George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Honors College unveils enhanced curriculum

February 25, 2019

While celebrating its 10th anniversary this fall, the Honors College is also updating its curriculum to reflect and emphasize many of the exciting, one-of-a-kind opportunities we already offer to serve student success.  These changes are good news: the redesigned curriculum will simplify student degree planning, emphasize civic engagement, and highlight many of the Honors College's signature experiential learning opportunities.

Prioritizing Student Needs

Chaired by the Associate Dean of the Honors College Dr. Jan Allbeck, the Honors College Curriculum Committee has developed these updates and enhancements to the curriculum. The new curriculum will be simpler, easier to follow, and emphasize some of the high-impact existing opportunities that have increasingly become an important part of the Honors College experience.

The modifications are structured with student needs in mind: the new changes re-organize the Honors College curriculum, providing a cohesive path that serves student growth and success.  

Let’s take a closer look at what’s changing, what’s staying the same, and what principles guide the framework of the curriculum itself.

Honors College Curriculum: Guiding Principles

A few familiar guiding principles structure the Honors College program of study and have been used to give focus to the newly redesigned curriculum.

  • Inquiry-based learning, which involves cultivating curiosity through active inquiry and learning by asking questions.
  • Learning to reason about evidence. The Honors College teaches students to consider how claims are tied to evidence and emerge from various processes, systems and practices.
  • Learning to explore multiple perspectives in context. This involves examining differing scholarly methods, contextualizing problems in relation to several disciplines, and investigating the approaches of various stakeholders.

Each of these core themes has guided the curriculum until now, but the new curriculum is designed to help students better understand how each theme is introduced, emphasized, and reinforced through the required coursework. 

Improved Honors College Curriculum


HNRS 110 and HNRS 302 lay the groundwork for subsequent Honors courses, preparing freshmen and transfer students to identify challenging questions, articulate the scholarly and societal significance of their findings, and embrace their roles as active inquirers.

First semester students still take HNRS 110, which will be renamed Principles of Research and Inquiry, while many transfer students take the HNRS 302 equivalent.

Inquiry in the Arts, Humanities, & Social Science

HNRS 122, 130, 131 and 240 are designed to enhance critical and creative thinking, enrich reading and writing skills, and strengthen students’ abilities to analyze the arts, humanities and social sciences from multiple angles. However, while many students took three of these four classes in the past, students coming into the Honors College in Fall 2019 or who update their catalog year to the 2019-2020 catalog will take all four.

  • HNRS 122. Reading the Arts requirements will remain largely the same.
  • HNRS 130.  Conceptions of Self has been renamed Identity, Community, and Difference. The new required version of 130 builds upon the strengths of the past version and reflects the way that this course often integrates the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.
  • HNRS 131 Contemporary Society in Multiple Perspectives has been renamed Contemporary Social Issues.
  • HNRS 230 Cross-cultural Perspectives will no longer be offered as a distinct class, with existing HNRS 230 sections that are regularly taught being shifted into other parts of the curriculum where they better fit.
  • HNRS 240 Reading the Past requirements will remain largely the same.

The Honors College is also updating the learning objectives for these courses to reflect the ways that they build upon and emphasize the core themes of the curriculum as a whole. 

Civic Engagement

One new Mason Honors College requirement, entitled Civic Engagement, reflects and consolidates the ongoing commitment to Civic Engagement that has previously appeared in a more distributed way across the curriculum. 

Honors College students will fulfill their Civic Engagement requirement by taking either HNRS 260 Society and Community Engagement or HNRS 261 Community Connection Practicum.  In these courses, students will gain a deeper understanding of their roles and responsibilities as members of broader communities, while addressing issues that impact communities locally and at large.

  • HNRS 260 Society and Community Engagement sections will function as traditional classroom experiences involving civic engagement topics
  • HNRS 261 Community Connection Practicum will immerse pupils in hands-on practicum opportunities.  For instance, HNRS 261 students might pair with various nonprofits or community organizations to gain real-world experience solving problems that are affecting the public.

