Helping Students Find Meaning in Core Curriculum Courses

Let’s face it: some courses are simply more applicable to the job market than others. For some, it’s easy to make the connection between what is taught in the classroom and the skills needed for landing that perfect job. But, what about those courses that are not geared toward generating employment?

I teach religious studies courses, which are intended to enrich the spirit, open the mind to ponder the meaning of life, and explore how cosmic questions have been approached by others. Unfortunately, many students have a hard time tapping into the importance of these courses, especially the required introductory ones. Nothing is more discouraging than standing in front of a classroom filled with freshmen who desperately want to be elsewhere.

Coming from a background in curriculum development, I have challenged myself to make introductory religious studies courses meaningful. In particular, I strive to establish value, build on previous knowledge, address expectations, and give the students freedom of choice within the assignments. These ideas and more are articulated in the research-based article by Susan Ambrose, et al. (2010), called How Learning Works. The strategies listed below are a few I’ve had success implementing. They can apply to many core curriculum courses in the social sciences and humanities.

1. Don’t overwhelm students with readings. Engage them in active learning.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was a student, and I know very well that the book won’t get read if there’s little interest in the course or if students feel intimidated by it. Rather than assign long, theoretical readings, have them explore the material through short writing assignments. This semester, I gave my students readings every Tuesday and required that they pick an example related to the reading and write a one- to two-page essay on it. The essay was due on Thursday, our next class meeting. This assignment also can be turned into a short research or analytical assignment. The point is that it encourages the students to: a) routinely engage with the material, b) find something they would like to explore in greater depth, and c) actively participate in their own learning. To help the students benefit from each other’s perspectives, they can meet in small groups on Thursdays to share their papers or they can be assigned to present to the class on a specific day. A word on grading: Although the constant stacks of paper appeared intimidating, they were easy to grade on a 1-10 scale and could be skimmed for correctness and effort.

2. Introduce insider perspectives.

Students are fascinated by guest speakers, particularly those who can bring the topic to life for them. During the course of the semester, I try to have two to three guest speakers. One semester a Buddhist layperson, a Catholic priest, and a Protestant pastor came to speak. Another semester, I invited a Catholic priest, two nuns, and a poet renowned for his writings on Christ. All have been very successful. Afterwards, it is helpful to follow up with a reflective paper assignment that allows them to process the guest lecture and turn it into a long(er)-term memory.

3. Conduct site visits.

Despite teaching at a Catholic university, I approach each class with the assumption that my students have never been inside a place of worship, and I require them to experience it. Armed with the excuse that they are fulfilling a class assignment, the students attend a worship service of their choosing (of any religion) and write a reaction/reflection paper. As for those who regularly attend worship, they are requested to visit a different service, thereby giving them an opportunity to experience an alternative way of worshipping and broaden their perspective. Since Catholic Mass is held regularly at the chapel on the campus, the students have no excuse to not complete the assignment.

Although there might be some resistance before completing the assignment, it is amazing how much the students usually enjoy and learn from the experience. Don’t forget, learning is associated with emotion!

Courses in religious studies deal with important cosmic questions: What happens after death? What is the purpose of life? How do we decide what is morally correct? These are pretty heavy topics for people of any age to explore, not to mention college freshmen! I’ve highlighted a few strategies that have been helpful in connecting students with the material in required core courses that may initially hold very little interest for them. Obviously, it’s impossible to engage every student, but these have improved the classroom experience and made the material more approachable and meaningful. I like to think that students might carry at least one of these experiences with them after the course is finished.

Ambrose, Susan; Bridges, Michael W.; DiPietro, Michele; Lovett, Marsha C.; and Norman, Marie K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Julianne Hazen is an adjunct professor of religious studies at Niagara University. This article was supported by a CCTL grant from Niagara University.