Honors courses at the University of Pittsburgh provide in-depth treatments of disciplinary topics rather than treatments that are just specialized, advanced, or accelerated. They stress critical thinking and promote independent analysis, synthesis, and reflective thought and understanding. It is therefore surprising that enrollment in honors courses has declined in recent years, despite the fact that Pitt has been attracting higher quality undergraduate students during this time.
One popular explanation is that students avoid taking honors courses in fear that they will obtain low grades and therefore will lower their overall GPA. In order to determine whether this concern is justified, we determined how much of an impact was had by the grades earned in honors courses. Our initial sample consisted of all 319 students who graduated after the Fall 2014 or Spring 2015 semesters and who completed one or more honors course credits. From their final transcripts we extracted the following information: overall GPA, total number of completed credits and grade points earned, and total number of honors course credits and grade points earned. Each overall GPA was recalculated by removing all honors course credits and grade points. We found that the mean difference between the overall GPA with and without honors courses was -0.004, while the median difference was +0.002. These findings indicate that grades in honors courses have an insignificant impact on overall GPA.
In a subsequent analysis, we divided the 319 students into those who completed one to six honors course credits (229 students) and those who completed more than 6 honors course credits (90 students). The mean difference in GPA was -0.002 in the first subgroup (the median was +0.003) and -0.008 in the second subgroup (the median was -0.004). More recently, we performed the same analyses on the 318 students who graduated after the Fall 2015 or Spring 2016 semesters and got very similar results (i.e., mean difference in overall GPA of -0.001 both for the entire group and for the subgroup who completed more than 6 honors course credits).
In general, honors courses challenge students to work harder than they do in regular classes -- they have to read more, they have to write more, and they have to talk more in class -- and in consequence they learn more. Most students are willing to work harder if they are working on something that interests them, and they are not otherwise punished for doing so. The results of this study indicate that grades earned in honors courses do not negatively impact overall GPA.
Putting that matter aside, other benefits of taking honors courses have been discussed by Assistant Dean Gordon Mitchell in a recent article in the UHC Newsletter.