Category Archives: Teaching Tips

Texting in class

Inside Higher Ed had an interesting post today on the a recent study that was done to measure how much texting takes place in university classrooms. Here are some of the findings that they reported:

  • 95 percent of students bring their phones to class every day.
  • 91 percent have used their phones to text message during class time.
  • Almost half of respondents said it was easy to text in class without instructors being aware.
  • 99 percent said they should be permitted to retain their cell phones while in class.
  • 62 percent said they should be allowed to text in class as long as they don’t disturb their classmates. (About a quarter of the students stated that texting creates a distraction to those sitting nearby.)
  • 10 percent said that they have sent or received text messages during exams, and 3 percent admitted to transmitting exam information during a test.

First, fess up. Have you ever texted in a class? Second, what do you think about texting in class (never, sometimes, who cares)?

I’ll get things started by admitting that I’ve texted in class. And, it was my own class. (The class had just broken into small discussion groups, and I was momentarily free.) And, I’ve sent emails while sitting in a class many times. (Is there any real difference between texting and emailing during a class?)

When frustrated teachers get honest


Old schools vs. new schools

I love to listen to the rhetoric that older, more established schools and newer, less traditional schools fling back and forth at each other. It’s a fascinating display of semantic nuance. Reading Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals, I came across the following scene in which Lord Vetinari (i.e. The Boss) is describing two such institutions to Archancellor Ridcully, head of the more traditional school.

“What we have here, gentlemen, is but a spat between the heads of a venerable and respected institution and an ambitious, relatively inexperienced, and importunate new school of learning.”

“Yes, that’s what we’ve got all right,” said Ridcully.

Vetinari raised a finger. “I hadn’t finished, Archancellor. Let me see now. I said that what we have here is a spat between an antique and somewhat fossilized, elderly and rather hidebound institution and a college of vibrant newcomers full of fresh and exciting ideas.”

“Here, hand on, you didn’t say that the first time,” said Ridcully.

Veintari leaned back, “Indeed I did.”

Two very different perceptions of the same academic realities. And, as the technology-in-education debate really starts to heat up, it should be interesting to see where the rhetoric goes from here.

On the need for both scientia and sapientia

Augustine distinguished between scientia (knowledge perceived from the external world through the senses) and sapientia (knowledge, or wisdom, concerned with eternal reality). Augustine understood knowledge (scientia) and wisdom (sapientia) as ‘separate instruments for learning God’. Concluding that both scientia and sapientia are necessary for the theological task, Ellen Charry observes, ‘Modern academic theology has largely limited itself to scientia. While it is essential for pointing seekers in the right direction, in Augustine’s view scientia alone is unable to heal us. The goal of scientia is to move the seeker to sapientia, wisdom.’

(Linda Cannell, Theological Education Matters: Leadership Education for the Church (Newburgh, IN: EDCOT Press, 2006))

The five stages of grading-grief

Here’s a great post reflecting on the five stages of grading: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, resignation. If those sound a lot like the five stages of grief, it’s because there are close parallels between grading and grief.

My favorite:

Denial.  At this stage, the instructor is unwilling to acknowledge the size of the task ahead of him or her. An instructor in denial may be heard to say things like, “It’s not really that many essays, when you think about it.” An instructor in denial will grossly overestimate his or her potential assignment-per-hour output. Denial at the syllabus-creation stage of course development can lead to tears. Denial can also manifest itself as avoidance, where grading is put aside in favour of vastly more important activities like cleaning the fridge, baking, working out, or writing elaborate blog posts about the stages of grading.

Read the rest here.

If You Read the Bible in English You Should Thank This Guy.

English reformer William Tyndale was born around 1494 and died this day in 1536.  He was the key figure in translating the Bible into the English language so that lay people could read the text on their own.  He was influenced by Erasmus who had made the Greek New Testament available in England.  Although some partial English translations were around at the time, Tyndale was the first to use the original Greek and Hebrew, and was also the first to take it to print.  He was labeled a heretic by both the Catholic Church and the Church of England, who at the time thought the “uneducated” populous could not be trusted to interpret Scripture correctly, and saw an English translation of the Bible that lay people could read as a threat to their authority.  For his heroic translating of Scripture into the language of the people, Tyndale was arrested by church authorities and jailed in the castle of Vilvoorde outside Brussels for over a year in 1535.  He was subsequently tried for heresy, strangled, and burnt at the stake on October 6, 1536.  A good thing for us to remember as we read the Bible in English today.  We benefit to this day from the sacrifice of great saints who have run the race prior to us.

Birth of a Legend!

If you’re a Jonathan Edwards fan, then you may want to mark your calendar.  On October 5, 1703 Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut.  The Stanford Encyclopedia claims that Edwards was the most important and original philosophical theologian that America has ever produced.  George Marsden, who wrote what many consider to be the foremost biography on Edwards, echoes that sentiment by saying that Edwards was one of America’s greatest intellectuals.  During his lifetime he served as a pastor, was extremely influential in the First Great Awakening, championed Reformed theology, and was the President of the College in New Jersey (now Princeton University).  His legacy includes “scores of clergymen, thirteen presidents of higher learning, sixty-five professors, and many other persons of notable achievements.” He was an influential man during his life on earth, and three hundred years later he is still influencing theologians.  Desiring God has provided a list of the best Edwards-related resources by Pastor John Piper found on their site.

