Category Archives: Teaching Tips

What I think of group projects

I’ve always reserved a special place in my heart for group projects. It’s the same place that I reserve for pickles, cats, people who talk on their cell phone in quiet places, laptops with no battery life, small talk, and anything that needs to be described as “avant-garde.”

It’s a dark place.

Why is that? According to many educational experts, group projects are excellent teaching tools that help students learn in community and develop the skills they’ll need in the “real” world. According to most students, group projects are special form of hell created by sadistic professors who probably also pluck the wings off butterflies in their spare time.

Obviously there’s a disconnect somewhere.

What’s the problem? Working together and learning in community sounds great. But, in my experience, group projects look better on paper than they work in reality.

So, help me out here. What has your experience been? Have your group project experiences been like mine, or have you been a part of a few that actually worked well and were good learning experiences? If so, What makes for a good group project? (I can’t believe I just used the words “good,” “group,” and “project” in the same sentence. That has to violate some fundamental rule of English grammar.) Why did it work and what made it different from other, less effective, group projects?

I’m always trying to be careful not to allow my personality and preferences to limit my teaching techniques. Everyone should learn just like me. But, sadly, they don’t. So, I should be open to the possibility that some students might benefit from a teaching tool or methodology that has never held much value for me personally. If group projects have been good learning experiences for you, let me know. I may need to reconsider my long-standing resistance to such assignments.


Check Your Brain at the Door: Faith and Intellectual Freedom

Am I free? Not legally (I’m not in jail) or metaphysically (who knows if I have “free will”?) but intellectually. Do I have intellectual freedom? After all, I teach at a school with belief commitments. To get my job, I had to sign our Faculty Teaching Position. And, if I ever changed my mind on a core aspect of that document, my job would probably be in jeopardy. In that kind of situation, can I have any kind of real intellectual freedom? Or, am I really just kidding myself by thinking that I’m an academic.

If you live in a confessional world, do you need to leave your brain at the door?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether Roman Catholics have less intellectual freedom than other Christians because of the strongly confessional nature of the Catholic tradition. Michael Patton began the firestorm, and quite a few have chimed in since then. I don’t want to rehearse the whole debate, so check out Brian LePort’s summary for his comments and links to other good posts.

Most of the discussion so far has focused on whether Patton is right about Roman Catholicism. (Hint: The answer is ‘no’.) But, somewhat lost in all of this is his argument that true scholarship and confessional commitment are antithetical to one another. His comments on Catholicism are based on his Cartesian commitment to skepticism as methodologically necessary for real academic work. If you’re not willing to doubt every idea/belief, open to the possibility that you might be wrong, then you’re not really an academic.

If he’s right, then, any school with confessional commitments only has limited intellectual freedom (at best). And, based on that argument, the faculty at Western Seminary don’t really have academic freedom. We throw it away when we sign the Faculty Teaching Position. Our job status is connected to at least some of their beliefs. Change those beliefs, and we’re in trouble. So, we’re not really academics. We’re just defending the status quo.

Granted, faculty can always leave and try to find a job at another school. So, we haven’t killed intellectual freedom entirely. We’ve just cut off both its legs. It can still move around, but only by painfully dragging its bloody torso somewhere else.

As someone who teaches at such a school, I think there are some critical things wrong with this (common) argument. Brian LePort explains his reservations (and appreciations) in Five Thoughts on Objectivity, Open-Mindedness, and Scholarship. You should definitely check it out. But, let me add three additional concerns about this argument that I think we need to keep in mind.

1. It over-emphasizes the individual. This is the Enlightenment at its finest. Presuppositions and traditions are the enemy of intellectual progress. They must be challenged and questioned at every turn so that I, as the ultimate human authority in my life, can be confident that I am coming to know things as they actually are and not just how they have been presented to me. You never get the sense that intellectual activity is a communal activity in this approach. Instead, you’re left with the picture of the academic locked away in his/her office or lab, seeking Truth through the power of unimpaired reason. Given Patton’s clear commitments to doing theology in community, that seems like an odd stance.

2. It devalues institutions. This one is connected to the last, but the argument seems to betray a subtle anti-institutionalism. This view of academics makes the professor an independent contractor with no real connection or loyalty to particular institutions. The individual sticks around as long as he/she is satisfied with the institution’s position. And, if you change your mind and can no longer affirm those commitments? No worries, there’s always another one around the block. It’s church shopping at the academic level. (I may comment on this more later. This kind of subtle anti-institutionalism is rampant in evangelicalism.)

