October 26 2020

A Proven Practice: Reflections on Teaching Online (Part I)

This is a the first in a series of posts called A Proven Practice, an initiative of AAR’s Teaching Religion Program Unit and Committee on Teaching and Learning to collect and share faculty pedagogical techniques that have shown promise in the transition to online learning as a result of COVID-19. Do you have a successful technique to share with colleagues? Submit it for publication! Read on for Part II of A Proven Practice.


Flexible Live Discussions in Distance Education

In the spring of 2020, I taught a course entitled “Women’s Spiritual Experiences.” The primary aims of the course were to explore and reflect upon the depths and complexities of women’s spirituality across centuries, continents, and religious traditions. Functioning as a capstone in an undergraduate general-education curriculum, this course attracted students from a variety of majors. While I previously taught the course in a traditional manner, this past spring I “flipped” the classroom. Thus, the majority of content, quizzes, and written assignments were accessible via Moodle and completed independently by students. This structure allowed for our weekly gatherings to be a site of thoughtful question-asking, creative expression, and generative discussion.

Then COVID-19 changed everything. In transitioning mid-semester to distance education, I wanted to retain a stimulating, dynamic, and open-ended space in the weekly rhythm of the course. Thus, in place of our gatherings, I created a weekly “flexible live discussion” assignment. This assignment had four key features. First, the discussion needed to happen in-person or via a video call. It could not occur in a written medium (e.g., text message, email, etc.). Second, students were given freedom in selecting a discussion partner. They certainly could choose a classmate but also could pick a parent, sibling, friend, etc. Students did not have to choose the same discussion partner every week. Third, it was the student’s responsibility to select something from each week’s content they wanted to discuss. The options for discussion were rich, often including documentaries, poems, interviews, and first-person reflections. Prior to their discussion, all parties needed to view or read the selected material. Fourth, after having the discussion, each student needed to submit a weekly “live discussion report” in which they noted when and where the discussion took place, what specific content was discussed, and how the discussion went.

Based on my own observations and student feedback, this assignment was quite successful. Students reported that their discussions generated new insights and assisted in furthering their understanding of the complexities and diversity of the course content. Moreover, through this assignment, students were empowered to take ownership of their own education in choosing what they wanted to discuss in a given week and whom they wanted to engage in discussion. In light of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, many students were living with built-in and willing discussion partners: family members. Students reported having substantive conversations with their parents, grandparents, and siblings that went far beyond what was typically discussed around their kitchen tables.

While this course was taught at an undergraduate liberal-arts university, student-initiated “flexible live discussions” could be adapted for other distance-education contexts. This assignment would work well in both small and large classes in a variety of subjects. At the same time, if this were a graduate-level course requiring advanced knowledge of the subject matter, a student may be limited in finding a capable discussion partner beyond their classmates. Nevertheless, this assignment has potential usefulness in a variety of distance-education environments.

Stina Busman Jost, PhD
Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies
Bethel University, St. Paul, MN

Using Students' Comfort with Video-based Social Media in a Mixed High School Class

I teach high school-level religious studies classes at a private, Episcopal school. My students can take the required credits for my discipline anytime during their careers. This means I have students from ninth to twelfth grade in the same class. As you can imagine, half of my preparation focuses on how to teach the material in an academically-sound, challenging fashion while accounting for the different skills that have been acquired. The reading comprehension and writing skills of a senior are usually advanced far beyond those of an incoming freshman. It would not be fair to use the same rubric for both students.

Once the pandemic pushed my classes online, it became time to be even more creative in trying to differentiate my assignments. One approach that I used is what middle school teacher Sam Kary (see his website: The New EdTech Classroom) describes as “Making Student Thinking Visible.” In other words, let them talk on video rather than just writing their responses to class readings, videos, and so on. Most members of the emerging generation are comfortable with this mode of communication. They record videos to YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and so forth. For many, this is a natural way of thinking.

You can create a rubric that requires them to address essential questions or requires them to read in a certain way (see below), and this helps diversify the type of assignments you are giving your students. Likewise, students with different skills can show you that they are learning. Also, these assignments can be fun to grade, not only because it gives you and your students a break from writing/grading writing but also because it can be dramatic or humorous (if you allow it). In order to grade across a range of students, I recommend keeping the rubric simple: Did they speak within range of the required time? Did they provide thoughtful answers to your leading questions? I have asked some colleagues from our English department to share their rubrics so I can see what language skills are expected at what grade levels in our school.

