Laura Chesniak-Phipps and Laura Terry (Grand Canyon University)
Faculty members at a Christian university are typically expected to integrate faith into the curriculum. Not only is this encouraged by the administration and falls in line with the mission and vision of the university, but it is also expected by many students. A previous study suggested that students who attend Christian institutions anticipated that their education would prepare them for their future career and also strengthen their spirituality (Sherr, Huff & Curran, 2007). Often, faith integration is defined at the university level and does not consider the students’ perception of this integration (Burton & Nwosu, 2003). As faculty at a Christian university, we were interested in learning from students how they perceived the Integration of Faith and Learning (IFL). The goal was to determine where IFL was apparent and how faculty could best include this element in their courses. Results of this investigation provided us with insight into student perceptions and offered an opportunity for us to share suggestions with institutions and professors interested in IFL.
In order to examine this issue, students who were enrolled in Introduction to Psychology courses were asked to participate in focus groups. Focus groups were selected for data collection because they allow for follow-up questions to clarify, and gain a richer understanding of, participant responses. Focus groups, consisting of 50 students, lasted approximately one hour and participants were asked five questions. Students were first asked to sign informed consent forms and then were separated into groups of 7-8. Questions were presented one at a time, and participants were asked to spend a few minutes to individually respond. They were given small pieces of paper and told to write down one response per paper and then were asked to share their responses with their group. When ideas were shared, group members with similar ideas were to indicate that a theme was identified. This allowed for organic coding within the small groups. Finally, the groups were asked to report their responses to the whole group so that themes could be identified and ideas could be grouped. After the focus group was complete, the researchers examined the categories that were created by the students and categorized responses into logical themes.
Professor Led Integration
One of the main findings of the focus groups was that participants viewed instructors as being primarily responsible for faith integration. Participants also reported that they experienced faith integration in some classes but not in others. This suggests that while instructors are seen as primarily responsible for integrating faith, not all are doing so. It may be that some instructors do not feel comfortable integrating faith, or are not sure how to go about doing so. These results support findings from past research (Dykstra, Foster, Kleiner & Koch, 1995; Hall, Ripley, Garzon & Mangis, 2009) which indicated that professors play an integral role in integration of faith in the classroom and should be considered the main source of IFL. From examining previous studies, and the current focus group work, it is clear that students see their professors as not only leaders in their field, but also factors in their development of faith and as a connection between faith and their specific discipline. These results suggest that universities should consider professors as primary agents for the integration of faith and should provide training and necessary resources to support them in this endeavor.
Integration across Disciplines
It was not surprising that when participants were asked about in which types of classes they saw IFL, the majority responded theology. However, they also reported IFL in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), humanities, communications, business and fine arts classes. Furthermore, with the exception of theology, the participants also reported perceived difficulty integrating faith into the above disciplines. This suggests that while classes focusing on religion can easily include components of faith, it is possible to integrate faith into all classes, regardless of the discipline. One reason for this may be that individual professors who teach these classes have a strong faith-base. This also presents an opportunity to explore the curriculum and determine where faith can be integrated organically within each discipline, regardless of an instructor’s religious background. While some of these areas may be more challenging than others, participant responses indicated that there is integration which suggests it is possible and it can be successful.
Solutions for Integration
Due to the responsibility of IFL resting primarily on the professor, the training, resources, and materials may help to increase instructor knowledge and confidence. A standardized curriculum could also be developed to include the integration of faith into specific topics within the class. Instructors who are noted as being skilled with integrating faith can be consulted when developing curricula. Dykstra et al. (1995) identified a level of integration where courses can be designed with the inclusion of IFL activities. Incorporating elements of faith into courses through a centralized curriculum would ensure that, despite individual differences in instructors, students will receive the same types of integration. Universities that do not adopt a fully centralized curriculum but want to integrate faith seamlessly, may choose to incorporate assignments or discussion questions that can be used by all faculty members. This would make certain that, despite individual differences in instructors, students will receive the integration they desire.
Past research suggested that discussion is one of the most common types of integration (Hall et al., 2009) and that this is a path for students to process their personal views (Dyksta et al., 1995). In the focus groups, only a small number of participants reported that class discussion was where they experienced IFL. Some focus group participants referred to the main discussion forum in the online learning management system as a place where discussion could be used. One option could be to have instructors incorporate pre-written discussion questions into the learning management system that focus on IFL. If there are instructors who are not comfortable with IFL in their classroom, pre-written discussion questions that tie into content of the course could be added to provide an avenue to incorporate and discuss faith. Professors who are less comfortable integrating faith or do not have the personal experience to do so can still provide IFL for their students.
Students indicated several ways in which faith could be integrated into the classroom and campus experiences. Examples included prayer and personal expression that demonstrate the fruits of the spirit. Prayer in the classroom can be achieved in a variety of ways, from professor led prayer to students taking turns leading prayers, or through online discussion forums. One option professors might choose to use for incorporation is a prayer forum in their learning management system. This provides an opportunity for students to share their prayer requests and to pray for each other.
IFL is an important part of the curriculum at Christian universities and understanding student perceptions of integration can lead to more effective strategies. As faculty members, we strive to deliver a quality education to our students and support the mission and vision of our university. Understanding our student’s perceptions allows us to examine what is being done well and what can be improved upon. While this study focuses on IFL, important lessons can be derived for other learning institutions. In higher education, it is important to understand curricular objectives that are being delivered to students.
Individual differences in instruction can be leveled by providing a standard curriculum to ensure that all graduates, regardless of their program of study, class modality, or instructor, receive a quality education.
Burton, L.D., & Nwosu, C.C. (2003). Student perceptions of the integration of faith, learning, and practice in an educational methods course. Journal of Research on Christian Education 12(2), 101-135.
Chu, J. (2005) Faith and frat boys. Higher Education Research Institute, 165 (19). 48-50.
Dykstra, M. L., Foster. J. D., Kleiner, K. A., Koch, C. J. (1995). Integrating across the psychology curriculum: A correlation review approach. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 23(4). 278-288.
Hall, L. E. M., Ripley, J. S., Garzon, F. L., Mangis, M. W. (2009). The other side of the podium: Student perspectives on learning integration. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 37(1). 15-27.
Sherr, M., Huff, G., & Curran, M. (2007). Student perceptions of salient indicators of integration of faith and learning (IFL): The Christian vocation model. Journal of Research on Christian Education, 16(1), 15-33.