Skip to main content

In the previous post we offered some foundational considerations for a Christ-animated FYE classroom, including ways to weave in a biblical worldview and help students push back against the common lies influencing their identity. These two strategies, though more ideological in nature, help FYE instructors ensure their classrooms are not merely adding Jesus to the standard curriculum, but are animating it with Him. But in addition to those reflections, there are other practical exercises we as FYE instructors implement that help make the experience unique for students and deliver on the Christian higher education promise.

Before unpacking some of those practices, we should note that we do not intend to offer a definitive list here. There are diverse offerings of FYE courses across the country—some are focused on writing, some on academic transition, some geared around specific themes, etc.—so there are also surely additional practices that can and should be woven into an FYE effort at a Christian university. Our hope with these posts is not to capture every strategy, but merely to offer you as a reader some practical ideas for implementing on your own campus and in your own FYE classroom.

Group Work and Loving Our Neighbor

Every semester we hear students saying something along the lines of, “I cannot wait until I graduate and do not have to do any more group projects.” Little do some students realize, that regardless of their future field or career or industry, they will engage in some semblance of a group project. We typically respond with a resounding, “Your LIFE is a group project!” Students need an opportunity early in their college experience to learn to collaborate with people with whom they typically would not interact. Not only does this help them see the benefit of understanding how to participate in a group project, but it also teaches them a skill they will use for the rest of their time in college and into their career.

But beyond the utilitarian purpose of teaching students to work well with others, there is a rich opportunity to use such pedagogical approaches to emphasize our second greatest commandment: love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:39). Group work is a great occasion to show students how to love their neighbors beyond observable differences. Students are unique persons with distinctive personalities, hobbies, abilities, etc., but they are also all made in the image of God. We encourage FYE instructors to discuss the idea of our shared image-bearing representation when forming student work groups, and how team projects allow us to engage with others who are different yet created within the same imago Dei.

The key here is not merely to incorporate groupwork, which is something that happens in any secular classroom, but rather to take a brief moment to engage students in a conversation about how such groupwork allows for the practice of loving one’s neighbor. By referencing for students the differences we see within each other, followed by the foundational similarity of our image-bearing likeness, FYE instructors encourage inclusivity that is built from a faith-animated approach. Students can then see how differences are not an obstacle to effective group work but can actually contribute to their understanding of loving their neighbor, and therefore allow for more efficient and fruitful group efforts.

Praying For and With Students

Another opportunity to invite Christ to animate the FYE classroom is to weave prayer into the curricular process. James K. A. Smith discussed the use of standing (fixed-hour) Midday Prayers in his philosophy course, in which he created a service of prayer for each day to begin a class session.1 While an investment of time, we encourage FYE instructors to engage in similar practices. Doing so reinforces the distinctiveness of a Christ-animated FYE and it shows students—beginning in one of their first classes in college—the importance of applying faith to the academic journey. Regular and liturgical prayer builds a rhythm in the classroom that helps students center themselves and focus on the class time ahead.

Additionally, more spontaneous prayer opportunities exist in using out-of-class time to pray for students and their particular needs. One thing we aim to do is ask students once every other week or so what specific things we can pray about on their behalf. This is as simple as passing out a quarter-sheet of paper with a minute or two of class time remaining and asking students to list anything for which they need prayer (they are encouraged to put their name on it but can leave it anonymous if preferred). For those who wish to participate, the slip is then left face down on a table by the door while exiting the classroom.

It is amazing to see the boldness students have in prayer, and it is also occasionally heartbreaking to see the personal struggles they experience that, on the surface, we would have no idea exist (e.g., a dad’s brain cancer, a sibling’s death, a childhood home burned down in a fire). We are honored that students so willingly share their prayer requests, but their readiness to open up tells us that having a concerned individual on campus willing to pray for them is important. End-of-year student evaluations also show that this practice is appreciated by students and makes them feel cared for. Beyond that, it models for students what it looks like to lead an active prayer life outwardly toward others, underscoring a faith-integrated classroom.

Modeling Christian Virtues

It is surprising how much our students notice certain things and how unsuspectingly aware they can be in specific situations. When we think they are oblivious to our actions or emotions, they are quick to react, whether good or bad. As Christians, it is imperative to try and uphold the fruits of the spirit (Gal. 5:22–23) by modeling Jesus in our daily lives. Further, as an FYE instructor, it is important to exemplify various virtues, whether in a private office conversation or a crowded classroom.

A great place to practice modeling Christian virtues in the classroom is when dealing with a difficult student. Despite their background or situation, choosing to model certain Christ-like virtues such as patience and self-control allows one the opportunity to weave Jesus into the educational experience, especially if the student feels nobody else will give them the time of day. The fruits of the Christian faith are seen through actions, and how FYE instructors choose to respond—especially for those challenging situations—provides an example for students.

Another space to display Christian virtues is through office hour interactions. My (Kara) office tends to be a space where the chair is revolving, with students coming in and out for a chance to express their emotions (or frustrations) and life situations, expecting some form of a response. These types of opportunities allow an FYE instructor to be an example while modeling discernment and humility, taking time to listen and serve.

Finally, FYE instructors are in a great place to model the Christian virtue of hospitality. This modeling can happen, for example, through organizing in-class meal times, such as potlucks. Ashley Woodiwiss emphasizes to FYE instructors “don’t forget to break bread”2 in considering routine yet extra-ordinary experiences like sharing a meal. Inviting students over to one’s home for a meal is another opportunity. This example is not only a way to model hospitality and give students time away from their dorm room, but it offers a chance to demonstrate what respectful family interactions and intentional time planning for guests can look like alongside physical and spiritual nourishment. Quite an investment of time and energy, having students in our homes always proves to be one of the most joy-giving experiences within our FYE work.


In summary, as most institutions facilitate some type of FYE program and seminar/class, Christian colleges and universities must do so in a way that is distinctly Christian. Not only does animating the FYE classroom with Christ-centered faith practices in the context of such programs, but it helps avoid mission drift and any claims of lip service toward faith-learning integration. Although numerous best practices exist in the literature around crafting FYE initiatives that promote student success, allowing Jesus to animate such an experience for students promotes a faith-informed process that stays true to the distinctiveness of Christian higher education.

Teaching students about using a Christian worldview to approach learning, pushing against the two lies they often believe about their identity, helping them see group work as an opportunity to love their neighbor, praying with and for them, and modeling Christian virtues are just a few ideological and practical ways to keep FYE classes distinct. This distinctiveness is paramount to combat against what James Burtchaell called the dying of the light.3 Given his critique that Christian colleges or universities no longer attempt to engage academic knowledge with the light of the gospel, this distinctiveness is perhaps more important now than ever. First-year experience courses are just one small flicker of light, but they have the potential to illuminate the college experience for students in a Christ-animating way. As such, instructors of FYE courses have a great opportunity to help maintain the soul of our Christian universities by keeping the faith.


  1. James K. A. Smith, “Keeping Time in the Social Sciences: An Experiment with Fixed-Hour Prayer and the Liturgical Calendar,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, ed. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 140-156.
  2. Ashley Woodiwiss, “From Tourists to Pilgrims: Christian Practices and the First-Year Experience,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, ed. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 138.
  3. James T. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).

Ryan W. Erck

Ryan W. Erck, Executive Director for the Division of Student Success at Gardner-Webb University.

Kara Alves

Kara Alves, Director of Success Initiatives and First-Year Experience at Gardner-Webb University.