Self-Placement: Helping Honors Students Thrive when They Choose High-Level Courses

Right now, students across the U.S. are registering for next fall’s high school classes — including honors and advanced placement. Traditionally, schools used test scores or previous coursework to place students in AP or honors courses, but lately more students can self-place in these courses.

Honors students face unique challenges when the self-select into classesStudents getting into high-level courses essentially because they want to marks a notable shift in our schools. Self-selection has pluses and minuses that educators and parents need to think about.

The benefits of self-selection

There are clear benefits to letting students self-select honors courses. Choosing a class or placement based on desire and interest indicates a curiosity and engagement that’s often missing when students take required courses. This intrinsic motivation can go far toward their participation in the class.

With self-selection, students who feel ready for honors courses can commit to the classwork. The flexibility of self-selection also helps students who feel overwhelmed by their academic and life demands to easily take a step back when necessary without worrying that they permanently jeopardize their academic achievement.

Self-selection and diversity

Unfortunately, not all students get the message that they belong in honors classes. In schools with honors, AP or dual-credit offerings, researchers often find a disproportionate racial gap.

In her piece “The Race Gap in High School Honors Classes,” writer Sophie Quinton discusses the drawbacks of self-selection — namely, that students of color are “less likely to participate in those courses when offered.”

Quinton explains that while these disparities persist, high school teachers and counselors can do more to help prepare all students for honors and dual-enrollment courses. Challenging students of color to see themselves in honors coursework can increase participation, particularly if it comes from teachers and counselors the students trust.

Self-selection can remove obstacles like placement testing or gifted-program participation, though schools need to be wary of establishing policies that create barriers to equity.

Struggling in a self-selected class

Often students who place or self-select in honors classes have high standards for themselves. This can lead to self-doubt if students struggle with the coursework. In her article “How to Alleviate Honor Student Stress,” Linda Sapadin encourages teachers to help their honors students understand that their desire for perfection can get in the way of the joy of learning. This may seem basic, but some students need to hear it.

Students who self-select rather than placement-test into honors courses may be dealing with imposter syndrome or inadequate preparation for the rigors of advanced classes. Some of them may be struggling for the first time in their academic lives. In some ways, their success depends on learning that education is sometimes hard and that we grow best when we are challenged. Again, this advice might seem like something students should know, but many honors students have not necessarily faced academic struggle.

Do you know how to study?

My honor-student daughter had a major crisis of confidence when she entered middle school honors classes. It was the first time in her life that she needed to study, and we realized that she never actually acquired study skills.

Obviously, honors students should know how to study, but many don’t. And some students in advanced classes have to learn soft skills they’ve never needed before. An introduction to basic study skills and a communicated expectation about time investment on assignments helped my daughter quickly adapt to her honors classes. She is not unusual; students like her may need some basic tips in study skills.

Whether a student self-selects honors classes or tests into them, they may find themselves faced with new academic challenges. Addressing these gaps and any potential imposter syndrome or student stress is essential to their long-term growth in challenging classes. Teaching soft skills and providing flexibility in class placement will help them manage academic and emotional stress while also helping them thrive.

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This section is devoted to information for improving student academic achievement with resources devoted to research development and curriculum implementation. Articles will direct you to online resources that will help students inside--and outside—the classroom. The relationship between “what to teach’ (curriculum) and “how to teach” (instruction) is also explored.

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