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Confessions on Integrating Faith and Learning from a Pastor-turned-College-Instructor

Posted Tuesday, May 13th, 2014 Tagged:

Special guest blogger, Mark Thomas, shares from the heart about his journey and intent to integrate faith and learning as a professor at Greenville College. I hope you find his thoughtful reflections both encouraging and challenging. Thank you, Mark, for sharing this compelling exhortation!


Mark Thomas, Assistant Professor

I am not an expert in faith-and-learning integration. But I made the mistake of assuming that I was. For 20 years I worked primarily with small, redeveloping congregations. Most of that time I taught a midweek Bible study, a youth group, and a Sunday School class every week. This was in addition to Lenten and Advent study groups, confirmation classes and the like. My family and educational background thoroughly drilled me in establishing goals and objectives and writing lesson plans that included knowledge of the students, the environment, the resources available and the time. Spiritual development and faith formation were a part of almost everything I taught in the church. So when I was invited to teach a college class at Greenville, I thought the concept of integrating faith and learning would be second nature to me.

One of the first courses was entitled “Principles of Leadership.” The course curriculum was built around a servant-leader model with which I readily identified. Because I could not conceive of leadership apart from the Perfect Example of leadership, I found myself exhorting the students to live a life “worthy of the calling to which you were called” (Eph. 1:1). It was part content-absorption, part spiritual-formation, part pep-rally. The student feedback showed they felt challenged and invited at a deeper level. And this, to me, is the point of faith/learning integration. To fulfill our vision and mission statements requires us to somehow make the Word of God become incarnate in the content of lectures and texbooks.

One of the next classes I was asked to teach was “Values and Ethics.” Here again, the topic seemed to be closely tied to the values of my faith. My rude awakening arrived in the form of student evaluations which essentially said, “I learned that what’s right is in the eye of the beholder.” Students compartmentalized their faith rather than engaging it. How could that have happened, when I intentionally included examples of how a Christian faith-perspective could influence one’s thinking in several of the case studies?

Self-reflection and some analysis of my presentation of the two courses revealed two basic differences: foundational thinking and foundational being. Foundational thinking with respect to faith/learning integration implies that the story of Jesus is somehow fundamental to the course content and its application. This in turn shapes language, and language has value. In the Leadership course, every leadership concept for me found its origin in what Jesus did. My language reflected the incarnational nature of Christ’s body in the invitations I issued to be Christ-like. But while I gave Christ-centered examples in the Ethics class, my language was different. I essentially presented a Christian worldview perspective as one among many worldviews that could be applied to the decision-making models and case studies. In truth, this was the way I was taught ethics in seminary, and it confused me then. This reflects a cultural tendency to compartmentalize various aspects of our lives. Faith/learning integration therefore requires intentionality to achieve. William Hasker has written an excellent article on how integration is more than just adding Christian examples, or using one’s discipline as examples of Christian truth. As instructors, we must do the difficult task of seeing how our disciplines first fit into the overall truth of God’s great story of creation and redemption. It is at that point that our language changes.

Equally, it is at that point that we as instructors may also find ourselves being changed. In my case, I had formerly thought of myself in the role of teacher as primarily a vehicle for information-transmission. Ironically, I just couldn’t see myself as a teacher in the Leadership class – but rather as a leader. I dreamed that others in the class could become leaders, too, and used the very principles being taught in the class to invite leadership. But my natural tendency returned in the Ethics class. From my long history as a pastor, it was easier for me to dream about fostering leaders than ethicists. But if we are truly saints, then by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are carrying on the work of Christ in the world. And that makes us change agents. Information can certainly be transformational. But love is even more so. As Christian instructors, I believe faith-learning integration requires faith-person integration as well, letting the mind of Christ shape our thinking about our students and our vocation.

It is slightly embarrassing to me that I did not learn all of these things in 7 years of seminary training and 20 years of pastoring. I could have intellectually said that when teaching, I was fulfilling an important role of “creating disciples.” But it took a negative review and some God-given help and insight to begin to realize that for us, the college classroom may be the closest equivalent we have to sitting at Jesus’ feet. Having written five paragraphs on this topic now, I am suddenly beginning to wonder if “faith/learning integration” does not perpetuate the myth that faith and learning are two realms that need integrating. Perhaps “faith-drenched learning,” or “learning as a facet of faith” would be more to the point. For me, is a bit like Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing;” we are at our best as instructors when we are constantly aware that we both stand in the presence of the living Christ as we teach, and that we are the Body of Christ as we invite our students to fulfill their best in Him.