3. It neglects the importance of presuppositions. Many people make this mistake. Most recognize that we all have our presuppositions. They’re a necessary evil that we have constantly guard against. And, there is some truth to that. But, people often fail to recognize that presuppositional frameworks have value as well. No scientist is going to waste their time investigating whether the world is flat. They’ll assume that question is settled. It’s part of their presuppositional framework. And this allows them to use their time investigating other issues. The same is true in theology. For me, the deity of Christ is a “settled” issue. Not settled in the sense that everyone agrees, and not even settled in that I think I understand everything about what that means (who does?), but settled in that I think that it’s true and not really open to question. Does that make me less free? I don’t think so. If anything, I think it frees me up to pursue other issues. Recognizing that some doors should stay closed, grants me the freedom to go through others. Being “open” to everything leads to bondage, not freedom. So, it’s not just a matter of acknowledging our presuppositions, but embracing them as necessary for real intellectual freedom.

Do I have intellectual freedom? Absolutely. I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from knowing who I am as a part of an ecclesial community with a clear sense of its history, identity, and purpose. And, I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from a community that raises hard questions and explores new ideas together, supporting each other as we strive toward faithful Christian living in a broken world. And, I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from seeing some things as “settled” so that I’m free to spend my time on other issues.

Granted, I don’t have the kind of intellectual freedom that’s willing to throw off all of that in favor of an individualistic pursuit of rational autonomy. But that’s okay. I’m not interested in that kind of freedom anyway.

Dorothy Sayers on the Lost Tools of Learning (and a happy birthday)

Today marks Dorothy Sayers‘ 118th birthday (June 13, 1893). Writer, theologian, poet, essayist, and playwright, Sayers did it all. And, she did it amazingly well.

To commemorate her birthday, here are some excerpts from her essay on The Lost Tools of Learning. Regardless of whether you agree with her argument that we need to return to medieval models of education (and the way this argument has been used by the classical and home schooling movements), her comments on the importance of learning to think are outstanding:

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?


Is not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned—that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play “The Harmonious Blacksmith” upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle “The Last Rose of Summer.” Why do I say, “as though”? In certain of the arts and crafts, we sometimes do precisely this—requiring a child to “express himself” in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job. But observe: it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium. He, having learned by experience the best way to economize labor and take the thing by the right end, will start off by doodling about on an odd piece of material, in order to “give himself the feel of the tool.”


For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of “subjects”; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education—lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

What are the best/worst classes you’ve ever taken?

I’ve spent some time recently talking with various people about classes they took in school, whether they found them worthwhile, and what schools can do to improve the quality of their education. It’s been fascinating. So, I thought I’d post a few of the questions that I’ve been using and see what you all think. If you want to make a comment, please don’t feel like you have to answer all four questions. Just respond to the ones that seem most interesting to you.

Feel free to offer comments on any class that you’ve taken in college, graduate school, or seminary. I’ve added my own answers in red. (Note to my students: You don’t have to list any of my classes as your favorite class. Of course, if you don’t, I will remember that the next time that you take a class from me. I’ll try to be gracious, but I can’t make any promises.)

1. What was your favorite class? Why?

Hebrew exegesis. Since I didn’t have any Hebrew as an undergrad, my Hebrew classes in seminary were eye-opening and challenging in the best way.

2. What was one class that you’d take over again if you could?

Philosophy. There’s still so much there that I’m just now starting to understand.

3. What was one class that you didn’t think was worth the money?

I once took a class on Christian education in which I’m pretty sure that I learned absolutely nothing. Granted, it may have been my own fault. But still, I wouldn’t mind having that money back.

4. What is one class that you wish had been offered when you were in school?

Any class on the great figures of Christian theology (Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, etc.). I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that I teach a series of classes on such figures now.

What about you? If you can spare a few minutes from your weekend? What do you think about the various classes that you’ve taken so far?

To Skype or Not to Skype: Technology in the Classroom

As my students can attest, I’m constantly fiddling with my classes. Almost every semester, I’m trying some kind of experiment, testing out some new content or a new way of delivering that content, getting feedback from students, and tossing what didn’t work. I’m sure it drives some students batty. But hey, it builds character.

One thing I haven’t tried yet is video-conferencing or live streaming in the classroom. I’ve done a lot with recorded material, and I’ve had students participate by phone several times, but I haven’t yet experimented with live video content. From other professors I’ve talked to, this approach has some tremendous benefits, as well as a few significant problems.