If you’ve already taken HNRS 230 or do not need HNRS 230 in your catalog year, you will not be required to take 260/261, though these courses will be available as electives.  “If you still needed to take 230 prior to the curriculum changes ...  you’ll take a 260 or 261 instead,” advises Dr. Allbeck. You won't need to change your catalog year to take the new courses, as either will substitute automatically for HNRS 230.  

Multi-Disciplinary Challenges

Another major curriculum change involves the redesigned ‘Multi-Disciplinary Challenges’ component.  Traditionally, HNRS 353 Technology in the Contemporary World filled a similar role in the curriculum. Over the past year several other upper-division HNRS classes were offered as substitutes for HNRS 353, reflecting their similar objectives.

So, instead of taking HNRS 353 or an equivalent, students moving forward will take either HNRS 360 Multi-Disciplinary Topics or HNRS 361 Multi-Disciplinary Practicum.

  • HNRS 360 Multi-Disciplinary Topics will be research-focused courses exploring multi-faceted, topically-focused challenges selected by the professor. These classes will emphasize the scholarly research process in a traditional classroom setting. Most HNRS 353 courses will be reclassified as HNRS 360s since HNRS 360 will serve as the upper-level multidisciplinary exploration of research topics.
  • HNRS 361 Multi-Disciplinary Practicum will offer which connects students with hands-on opportunities to address complex issues facing modern society. These classes may emphasize experiential learning, team-based design thinking, or more individualized research projects.  Existing problem- or challenge-based seminars like HNRS 312 Research in the Public Sphere, HNRS 410 Multidisciplinary Research and Creative Projects Seminar, and HNRS 430 Multidisciplinary Challenges in Professional Environments will transition to HNRS 361s. Some HNRS 330 experiences may also become HNRS 361s.

“The foundation of what we’re offering is the same,” explains Dr. Allbeck.  

If you’ve already taken HNRS 353 or an approved equivalent, you will not be required to take HNRS 360/361, though these courses will be available as electives.  “If you still needed to take 353 prior to the curriculum changes effective Fall 2019, you’ll take a 360 or 361 instead,” explains Dr. Allbeck. Again, you won't need to change your catalog year to take the new coures, as either will automatically substitute for HNRS 353.

Honors College Electives

Previously, many students filled Honors College Requirement III by choosing two courses from a comprehensive list of departmental approved Honors courses and/or by taking additional HNRS classes. These courses included such opportunities as

  • CHEM 211H/213 Honors General Chemistry I
  • CHEM 212H/214 Honors General Chemistry II
  • ECON 103H Honors Contemporary Microeconomic Principles
  • BUS 100H Honors Business and Society
  • BUS 200H Honors Global Environment of Business
  • MATH 116 Honors Analytic Geometry and Calculus II
  • MATH 215 Honors Analytic Geometry and Calculus III
  • PHYS 160H/161 Honors University Physics I
  • PHYS 260H/261 Honors University Physics II
  • BIOL 213H Honors Cell Biology
  • etc.

For students whose catalog year is 2019 or later, selecting from this multidisciplinary list of honors courses will no longer be a requirement. Instead, students will be free to take any number of these classes as Honors College Electives.

A large percentage of students were already electing to take advantage of more of these opportunities than was required. Cconverting these to electives will reframe them more explicitly as opportunities exclusively available to Honors College students, rather than requirements.

Moving Forward

The new curriculum emphasizes a straight-forward approach to degree planning, foregrounds our commitment to civic engagement, and makes visible our unique hands-on opportunities to improve communities.

“One of the best parts of these curriculum adjustments is what degree evaluations could look like,” says Dr. Allbeck.  “These changes aim to reduce confusion and minimize what Honors College students need to do” to be sure that they have satisfied all of their requirements.  

The coming changes reflect student needs. “Most of these adjustments are informed through firsthand advising experience, with faculty listening to students’ opinions and concerns,” continues Dr. Allbeck, “It’s nice to have a fresh perspective at the 10-year mark.”

As the Honors College nears its 10th anniversary, the new curriculum adjustments celebrate simpler degree planning and excellence in civic engagement.  What do you envision the Honors College curriculum including 10 years from now?

Original reporting by Jimmy O'Hara. Graphic courtesy of Dr. John Woolsey.