Journal of Nursing Education


An Honors Program: Directing Our Future Leaders

Jeanette C Hartshorn, RN, PhD, FAAN; Violeta A Berbiglia, RN, EdD; Mary Heye, RN, PhD



Development of future leaders is a priority of nurse educators. In this article an honors program, which was initiated to prepare students who would contribute to nursing science and become effective leaders, is described. The process used to gain faculty and administrative support is highlighted. The discussion also includes specifics regarding recruitment and selection of students and sequencing of courses. Evaluation of the program suggests that graduates assume leadership positions within the profession. Honors programs such as this one help to prepare leaders and scholars for tomorrow.



Development of future leaders is a priority of nurse educators. In this article an honors program, which was initiated to prepare students who would contribute to nursing science and become effective leaders, is described. The process used to gain faculty and administrative support is highlighted. The discussion also includes specifics regarding recruitment and selection of students and sequencing of courses. Evaluation of the program suggests that graduates assume leadership positions within the profession. Honors programs such as this one help to prepare leaders and scholars for tomorrow.

Some individuals are born leaders while others are groomed. An honors program is one way to begin the socialization needed to nurture and develop leadership among undergraduate nursing students. Honors programs offer several benefits to an undergraduate nursing curriculum, including attracting capable students into nursing, providing a safe testing ground for students to pursue individual interests and an opportunity for students to enhance critical thinking skills. Brown noted the difference an honors program can make: "The very presence of an honors program at an institution says to prospective students and their parents that this institution cares about academics. Honors programs can set a tone for the entire institution" (1991).

The presence of an honors program within an undergraduate nursing curriculum can help to attract highly capable students who are interested in an individualized challenging program. Honors programs can help nursing schools compete for gifted students who may be attracted to other professions. What should these programs "look like"? McCain (1991) suggests that they should be challenging, allow for diverse foci, provide a sense of group identity, and be fun for all concerned. And more important, McCain emphasizes that an honors program meets real needs. Williams and Snider identify that an honors program must meet the student's primary need to excel and be recognized (1992, p. 65).

This article describes an honors program which currently operates within an undergraduate nursing program.

Description of Program

The original purpose of the honors program (HP) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Nursing was to provide a qualitatively different educational experience for the exceptional student. There was the desire to recognize and further develop the talents of the exceptional and highly motivated student. It was hoped that the program would prepare outstanding graduates who would contribute to the evolving science and become effective leaders.


The proposed goals of the program were designed to allow the student to:

*Discover potential skills and recognize the academic skills needed in formulating nursing science.

* Seize the opportunity to identify with a peer community for collaboration, nurturance and support for ideas.

*Analyze clinical nursing issues and the factors influencing such issues.

*Utilize the technique of scientific inquiry to analyze clinical issues and arrive at a model or project for addressing an issue.

*Define leadership skills.

The goals are congruent with the philosophy of the School of Nursing and emphasize scholarship, research and leadership.

Admission Criteria

Currently there are two ways for students to enter the honors program. Students in the generic process program who complete all required Semester I courses with a GPA of at least 3.0 are eligible for admission to the Introduction to Honors course. Flexible process students who enter the nursing program with at least a 3.0 and are enrolled in their first semester on a full-time basis also are eligible for this course. Students who successfully complete the Introduction course and maintain a minimum GPA of 3.0 are eligible to continue in the program.

Students who do not wish to take the Introduction course may be accepted into the honors program by maintaining the required GPA and writing an acceptable essay about their interest in and expectations from the honors program. If students choose the latter route, they enter the honors program the third semester of the generic process or second semester of the flexible process program.


Recruiting students is an important aspect of the operation of the honors program. The recruiting process is initiated by the display of posters in prominent places throughout the School of Nursing inviting students to an informational meeting. Letters are also sent to all eligible students to encourage their attendance at the informational meeting.

The informational meeting features a panel representing the honors program subcommittee, honors faculty and current honors program students. Information regarding the honors curriculum and honors experiences is shared. The application process is discussed and questions are answered. Potential students are encouraged to ask the ongoing honors students questions which will help them to evaluate their own readiness and interest in the honors program.


The overall purpose of the honors program curriculum is to recognize and further develop the scholarly and clinical performance levels of the exceptional student. Participation in the honors program provides students with an opportunity for accelerated intellectual pursuits, peer stimulation, and identification with a community of recognized scholars.

The curriculum consists of three courses, for a total of 7 semester hours. A majority of students enter the program by taking the 1-hour introductory course. Students are not required to take this first course, but they are required to complete the two 3-hour courses to be designated an honors graduate. Content and teaching methods in all courses are designed to challenge students and to provide many opportunities for independent learning, critical thinking and group problem-solving. As students complete the courses, their official transcript reflects participation in the HP. When their names are called at graduation, each student is identified as a "graduate of the honors program."

Introduction to the Honors Program

This one semester hour course focuses on an introduction to the concept of "honors" and excellence in nursing. The course format includes two seminar meetings held on Saturdays with class time totaling 15 hours. The format is informal, and guest speakers provide opportunities for students to explore various aspects of nursing. The purposes of the course are to begin to socialize students into a community of scholars; inform students of opportunities for accelerated intellectual pursuits, peer stimulation, and interaction with a community of recognized scholars; and to recruit students who are motivated to excel.

