Honors Course Definition

The term honors course is a common label applied to courses, predominantly at the high school level, that are considered to be more academically challenging and prestigious. Students enrolled in honors courses generally receive greater academic recognition and possibly, if the course awards weighted grades, a numerical advantage when it comes to grading. Historically, honors courses have entailed more demanding college-preparatory coursework, and they were intended for the highest-achieving or most academically accelerated students in a school. In many cases, students need to meet certain prerequisites, such as a teacher recommendation or an average grade of B or higher in a previous course, to gain admission to an honors course. Honors courses may be the highest-level courses or “track” offered by the school, or they may be above “college prep” but below specialized courses such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate. In some schools, however, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses will be considered the school’s “honors courses.”

It is important to note that there are no specific standards or universal definition for “honors courses.” Consequently, honors courses may vary greatly in design, content, quality, or academic challenge from school to school, and even from course to course within a school.


One common alternative to traditional honors courses is the honors challenge, or the practice of offering higher-level or more academically challenging assignments, coursework, and learning opportunities in a “heterogeneously grouped” or “mixed-ability” course—i.e., a course in which students of different abilities or levels of preparation are grouped together. In academic programs that do not have tiered course levels, honors challenges may be used in place of distinct honors courses.