Who is a Successful Honors Math Student?

This list is distributed at Fairfax High to parents and teachers who are helping students figure out which math class to take.

This student is one who:

Considers math to be one of his/her favorite subjects.

Is a critical thinker and enjoys exploration and problem solving.

Always wants to understand and not just rely on memorization.

Does not expect or need every step of a problem "spoon fed" to understand.

Can easily recall concepts and skills learned in previous math classes and incorporates these skills into new concepts being taught without having to be told or re-taught the old skills.

Is self-motivated.

Has excellent attendance.

Is willing to do homework every night.

Works well with other students.

Is bored if a math class moves to slowly.

Feels a responsibility equal to the teacher's to ensure that he/she is learning as much as they possibly can.

Won't be too frustrated by learning what may seem to be useless skills because he/she knows that high school is primarily a time for building those skills in preparation for future advanced studies in math, engineering, chemistry, medicine, etc.

Is not simply taking an Honors math class to look good for college, but is also taking it because he/she wants the challenge of a harder course.


Several parents have asked me what the difference is between regular and honors classes. Some of the daylight might be explained this way: Last week, Tricia Colclaser's Honors pre-calculus students left class with their heads down after sweating through a lengthy test. She'd made it a tough exam with problems they had to figure out how to approach, using formulas they'd learned in the past or just plain logic.

In my (Non-Honors) Algebra II, there weren't many curve balls. We didn't encounter problems on tests that we had not seen in class and practiced many times. The numbers were usually easy to divide and multiply. Very few elements of surprise.

What do you think distinguishes - or ought to distinguish - an honors class?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  February 24, 2009; 10:30 AM ET  | Category:  Math Literacy
Previous: Friday Quiz | Next: Luring Math Professionals Into the Classroom


I'm a little surprised at the bluntness of some of the items in the list - particularly no.'s 3, 4, 5, and 12. Not that I disagree (well, maybe with "what may seem to be useless skills"). It's even heartening that students, parents, and teachers are getting a little dose of reality in a world that so many people associate with social promotion and participation ribbons.

In regard to the question, to me, an honors class should be somewhat more self-motivated, maybe with some sort of project - a project for geometry class might deal with classical constructions, or approximations of pi, for example. Homework should focus a bit less on repetition and more on expanding and new application of skills (the "challenge problems" in math books).

It's tough to do the same in a test format, because putting kids that work slower under pressure to figure out something new is probably not the goal (although in an AP class, it's fair game). But the tests should be harder, and incorporate elements of those expanded applications developed by a good homework assignment.

Posted by: tomsing | February 24, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I can see this in high school. But what really bugs me is that I just heard a very similar presentation on "who is GT" in my daughter's elementary school. They had a huge list of criteria, all of which painted a very clear picture of a very specific kind of student -- the quiet, studious kind who gets lost in problems, geeks out just for the joy of it, etc.

I agree that those kinds of kids definitely belong in GT. But it struck me that, by so clearly looking for a stereotype, they were potentially missing other kids who don't fit their preconceived notions. My kid, for example, is borderline ADHD, has way too much energy to sit still, and so has very little patience for things that require long periods of focused concentration. She also has a tremendous perfectionistic streak, which tends to make her prefer to repeat what she already knows instead of seek to challenge herself. But she's also very, very smart -- often doesn't need to sit and develop that concentration, because she can see things right away.

Her, I'm not worried about. She's so in-your-face that she's never going to be the kid who is overlooked. And she has involved parents who know her strengths and weaknesses and are willing to advocate her with the schools, should that become necessary. But it really does bother me to see all of the GT decisions being made based on one stereotype of what "gifted" kids look like. Especially when you're talking about 7-yr-olds, who have so much growing and learning yet to do.

Posted by: laura33 | February 24, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the list of attributes is what makes an honor student. I think what makes an honors student in any subject is an interest in the subject and the personal drive to really explore the subject.

In my experience, honors classes are more about volume than depth. In an honors math class it should be about depth of knowledge and the ability to apply the knowledge to solve problems, not just equations.

I taught an honors class in calculus one time and the last quarter of the year was spent working on application problems and a research paper. They had one test the entire quarter.

Posted by: ggartner | February 25, 2009 5:51 AM | Report abuse

My concern with that list is item #4. Not only kids who are math whizzes want to take honors math. Some students are just willing to work harder and move faster, but still need to be taught the subject step by step. Many honors math classes simply assume the student is math-gifted and only needs guidance, not education. Honors students need MORE teacher involvement, not less!

Posted by: leuchars | February 26, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

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