In May of 2021, I finished my thirtieth year as an English professor and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University. Over the years, I have marked my growth as a professor by the continual research, publishing, and speaking I have done in my areas of specialization. I have marked it as well by my devotion to dialoguing with my colleagues, serving my university, and ministering to my students inside and outside the classroom.
One measure that has, until recently, been of less value to me is keeping up with the latest trends in pedagogy. Most of these fashionable techniques, I have found, have proven to be short-lived, out of touch with the actual classroom, and, frequently, grounded in worldviews that are incompatible with, if not hostile to, Christianity. All of that changed two years ago when HBU encouraged me and my fellow professors to read and reflect on Saundra Yancy McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn (Stylus, 2015).
McGuire advocates for metacognition, a type of pedagogical approach that emphasizes teaching students to think about thinking and so become aware of how they learn and process information. The book is well-written and full of helpful tips, but it was not primarily the book that changed my mind about pedagogy and that impelled me to alter my approach to teaching. It was, rather, a challenge from the Holy Spirit to take a long and honest look at my students and their actual skills and needs.
It was not my graduate training but my Christian faith—grounded as it is in a savior who did not just study us dispassionately but became one of us—that opened my eyes to the simple fact that my students today are not the same as they were thirty years ago. Their listening, comprehension, and memorization skills have declined, and, though they are just as bright and eager as previous generations, they are more easily distracted and have more difficulty sifting and synthesizing information.
Now, in times past, I would have responded to this inconvenient truth with a refusal to “dumb down” my curriculum or to “spoon-feed” students who just needed to work harder. Worse yet, I would have justified this response with an appeal to upholding “Christian” standards of education. This time, however, I allowed my knowledge of Christ and the gospels to temper my “professional” prejudices.
Did not Jesus, in John’s gospel, adopt different teaching techniques when he interacted with the sophisticated, highly-educated Nicodemus (chapter 3) and the poorly-educated, socially-outcast Samaritan woman at the well (chapter 4)? Did he not also communicate differently with the pharisees and the man born blind (chapter 9) and with the Jewish high priest and Roman governor (chapters 18-19)? And did he not, after the resurrection, minister differently to Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Peter (chapters 20-21)?
Lowering standards is not the same thing as accommodating needs; one can meet students where they are without sacrificing academic rigor. Just as the early church ministered to Gentiles without the law, not by compromising the call to follow Christ, but by reaching down in order to lift them up to that call, so it should be the duty and the joy of Christian professors and universities to edify and equip less-skilled, less-prepared students so that they may participate in the Great Conversation that has been going on since the two epics of Homer and the five books of Moses.
This Great Educational Commission, vital to all the Christian colleges and universities in our country, has become even more so at HBU. Serving as we do the diverse population of Houston, we have been entrusted by God with a large percentage of first generation students. These students, the first in their family to pursue a college degree, are often less prepared than other students, while having more family responsibilities that cut into their study time. Along with my university and my colleagues, I have taken up the challenge of connecting with these students and ensuring that they thrive and flourish at HBU.
Here are five pedagogical innovations I have adopted, many influenced by McGuire’s book, that have helped me to enhance student learning, enthusiasm, educational buy in, and grades. And all that without compromising standards!
FIRST and foremost, I gave myself permission as a professor to cover less material in class than I used to cover thirty, or even ten, years ago. Rather than race through information in a superficial way, I decided to privilege quality over quantity. That meant going through my subject matter and highlighting those parts of it that were central and those that were peripheral, of interest to me and my fellow academics but not to students in the liberal arts core who were majoring outside the humanities.
Once I accepted, without grumbling or sighing, that my students could not absorb as much material as I wanted them to, I refocused my energies on helping them to learn well and to retain what they learned. After all, if I were asked to disciple a new Christian, I would not overwhelm him with systematic theology, but would focus on the basic story of scripture, the key teaching and miracles of Jesus, and the essential tenets of “mere” Christianity as laid down in Acts and the epistles.
SECOND, I constructed essay prompts for my students that were highly detailed, that made my expectations crystal clear, and that laid out precisely how the essays were to be organized. If I had one or two students who were skilled in writing and who wanted to pursue a major in the humanities, I would allow them to come up with a different prompt that interested them. Nevertheless, for the vast majority of my students, I found that my prescriptive prompts helped relieve their performance anxiety and keep them on track.
I found that I had even more success when I included in my prompt a personal dimension that allowed students to analyze themselves and to connect their own lives, talents, and goals with the works they were reading and the specific subjects on which they were writing. As a practical bonus, this addition of a personal element made it very difficult for students to plagiarize their essays!
THIRD, I adopted a simple technique for guiding my students more consciously and deliberately in their reading. I did this by emailing them each weekend with a set of directed reading questions for the coming week, so they would know what to focus on as they did their readings for class. I then reinforced the reading questions by continually returning to them as we worked our way through whatever work we were reading.
I would also return periodically to the questions when we read a different work that touched on the same themes. Often, rather that bring up the question myself, I would stop and ask students if they saw in the work a theme that we had discussed in an earlier class. This not only forced students to make connections between the works we were reading, but also built in them a feeling of pride and joy as they slowly realized that they did not need me to make the connections for them. They were learning to see the forest as well as the trees, the pattern as well as the individual threads.
FOURTH, I embraced the pedagogical power of repetition and reinforcement. To do so, I had to overcome my fear of sounding like a broken record and accept that learning and retention, especially for this generation of students, relies strongly on repetition. In my classes, I accomplished this by beginning each new week with a quick but thorough review of what we had covered the previous week. By doing so, I drove home continually the main themes of the class.
FIFTH, I carried the changes I had made to reading, writing, and class discussion into the sacred realm of exams. Though it was difficult for me, I surrendered a solemn oath I had taken earlier in my teaching career that I would never give college students study guides for their exams. For me, study guides were indicative of high school and had no place in a college curriculum. Letting go of that ancient ultimatum was not easy, for doing so made me feel like I was compromising my standards. But it had to be done.
What I now do in my liberal arts core classes is go through the directed reading questions and, from them, construct fifteen short essay questions. I then email those questions to my students and tell them their test will consist of four essays chosen out of the fifteen. Although the test itself is closed book and closed notes, several days before the test, I offer an optional study session (by zoom) during which I go over all fifteen essays. I record the session and put it online (in privacy mode) on my YouTube channel, so the students can watch it as many times as they would like to prepare for the exam. This technique has improved test grades, but, more importantly, it has promoted a rich understanding of the material and greater engagement with the key themes of the class.
If the legalistic, church-persecuting Saul could be transformed into the great Christian missionary of grace, then surely old professors like me can learn new tricks for teaching and ministering to students!