Jillian Ferrell and Jeffrey Reber, Department of Psychology
According to the mission and aims of Brigham Young University, one of the outcomes of a BYU experience should be that it is spiritually strengthening. BYU is not alone in desiring this kind of experience. A faculty and student survey collected by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) (Lindholm, Szelényi, Hurtado, & Korn, 2005) found that perhaps up to 80 percent of students nationwide have an interest in spirituality and almost half say that it is “essential” that colleges encourage the personal expression of spirituality. Unfortunately, only 30 percent of faculty nationwide agree that colleges should be concerned with facilitating student ‘spiritual development.” Even at BYU, Wilkins and Birch (2011) found that the faculty were unsure of how to implement spirituality into their teaching and worried that doing so might lead to less critical thinking and lower academic rigor. In response to the first concern, Wilkins and Birch also found three main factors that students felt were important to implementing spirituality into learning: 1) Focus on your journey and how spirituality is working in your personal and professional life (Personal Journey). 2) Focus on intellectual connections between spirituality, discipline, and student’s lives (Intellectual Connections). 3) Focus on your relationship with students (Interpersonal). In this study, we set out to experimentally test these factors and respond to the concern of lowering academic rigor. We hypothesized that: 1) Teachers can be trained to incorporate the three areas of focus into their teaching. 2) As teachers incorporate these factors into their teaching students’ perceptions of teaching and learning quality will improve. 3) Emphasizing these factors in teaching will significantly improve students’ retention of the material taught.
Six Teaching Assistants (TAs) (5 males, 1 female) were given material (behavioral economics) to learn and then to prepare a teaching session. They were interviewed by an expert on the topic to ensure that they knew the material well enough to teach. First, each TA taught a group of students for 30 minutes. Then half the TAs were randomly assigned to be in the experimental group to receive training regarding the implementation of spirituality in teaching. Thirdly, each TA taught a new group of students for 30 minutes – TAs in the experimental group taught according to their training. After each session, students completed an evaluation survey of their TA (Likert scale). TAs answered open-ended questions about their experience after the 2nd teaching session. All sessions were videotaped.
There was a total of 150 undergraduate students that participated in the TA teaching sessions (80 males, 70 females). One week later, student participants completed a retention quiz of the behavioral economics material taught in the session.
Researchers provided the training for the TAs in the experimental group. The training included a video, worksheet, and discussion surrounding how TAs could make authentic the three areas of focus from Wilkins and Birch (2011) mentioned previously.
After attending a lecture by either a TA who taught with no training or a TA who taught implementing the three areas of focus, students did not perceive the teacher’s competence or respect for students as being significantly different across conditions and across teaching sessions. Students perceived the teacher’s spirituality as being significantly higher in the experimental condition and across teaching sessions. An interaction suggests the training significantly helped all the experimental TAs improve on spirituality across teaching sessions. Students perceived the teacher’s facilitation of a class community as being significantly better in the experimental condition. An interaction suggests the training may help some, but not all, TAs significantly improve on this factor across teaching sessions. Perhaps the most intriguing result was that one week after attending a lecture, there was no significant statistical difference in students’ retention of the material across conditions and across teaching sessions.
Ultimately, this study argues that TAs can be trained to incorporate three areas of focus (i.e., Personal Journey, Intellectual Connections, Interpersonal) into their teaching. Additionally, the training helped TAs to successfully implement spirituality and perhaps even facilitate a sense of class community. However, the training did not help the TAs significantly improve on their relative competence and their perceived respect for the student. And most interestingly, teachers don’t lose on the side of intellectual rigor and learning quality when you implement spirituality in the classroom.
Despite interesting initial findings in this study, there are several limitations. Firstly, this was a quasi-experiment with unequal group sizes and students were not randomly assigned to conditions. Secondly, TAs varied largely. Some TAs implemented the training better than others, which could impede the study’s ability to assess the effects of training implementation. Another factor is that participants were undergraduates were given credit simply for participating, which may have skewed the quiz score data as there was less motivation to learn the material than there would have been in an actual classroom.
This study enlightens the BYU community with a possible training program that may help faculty in procuring a “spiritually strengthening” experience for students without any significant decline in academic rigor or learning quality. Currently, we are working toward a second study in which we utilize one highly rated professor and look at how he/she does on when he/she implements each area of focus, one at a time, to investigate how the training works in an actual classroom setting with a consistent professional. Spirituality can be implemented anywhere. It may be possible that a similar training be adapted in other universities to give students, nationwide, more of what Lindholm and colleagues (2005) indicate many care about in a college education.
Lindholm, J. A., Szelényi, K., Hurtado, S., & Korn, W. S. (2005). The American college teacher: National norms for the 2004–2005 HERI faculty survey.Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
Wilkins, A. & Birch, J. (2011). Spiritually Strengthening and Intellectually Enlarging Faculty: What Students Want, Faculty Center Report