Don’t forget the Logos giveaway

I  know that most of us are financially set since our Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills. But for anybody who needs a new computer . . .  Logos is having a giveaway! I have been using the Logos for Mac as a beta and have been very impressed with it, and Logos version 4 is a fabulous study tool for studying God’s Word.

Logos Bible Software is giving away thousands of dollars of prizes to celebrate the launch of Logos Bible Software 4 Mac on October 1. Prizes include an iMac, a MacBook Pro, an iPad, an iPod Touch, and more than 100 other prizes!

They’re also having a special limited-time sale on their Mac and PC base packages and upgrades. Check it out!

Rethinking the purpose of tests in theological education

Yesterday, James McGrath asked about the impact of technology on the way that we are teaching our classes. And, he specifically wants to know what impact this does (or should) have on our testing methodology. As he puts it:

I have found myself considering phasing out exams of the traditional sort, in which I essentially test what they have been able to remember. Information is available with a few clicks of their thumbs, and so it seems better to instead test students’ ability to find reliable information online, rather than test their ability to remember it.

I’ve been wrestling with a similar question in my theology classes for a while now. What exactly is the purpose of an exam in a theology class? The theology exams I took as an undergrad focused primarily on simple recall. As long as I could memorize and retain the information from the notes, I was good to go. Seminary upped the ante by making better use of short-answer essay questions. Even here, though, the focus was on remembering the notes and discussions so I could answer the essay questions properly. But, as McGrath points out, in our technological age, recall simply isn’t as important as it used to be.

So, if recall isn’t the point of a theological test, what is?” What exactly should I be trying to assess? The conclusion that I’ve reached is that a theological exam (I think the purpose of an exam varies from one discipline to the next) should be about what students can do with the knowledge that they have, rather than just what they can recall. And here my emphasis has gone in a slightly different direction than what McGrath proposes. In his post, he focused on the skill of being able to find information. That’s an important skill that should be taught and assessed. But it seems more rightly assessed in papers and other assignments. Since I’m largely training people for ministry, I’ve chosen to focus my examinations more on the students’ ability to use their theological knowledge by applying it to new issues and situations. In other words, I’ve focused my exams on assessing whether students can “think theologically” when they encounter real-life situations in ministry.

But, how do you do that? This, of course, is the challenging question. And, I’m open to suggestions. The way that I decided to do it last year was to redesign my exams entirely around case studies. I would first determine the theological issue that I wanted to examine my students on. Then, I would reflect on how that theological issue has contemporary significance for life and ministry. And finally, I’d create a question that (hopefully) forced students to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation, many of which were drawn from my own ministry experiences.

For example, in an exam dealing with theological anthropology, I wanted a question on creation/evolution issues. I could simply have asked the students to write an essay explaining/defending their position. Instead, I went with the following:

You’re having a meeting with a youth leader who has been teaching students that God created humans through evolutionary processes (i.e. theistic evolution) and a parent who is upset because he believes that this contradicts the Bible. How will you handle this discussion? Will you side with one person or the other? Why? What would you like to see happen as the result of the conversation?
The advantages of a case study question like this are (at least):
  • The question itself continues to show students that theology is not an abstract discipline. It has direct bearing on life and ministry. I think a good exam should continue to teach by reinforcing what you think is important.
  • It pushes beyond a mere statement of the students’ position, though it should still elicit that. It asks the student to apply their perspective to a real ministry situation.
  • The final part of the question is there to see if students have made the connection between theological conversations like this and spiritual formation. I want to see if they’re just going to focusing on “winning” the argument, or if they’ll see this as a way of growing people through theological dialog. (We discuss this in class; so it’s not unexpected.)

I did learn some valuable lessons from this last year. First, exams like this take the students a lot longer to complete. I had to make mid-semester adjustments to keep the exams within reason. Second, writing questions like this is harder than I expected. I routinely received good answers from students that weren’t quite what I was looking for. The evolution question above, for example, often elicited responses that said almost nothing about the students own perspective. (They focused more on how to “handle” the situation.)  Since I want that to be a part of the response, I’ll need to adjust the question next time. Third, the students liked the new approach (or they lied to me, one of the two). The exams became opportunities for lively discussion afterward and several students commented that they even shared the exam questions with people at their churches.

What do you think? What should a theology class in a seminary be trying to accomplish, and how do we best assess whether that has happened?

Yes….Rap Can Help With Theology!

I’ve recently had some conversations with some students who are wrestling with all of the Christian terminology surrounding the atonement.  I believe this is a great teaching tool for Theology Professors, and would be worthy of having students memorize in order to get a better grasp on common terms and their definitions.  Although N.T. Wright would not agree with some of the definitions……I don’t think he visits our blog much and many still see them as correct.  If you don’t like rap, just mute and watch!