June 22nd, 2015

Helping Students Find Meaning in Core Curriculum Courses


college students in class

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.

  • Howard A. Doughty

    Let's face it!

    We are undergoing the most profound (though not in a good way) transformation in higher education since the shift from "elite" to "mass" education in the 1950s and 1960s.

    That change (partly thanks to the GI Bill and partly thanks to Sputnik (i.e., the stunning realization that an educated public was necessary to promote not only prosperity and progress, but also America's standing in terms of science, technology AND the humanities and social sciences) was an authentic democratic initiative. What we have now is the descent into the market mentality where Associate Professors are turned into the academic equivalent of Walmart Associates … welcome to K-Mart Kollege!

    The current change (to "universal" education governed by neoliberal ideology and subservient to the corporate agenda) is not as promising as the reforms that opened higher education up to people in the middle and working classes. It is intended to turn education into a commodity (both in the sense that curricula have been packaged to appeal to "customers" and in the sense that our graduates are packaged to display "marketable skills" in the hideously precarious labor market.

    When programs, courses and teachers are promoted or jettisoned according to students' fickle preferences and (ir)rational market forces, any serious sense of "education" is abandoned in favor of a market-driven dynamic centered around vocational training for jobs that don't/won't exist.

    What to do?

    I tried to answer that in an article called "Restructuring the Pleas for the Liberal Arts in an Age of Technology in Ascendancy," The College Quarterly 13(2), 2010 &lt ;www.collegequarterly.ca>. I'll say it here in two sentences. There's no point in trying to sell the relevance of your courses in terms of accommodating corporate ideology and practice; instead, we must make the point that the existing political, economic, social and cultural environment needs to be understood, analyzed, explained and subjected to rigorous criticism if people are to survive (never mind prosper) in an era of environmental degradation, economic devastation and ethic demoralization.

    Portents of the apocalypse need not be depressing and can be inspiring (or at least mildly interesting and occasionally entertaining).

    Students must be exposed to the notion that education is a moral and political project as well as a practical and instrumental exercise. It is our duty as teachers of everything from accounting, anthropology, architecture and art history to … zoology to help students understand the difference between good and evil (survival or extinction, if you prefer) and to assist them in figuring out how to enhance the good and inhibit the evil.

    Or, in the alternative, we can play the clown, make learning "fun", get high student evaluations (especially if everybody gets an "A") and remain part of the problem, not the solution.

  • David S. McCurry

    I am less concerned with the neo-liberal corporate agenda (as if there is a unified, organized idea behind that), as I am with the simple directive that the author eschews reading whole texts: "Rather than assign long, theoretical readings, have them explore the material through short writing assignments." That troubles me. Are we favoring the accomplishment of easily obtained process skills in favor of the more difficult reading and analytic thinking required in understanding complex, intellectual thought in texts?

  • U.S. Rao

    Is it for "kindergarten or higher education" students? I am tired of these articles which sway me everywhere. We keep teaching the way we feel appropriate.

  • Ravi Malik

    I agree with Rao. Education is a serious business and not for everyone? I don't mean that if you are not educated, you may not be successful. Many such examples exist. It is passion!!