Let me share a couple of examples from my recent class on the Hebrew Bible. First, I had students review the 1998 DreamWorks animation Prince of Egypt. I asked them to pretend like they were a famous YouTube personality known for their movie reviews. I gave them a series of questions about the movie that they had to address. Most of the responses were good and some of them were very entertaining, especially if a student owned the opportunity to get into character. Another exercise required my students to set up and record a Google Meet (or Zoom) where they were asked to perform a dramatic reading of the Book of Jonah. Different students took different roles like the narrator, or Jonah, or God.

These exercises were another way for students to engage the content. They provide students with an opportunity to practice a form of public speaking which is useful in areas of life ranging from presenting papers at a conference to participating in a job interview. Students at any level can do this exercise—even graduate school! And as long as you can divide your class into groups, the assignments that require work from more than just the individual are easy to do.

Brian LePort, PhD
Religious Studies Instructor
TMI Episcopal, San Antonio, TX

Modifying Field Trips to a Virtual Experience

On March 12, 2020, Valparaiso University, a private Lutheran educational institution located in Indiana, decided to shift spring classes to distance learning due to the COVID-19 global pandemic outbreak. One of the courses that I offered in this semester was a 300-level class entitled “Islamic Religion and Cultures,” which focuses on the traditional practices and institutions in Islamic society and the contemporary developments in the Muslim world. This class had twenty-eight undergraduate students from all schools in the university because it fulfills the cultural diversity and counts as a second upper-level theology course component of the general education requirements.

To make the class relevant to students’ reality, to familiarize them with places in Indiana, and to introduce them to an example of ethnographic research, I included a field trip in the syllabus to the local Islamic Center of Northwestern Indiana, scheduled to take place after the spring recess. Before the trip, students read about various Muslim practices, such as prayers, fasting, wedding and funeral ceremonies, and the annual feasts. After the tour, students were required to write a four-page ethnographer’s report. Their task was to analyze a participant observation with scholarly sources—that is, to use their observation in analyzing a theoretical concept discussed in the classroom such as prayers, mosque designs, ceremonies, etc. Visiting the Islamic Center was crucial for students to complete this exercise and learn about the place where many Islamic practices occur.

As we shifted to online learning, instead of canceling the field trip, I requested from the leader (Imam) of the Islamic Center to take us on a virtual tour of the facility. When I transferred to distance learning, I decided to use synchronous delivery during our regular class meeting times to avoid impeding upon other courses. I used Google Hangout as my delivery platform, which allows me to invite students to all the class sessions until the end of the semester at once and adds it to their calendar. After rehearsing, the Imam joined our Google meet-up, and he led our virtual field trip using his smartphone. He showed us the entire facility—the Islamic school, the prayer hall, the gym, and the restrooms. Also, he gave a short talk using a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation using his laptop. All twenty-eight students were present online. Twenty-seven students wrote the participant observation report, yet it was modified to be a 2-page descriptive assignment in which they were required to use at least one scholarly source of the class texts. In their reports, students accurately described the Islamic Center, cited the host and the course reading texts, and a few compared the Center to other houses of worship that they already knew.

The record attendance of this online session, the students’ engagement with the host, and the short descriptive exercise were indicators of successful teaching activity. Interestingly, in the course evaluation, some students appreciated this virtual tour as an effective aspect of teaching. For example, a student stated, “When we moved to online teaching, his class was the easiest to transfer to. He kept class the same (virtual lectures), we still went on our field trip (virtually), and he was clear about assignments.” In teaching global religions at the undergraduate level, field trips to houses of worship are helpful ways to expose students to cultural practices and religious experiences, which introduces them to ethnography. Instead of canceling such field trips, holding virtual tours can be a safe alternative during emergencies such as COVID-19.

Ossama Abdelgawwad, PhD
Assistant Professor of Theology
Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, IN

Setting the Pedagogical Tone through Student Reflection on Art

After the swift pivot to online teaching this spring, I invited my small gathering of master’s level seminary students to write about and discuss a piece of artwork during the first fifteen-to-twenty minutes of my evening seminar on advanced theological writing. Having used this approach in classes previously, I intensified my use of writing about art in the virtual classroom for four major reasons. The first was practical: I wanted students to have something else to look at besides faces and documents, which can become boring on Zoom. Second, visual art usually provides an integrative sensory, emotional, and intellectual experience for students, especially when paired with writing exercises. The third reason I chose this exercise is that the images could function as touchstones, to which we could return during discussion. Finally, writing about art enables students to connect what they are learning with their own lives.