Discussions 101

Posted Wednesday, May 7th, 2014 Tagged:

Benefits of Online Discussions

Online discussion boards offer many benefits to the teaching and learning process. They can be a great way to get to know one another and build a strong sense of respectful community. Many students prefer the online discussion board over a classroom discussion because it allows time to develop a more thoughtful, reflective, and organized response. Students who might otherwise “blend in” with a face-to-face class tend to blossom in online discussions where they sense more freedom to express their opinions. And, when using the discussion tool within the LMS (Desire2Learn), there will be a record of the discussion.

Purposes of Online Discussions

Likewise, there are a variety of purposes that can be addressed with discussion boards, such as: relational purposes (i.e. icebreakers), instructional purposes (i.e. point/counterpoint; to meet stated objectives or content specific topics), reflective purposes (i.e. role playing, brainstorming), or cooperative purposes (i.e. polling, peer review, group work). Whatever the purpose, discussions provide an avenue for active learning within online and hybrid courses. The advantages are also available to supplement face-to-face courses.

Active Learning & Teaching Through Discussions

Learning is about catching the concept. Active learning includes: concise postings, dialogue, reflection, netiquette, discussions connected to lived experiences, setting up discussion with good discussion starters, and continuing discussions with solid questions and teaching.

Role of the Instructor in Online Discussions

The role of an instructor within online discussions is very important! Your role in online discussions is to provide a safe, trusted environment where students’ thinking skills can be improved. As a facilitator, there are several best practices to keep in mind.

Establish trust within your course.
Respect age, diversity, and cultural differences.
Understand your learners.
Provide clear expectations.
Encourage critical thinking.
Ask good questions that: start, refocus, clarify, verify, narrow the focus, or support the discussion.
Provide focus to keep to a particular point or concept.
Start where the student is.
Assess both quality and quantity of student posts.
Participate in the discussion with students.
Do not dominate the discussion or allow others to.
Model what you want students to do.

Setting Clear Expectations

As mentioned, online discussions can serve a variety of purposes. Regardless of discussion type, instructors should establish and communicate what their expectations are for students. Establishing a rubric will help you clarify your expectations and expedite the grading process. Some guidelines to consider are:

Length requirement/word count of original posts
Deadline for posting
Length/word count for peer replies
Deadline for replying to peers
Number of peer replies
Spelling & grammar expectations
Quality expectations (i.e. “I agree” is not a sufficient reply)

Examples of BAD Discussion Forum Questions

In your family, describe how the mother and father are treated differently by the children.

This prompt assumes knowledge about a student’s family background. Even if the instructor knows something about a person’s family history, he should not exploit that or draw attention to it in the discussion.

This an interesting discussion. You shy people need to weigh in now.

Is everyone who posts after this going to be labeled as shy now? What value does the comment bring to the discussion?

What did you learn about systems management from watching American Idol last night?

Again this questions makes assumptions about a student’s personal interests.

What do the non-Christians in our group think of Christopher Stone’s essay on Generation X?

This question immediately creates a sense of “us” and “them” between Christians and non-Christians and violates the best practices of establishing trust and respecting diversity. It also does not bring focus or support to the discussion.

Examples of GOOD Discussion Questions

Provide an example of how you recently exhibited one of your strengths and how your strengths might help you make a team more effective in achieving a goal.

This prompt (relating to the Strengths Finder test), opens an opportunity for the student to share a personal insight that she is comfortable with, without making assumptions.

The character Marcellus says, late in Act I, that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90). That statement is a MAJOR theme of the entire play. And it becomes a theme with which we can identify, because we can look around our own nation and see “rottenness” of one kind or another. Chinua Achebe, in his 1960′s Nigerian novel, described it as “things fall apart.” And it is like the play Oedipus the King: Things are rotten; they are falling apart.

Pick out one thing that demonstrates this “rottenness” in Hamlet’s Denmark. Pick any example you can find in Act I of things NOT being the way they should be in a healthy society. Cite the example and explain why it illustrates “rottenness.”

This discussion prompt is very specific to the goals and content of the course. It is focused on the student’s ability to analyze dramatic text and support their analysis with evidence from that text.

