honors courses in the third year, to complete basic-science courses, that may be arranged. Honors students with concerns about honors courses and their pre-health curriculum are encouraged to contact Professor Haugaard.
Professor Range (mathematics & statistics) is willing to advise students with questions about honors calculus courses or their correct initial placement in an honors calculus course (e.g., it may be best for students with high scores on the calculus AP test to start in calculus II or calculus III ). Professor Range can be contacted by email at: email@example.com.
Professor Caticha (physics) is willing to advise students with questions about taking the first-year honors physics sequence. Professor Caticha can be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Note From Professor Haugaard
I encourage all pre-health students to consider taking a year or two off between their undergraduate years and their professional school experience. Most students and parents get looks of horror on their faces when I suggest this. There is usually some fear that, once a student stops going to school, he or she will never start again. This is just not true. What is also not true any more is that those who take a year or two off before starting their professional school are less accomplished than those who go right on. Many professional schools may look more positively at the application of someone who has a year or two more maturity than those coming straight out of their undergraduate school.
Plus, between the challenging undergraduate years and the even-more challenging professional school years, a year of no homework is very rejuvenating and often results in a student returning to school with more vigor and excitement for learning. I have been working with pre-health and other students for many years. I have NEVER heard someone who took a year or two off say, “I should have gone directly on to my graduate program,” and about half the students who have gone directly on have said that they wished they had taken a bit of a breather.
I know; I know. You cannot even imagine taking a year off. But, let it percolate around in the back of your mind for a while.