At the start of class, I screen shared a Power Point slide of an untitled piece of art, such as Frida Kahlo’s painting, Roots (El Pedregal) (1943). I invited students to write as I led them through the following series of five questions:

  1. What are the first words that pop into your mind?
  2. What feelings are connected to the artwork? Where do these feelings reside in your body?
  3. What memories does this visual art trigger for you?
  4. Can you name a lens through which you see and interpret the artwork?
  5. What is the meaning of this artwork?

Students muted their microphones, turned off their screens, and wrote for one-to-two minutes on each question. At the end of the writing session, I asked them to share with the class any insights they gained from engaging with the artwork in this way. No one was compelled to speak, and I did not run through the list of questions in a rote fashion. Instead, I let the conversation unfold naturally and occasionally asked follow-up questions to elicit their answers to the questions that had not been addressed. Near the end of each conversation, I did “The Big Reveal,” which involves telling students the title of the artwork, its context, and the artist’s name. Then, noting the ways in which their own responses to the painting set the stage for the rest of the evening’s conversation, I briefly connected the art to the larger themes of the class.

For example, the class session featuring Kahlo’s work was focused on how to write practical theological method, using Denise Ackermann’s After the Locusts: Letters from a Landscape of Faith (W.B. Eerdmans, 2003) as an example. Students recognized that Kahlo’s painting embodied the kind of complicated groundedness that practical theological writers grapple with as they try to link specific experience with broader theological concepts. Indeed, students’ own responses to Kahlo’s piece helped them to articulate this complex and messy interweaving of theology and experience in their lives, to remain focused on the primary thread of our class conversation, to make connections between our class and the work they were doing in their seminary studies and beyond, and to stave off possible boredom. The practice can be employed in almost any course and for any number of students, in person or online, with some basic modifications.

Mary O’Shan Overton, PhD
Director of the Center for Writing and Learning Support
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA

Scaffolded Learning during a Pandemic

At the same time that COVID-19 brought my MWF religious studies class, “Death, Myth, and Reality,” to a screeching halt, it also rendered the class breathtakingly relevant. Our old final assignment, requiring face to face interviews, was now impossible. Instead, we had a new Big Question: how could students apply course concepts about death to their experience of the pandemic? Although the class was listed as a 200-level survey class, many non-major juniors and seniors, with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension, had enrolled in their first-ever religious studies class at Virginia Commonwealth University. VCU is an urban research university with a large and diverse undergraduate population of 20,000. Our students are racially, geographically, religiously, and linguistically diverse; many are first-generation college students.

The novelty and complexity of the Big Question demanded flexibility, patience, and empathy in order to steer students through their analyses. I turned to the strategy of scaffolding to facilitate and support their advance. Scaffolding, as the name suggests, is a process that gradually builds toward and enables complex thinking. Formative assessments vary the context of analysis as they gradually become more challenging and of greater weight. Regular teacher feedback is another important component of the process. Feedback should recognize and reinforce the structure, so that students can advance at their own speed. Scaffolding can be scaled up quite easily within the limits of the teacher’s ability to monitor individual participation so that they can then contact and encourage students who seem to be having trouble keeping up.

Before the semester resumed online, I introduced our topic in a low-stakes survey that asked students to describe the losses that they were then experiencing. To encourage and broaden personal connection, I summarized these losses in an email to the class. Once online classes began, weekly Zoom classes opened with a brief lecture followed by whole-class or small-group discussion of news stories that could be connected to the course. Class discussion is a slightly higher-stakes form of assessment due to the anxiety and reluctance that it evinces in students. (This is particularly true in the disembodied world of Zoom.)

When we were discussing a news article about the bereaved families who had to forego traditional funeral rites in the flood of corpses, one student drew upon ritual theory to compare the pandemic to the liminal or preparatory phase in a rite of passage. I reinforced this insight with effusive praise. I also circulated weekly emails recognizing and reiterating the steps in our progress. In order to encourage personal connection to the material, I reported on those students whose work-life or experience placed them in direct contact with the virus and death. I encouraged and reassured reluctant students that their success was my chief objective.