The role of the quizzes is to be thought provoking rather than definitive. They will also cause you to begin to examine yourself as you continue in a leadership role. As the prompt stated, you should also look for areas that need improvement. While you said you could make improvements, you did not indicate what areas you felt needed work. Your peers would be able to make suggestions if given a specific area.

Here, the instructor has responded to a student’s discussion post. She offers clarity about the purposes of an assignment, explaining in terms that relate to the student’s interest. However, she also asks the student to expand on his original post, gently pointing out that area where he didn’t completely answer the original prompt and why that was important to the class discussion overall.

For Further Reading

Blended Learning: Adding Asynchronous Discussions to Your F2F Classrooms

Mastering Online Discussion-Board Facilitation by TeacherEase (PDF), available from Edutopia


Hybrid Flipped Classroom

Posted Wednesday, April 30th, 2014 Tagged:

Special thanks to guest blogger Megan Tyler, Education Instructor & Off-Campus Elementary Education Advisor, for sharing about these exciting changes in the UTEP program!

Greenville College’s Undergraduate Teacher Education Partnership (UTEP) Program is getting a new design.

Beginning Fall 2014, Greenville College’s Undergraduate Teacher Education Partnership (UTEP) Program will be launching its new hybrid – flipped classroom design.  This new structure provides many benefits to students entering the field of teacher education.  Instructors provide high quality learning experiences that actively engage students and strongly supports each individual on their learning journey.  The flipped classroom approach is not a new concept, but has recently been gaining more attention in higher education.  The launching of the newly designed UTEP program brings great excitement and is highly anticipated!

What exactly is the flipped classroom, and what will it look like in the UTEP program?

Often, face-to-face class sessions include a variety of lectures, presentations, discussion of readings and topics, media resources, and activities that introduce or explore relevant course content.  Students then complete homework and activities independently that reinforce and expand upon the content explored in class.  The flipped classroom takes a different approach by reversing activities completed “in” and “out” of the class sessions.  The students participate in activities that require problem-solving and necessitates the most support from the instructor during the face-to-face class session.  Other tasks that do not require support from the instructor are completed in an online environment in preparation for the face-to-face class session.

When designing a flipped course, we must ask ourselves two key questions:

1)   When is it that my students need my support the most?

2)   What can my students handle fully on their own?

It’s crucial that these two questions remain in this particular order as instructors think about how to develop a flipped course or how to modify an existing face-to-face course into a flipped course.

Let’s explore these two key questions.

1)    When is it that my students need my support the most?

Of course the answer to this question varies depending up on the course content; however, there are some overall generalizations that can be made.  Students tend to need us most when they are grappling with tough questions, when they are problem-solving new ideas and possibilities, and when they are confused or lack confidence in a particular concept.  They need to see modeling of how to tackle a problem, they need clarification and an opportunity to receive specific feedback, they desire personal connections specific to their learning, and long for interaction that validates and encourages their thinking.  This kind of support is better provided in a face-to-face format where instructors can provide strategic instruction and give students the time and attention they deserve.

2)   What can my students handle fully on their own?

Students are fully capable of completing most introductory learning tasks independently, especially 21st century learners.  Lectures and presentations can easily be recorded using a variety of technology tools and be made accessible to students in the online course room.  Discussions of readings and relevant course topics can take place through online dialogue on discussion boards or blogs that are moderated by the instructor.  Videos and other media resources can easily be explored online by placing links to the content inside the online learning system.  While deadlines and specific parameters still exist, more flexibility and convenience exists for students.  The online tasks can be completed within a specific window of time and learners have continual access to the course materials for reference and review, even as the course progresses and other topics are explored.

The table below highlights some recommendations that help distinguish activities that are more suited for face-to-face sessions versus the online learning environment.  These examples specifically focus on teacher education courses that emphasize methodologies of teaching:

Activities in the Face-to-Face Sessions

Activities in the Online Learning Environment

Lesson Planning

Unit Design

Assessment Training & Analysis

Collaborative Hands-On Learning Activities

Examination of Student Artifacts

Practical Application of Instructional Content

Exploration of Manipulatives & Materials

Interacting in Discussion Boards/Blogs

Viewing of Lectures/Presentations

Exploration of Media

(images, videos, websites)


Journaling & Reflective Responses

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