In addition to class attendance, students are required to submit an essay which addresses their perception of personal attributes which are complementary to the development of leadership and excellence. The essay also identifies individual needs which may be met by the honors program and includes a statement of intent regarding future honors program involvement.

Honors Seminar

Upon successful completion of the Introduction course, students meeting the GPA requirements continue into the Honors Seminar. This course is designed to focus on the development of a framework for scientific inquiry. Course content is designed to expose them to a variety of ways to think about current issues concerning nursing practice. Major emphasis is placed on developing an understanding of how theory and research affect nursing practice. Students are provided opportunities to read in some depth the literature related to an area of interest. By the completion of the course, students are expected to have refined their area of interest and identified a proposal to study the topic. This proposal serves as the honors project which is further developed and completed during the final course, Honors Practicum. Once students have identified their specific interest, they are provided names of experts in the community and faculty who may serve as resource individuals. Students are encouraged to interview these individuals and present their ideas in an interview format. This exercise provides students with first hand experience with interviewing and interacting in a collegial manner and possibly selecting a perceptual or future mentor.

Honors Practicum

This course focuses on the implementation of the proposal designed during honors seminar. Students select a practice problem, then utilize the process of scientific inquiry to study the problem. Some students choose a research method while many others take alternate approaches. For example, recent students have been interested in the development of new specialties within nursing. These students design projects to investigate the role of these specialties, their standards, and research knowledge base. Through the use of scientific inquiry, students are able to develop an in-depth knowledge of the specialty and identify its influence within the profession. Students are encouraged to use their imagination to identify problems as well as methods of investigation.

Course content is very unstructured but designed to assist students in completion of the project. Much of this semester is dedicated to independent work with students meeting individually with faculty and mentors to work out various aspects of the project. Once the project is complete, students prepare a poster of their findinge. The poster is completed as though they were going to present at a national meeting. Recently, one of the honors graduates had an opportunity to use the poster at a regional Sigma Thêta Tau meeting and won an award for poster presentation. Once the posters are complete, a time is scheduled for display. Other honors students, undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty attend the poster presentations, and there is time for interaction, reaction, and discussion among the presenters and audience over several hours. The feedback from presenters and participants is extremely positive, and the scene resembles poster sessions at national conventions.


Formative evaluation is accomplished by course faculty and is guided by the outcome objectives which were established by the honors subcommittee. Each objective is measured by both short-term (those which the student will accomplish by the completion of the program) and long-term (those which will be accomplished within 5 years of graduation) accomplishments. Once a sufficient number of honors program graduates have reached the 5-year point, a summative evaluation will be completed.


While everyone is very pleased with the honors program, issues which require management continue to surface. Administrative issues concern some of the operational aspects of the program. A potential issue is the student/faculty ratio. Currently, one faculty member is assigned to each course, and as many as 15 students may be registered. While the students may select other faculty to serve as preceptors/mentors for their individual project, the honors program faculty are ultimately responsible for the students. This responsibility can become a significant workload problem for faculty. This issue can be compounded since faculty assigned to teach the seminar course also teach the practicum course in the next semester. While this method improves the continuity for the student, it requires a large commitment of time and energy for faculty in addition to other assigned faculty workload. A second issue involves working with the university and the different agencies of the Institutional Review Boards (IRB) concerning the projects. Undergraduate students are intimidated by the IRB and generally are not prepared for the length of time needed to get through the process. Faculty have also had some difficulty in helping institutions to understand the narrow perspective of the projects and the time pressure imposed by the program. While HP faculty work with each IRB, the process sometimes becomes labor intensive.

While student interest remains high, new students continue to worry about the workload imposed by the honors program and what effect that would have on their GPA Because of this concern, some students with very high GPAs (>3.5) do not enter the program. They are afraid of the consequences of honors course work on their GPA. Honors students report that participation in the program improves their grades in other classes since the program helps to build their scholarly skills. We have been most effective in dealing with this issue by having the students in the honors program discuss this problem with incoming students. Grades for all honors courses are agreed upon by contract between student and faculty and are generally viewed by students as a "non-issue." The HP faculty went to the contract grading system to encourage students to concentrate on learning, rather than their grade.


The honors program is an addition to the undergraduate curriculum which allows students to seek new challenges. Early evidence from this program suggests that students will move from the program into leadership positions within the profession. Several graduates of the program have already enrolled in graduate school, presented at national and regional meetings, and have served on local and national professional organizations committees. It appears that our honors graduates are paralleling those studied by Williams and Snider (1992). Their findings revealed that 69% of nursing school honors graduates enrolled in graduate studies. Also, a clear trajectory towards leadership was indicated in the numbers of honors graduates who held leadership positions in professional organizations.

For students this program is valuable in that it allows them to explore areas of interest which may improve their overall career direction. Faculty find the program exciting as they watch the growth of students as they discuss the many options within nursing. Honors programs such as the one described will help us to prepare leaders and scholars for tomorrow.


  • Brown, E. (1991, Fall). Do honors programs make a difference? Why do we care? Forum for Honors, 22(4), 26-36.
  • McCain, R. (1991, Fall). Notes toward an apologia for honors education. The National Honors Report, 13-15.
  • Williams, P.D., & Snider, M.J. (1992). Honors program participation and performance postgraduation. Journal of Nursing Education, 31(2), 65-69.


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