On the positive side:

  1. It makes it easier to use guest lecturers in the classroom. The costs associated with bringing a guest lecturer to campus are usually prohibitive unless the right person just happens to be in town (not terribly common in Portland). But, video-conferencing makes it far easier. Indeed, one of our professors in San Jose, routinely uses this approach to allow students to interact with the authors of books they’ve read for class. Talk about a great learning opportunity.
  2. It makes the classroom accessible to a much broader audience. Western has had a pretty aggressive distance education program for a long time,  making most of our courses available to people who don’t live in Portland. And, that’s a great thing. Live streaming takes this a step further and opens the classroom itself to more people.
  3. It makes it easier for students who need to miss a class. The Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting article on this a few weeks back, “Absent Students Want to Attend Traditional Classes via Webcam.” I’ve already experienced this in classes that I’ve supported with recorded material. Students no longer have to scramble afterward to copy another student’s notes, hoping that she was paying attention in class. Instead, they can just view the lecture/discussion for themselves.

On the negative side:

  1. The technology isn’t always as stable as you’d think. Nearly every professor that I’ve talked with who has used some kind of live online content has a story about the technology not working properly and the classroom time that they wasted troubleshooting and fiddling with the technology. Even seasoned technology like Skype can glitch unexpectedly, costing precious classroom time.
  2. It can be frustrating for the students who are physically present. I can’t imagine that there’s anything more annoying that sitting in a class watching a professor fiddle with some technology designed to make the lecture available to people elsewhere. You have to be thinking, ” Hey, I’m right here! I spent good money on this class, so let’s get started.”
  3. Students may be tempted to skip class more often. This is one of the more commonly cited worries whenever you talk about making classes available outside the classroom like this. And, I’m sure it’s a worry that’s worth talking bout seriously. As the video clip below from the movie Real Genius demonstrates, though, this is a worry that’s been around for a while.

What do you think? If you’re a teacher and you’ve used these technologies in the classroom, what did you think? Was it worth it? Or, if you’re a student (or you used to be one), have you been in a class that used video-conferencing or live-streaming? Did you find it distracting or beneficial? Did it contribute to or detract from your learning experience?


Why didn’t I get that teaching job?

Few things in life are more frustrating than going through all the work of applying and interviewing for a position that you really want and feel you are very qualified for…and not getting it. Fortunately, I was blessed with a position at Western pretty early in my job-hunting career, so I haven’t experienced this as much as most. But, I feel your pain.

If this is happened to you, or if you think it might happen to you, Timothy Larson Larsen from Wheaton College offers some insight into why you didn’t get that teaching job, by addressing the four most common questions people ask when they didn’t get that teaching position they so badly wanted. I can’t imagine actually asking the first question (out loud), but the others are ones I’ve heard more than once.

  • Given how eminently well qualified I am for this position, how can you possibly justify eliminating me so early in the process?
  • I know I was eliminated over a month ago, so why have you not had the decency to tell me so?
  • How in the world can you expect someone applying for an entry-level position to already have a handful of research articles in major peer-reviewed journals and a book contract with a leading university press?
  • What did I do wrong?

His answers are well worth reading if you an insider’s look at how the hiring process works at a major Christian college.

Rethinking education

Here’s an interesting, animated lecture from Sir Ken Robinson on changing educational paradigms in America today. I actually meant to post this last month when Brian LePort commented on it, but I forgot. So, thanks to Daniel Kirk for pointing it out again.


The Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism was written and approved by the Synod of Heidelberg on January 19, 1563.  The catalyst for the writing of this document was Frederick III, the sovereign of the Palatinate from 1559 to 1576.  He wanted to combine the best of Lutheran and Reformed teaching in a manner that would be easily accessible to the people of his territory.  He also wanted to counteract the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and so the Heidelberg Catechism based each of its statements on Scripture.  It consists of fifty-two sections (one section to be read on each Lord’s day) and has 129 questions and answers dealing with the fall of man, his redemption, and proper response to the Lord.  It became one of the most popular Reformed Catechism’s and was used extensively by Reformed churches in several different countries.  Its influence reached the Westminster Assembly who used it in the formation of the Shorter Catechism.

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

The end is here….

The end of grading, that is! I finished the last of my papers and submitted final grades this afternoon. I still need to write up some of comments in a way that might actually be comprehensible to my students. But otherwise, I’m all done. And, I have to see that overall, I’m very pleased. Although I like to complain about grading, students in all of my classes did very well and challenged me to see a variety of issues in new ways. And I get paid for this!

Also, if you’ve been following any of the Th.M. discussions on philosophy and theology this semester, stay tuned. We’ll be posting some of the students’ research papers here over the next few weeks, including papers on Gadamer and Derrida, Aquinas, dualism, a theology of place, speech-act theory, and foundationalism – among others. Good stuff.

Types of graders: optimist, pessimist, and realist