For the final project, most students elected to take on the Big Question: how did the course apply to their experience of COVID-19? One student described how she was able to comparatively analyze and teach her mother about funeral practices in diverse religions.  Another student, who worked on the COVID floor of a hospital, regularly interacted with grieving and terrified relatives of the severely ill. The  course helped him to assess their mental and emotional states, and to tailor his manner of responding to them. Overall, the essays demonstrated that the students had been reflecting on the course for more than just one night, that they had been engaged and had attempted to bring consideration of course principles into their own lives.

Isabelle Kinnard Richman, PhD
Assistant Professor, School of World Studies
Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA

Primary Source Scavenger Hunt (When Plan B is the Better Plan)

I had a grand plan, a plan for students to help me analyze a set of primary sources—cookbooks—and work alongside me studying them as part of a new research project. Students would hone their skills in critical reading of primary texts, and learn the methods of qualitative content analysis. The assignment would also ask students to continue to examine claims about the nature of religion and its embeddedness within broader culture, a theme of the course. It was a good plan, leveraging the interests of the sixteen students taking my upper-level seminar, “Religion and Food,” at the small liberal arts college where I teach. I had a few religion majors and minors, but mostly seniors from the social and hard sciences taking the class as an elective. Students at my all-undergraduate institution frequently collaborate with faculty on research, and my Religion and Food students were enthusiastic about taking part in humanities research. Indeed, a grand plan. And then COVID, eight weeks into a fourteen-week course.

Momentarily, I considered scanning all the cookbooks and looking at them together as digital files. But I had always envisioned this project as collective and tactile—passing these primary sources around a room, holding them up to see the fine print, smelling them, and pouring over the recipes together, tasting sample ingredients. Scrolling through a PDF hardly captured the same sense of excitement, which was a sub-rosa goal of the assignment, to convey the pleasure of doing humanities research.

My solution was to radically redevelop the idea. Rather than bring my curated collection of primary sources to them, I asked students—home from campus, sheltering in place—to raid their bookshelves and kitchens and search through cookbooks for references to religion. Rather than look for the content I knew was there, they were let loose in the messy archives of ordinary life, looking for material we could study together. This exercise energized them, since it asked them to leverage their surroundings and experiences.

I had to be flexible: one student lived in a family that did not own cookbooks. No problem, I sent him on a digital hunt on Amazon. A few students got their families involved, looking through cookbooks with parents or siblings, or asking about the provenance of faded church cookbooks or dusty collections of holiday recipes. The class had unanimously opted to meet synchronously via Zoom after our classes went remote, so we met together on Zoom to discuss what we found. Most students shared oral summaries of what they found, supplemented by holding cookbooks up to their webcams to show particular sections. A few had taken pictures, which we looked at through Zoom’s screen sharing feature. Again, some flexibility was needed, as a few students needing to report via text rather than synchronous video given idiosyncratic limitations. They did so in the software’s chat feature, so that they could nevertheless be involved in the class’s discussion.

Students loved the newly designed project, and I did too. It had become a primary source scavenger hunt. It worked because I morphed the assignment’s pedagogical point. Some goals remained the same, notable attention to the learning objective of examining religion as part of culture. But rather than spend most of the time teaching students how to critically read cookbooks as primary sources, students learned archival skills of how to sort through materials and determine what merited further analysis. This front-loaded some of the same questions that we would have asked with my curated collection. “Should Christmas cookies count?” one student asked. What about a Jewish cookbook that had non-kosher recipes? This led to excellent discussions about lived religion within the class’s Zoom session.

The primary source scavenger hunt actually worked better than the original plan in terms of engaging students, since they were able to marshal material from their own lives. This would not have been possible with them in their dorm rooms, and was enabled precisely because they were sheltering in place at home. It could scale up easily enough by use of digital breakout rooms, a common feature of most video conferencing software, or even be converted into an asynchronous conversation using a chatroom, as one finds in most learning management systems. One might even ask students to begin to write a collective analysis using a shared file. It wasn’t the grand plan I started with, but it positively impacted student learning nevertheless!

Benjamin E. Zeller, PhD
Associate Professor of Religion
Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, IL