June 13 2024

Critical Thinking and Teaching the Religious Traditions of Others

by Steven Benko, Meredith College




Has an instructor ever said that they were not teaching critical thinking? What is an alternative, but still acceptable, answer to the question, “Are you teaching your students to be critical thinkers?” It would not be acceptable to say that we want nothing more from our students than to be passive receptacles of information that they will then repeat on a test. It would not be acceptable to kick the critical-thinking can down the road and say that the responsibility of teaching critical thinking is spread out among multiple classes and faculty and that students graduate from our programs and colleges as critical thinkers. The only acceptable answer to the question of whether instructors are teaching their students to be critical thinkers is “yes, of course we are.”

Learning about the religious traditions of others seems to invite critical thinking. Students are learning new things! Students are getting more accurate and relevant information about religious beliefs and traditions! Misinformation is being corrected, and biases and prejudices are being left behind for tolerance and acceptance! Students are learning more about their own beliefs and values by comparing them to others! A critical thinker is someone who evaluates the soundness of their thinking by considering how evidence, point of view, built-in biases and assumptions, and outcomes inform thinking. In order to assist our students in becoming better critical thinkers, it is necessary to craft assignments that practice critical-thinking skills.

“Are we teaching our students to be critical thinkers?” is the wrong question because it is a conversation stopper. A better question is “How do we know that we are teaching our students to be critical thinkers?” Do students leave the class with an understanding of the principles and concepts that shape religious studies? Can students make connections between the concepts used in one class with material in another class? These questions invite reflection and get instructors to think about their assumptions, to consider evidence, and to articulate meaningful outcomes that would support an affirmative answer to the question “Are our students critical thinkers?” To put it another way, in order to determine whether our students are critical thinkers, we need to think critically about critical thinking: asking what critical thinking is and what counts as evidence of critical thinking are two good ways to begin a conversation about development of student critical thinking skills.

Fundamental and Powerful Concepts

One challenge to the development of students’ critical-thinking skills is confusion between learning and thinking. This distinction is made clear in how students approach terms and concepts used in the classroom and in textbooks. There are too many terms for a student to master in one semester. Think back to the first world religions class you took as an undergraduate. Which terms stand out? Our students are faced with textbooks that list, for example, thirty-five terms that are “key” or “essential” or “useful.” If there are thirteen chapters in the textbook, that is approximately 450 terms. How are students to know which terms are more important than others? If they memorize as many as possible, how many do they truly understand? The volume of terms and concepts that a student must learn over the course of a semester prevents them from connecting and comparing subsequent ideas. Overwhelming students with vocabulary prevents them from getting a sense of what the academic study of religion prioritizes and what defines it as a distinct discipline. This is not to say that students are unable to extend their vocabulary or that they cannot use terms in a sophisticated and nuanced way. It means that courses and assignments must be organized to encourage the kind of reflective reading and writing that develops student critical thinking skills. One way to foster development of student critical thinking skills is to organize the class around the fundamental and powerful concepts and the essential questions of the discipline.

I have started organizing several of my classes around the idea of a “fundamental and powerful concept.” Nosich (2005) defines a fundamental concept as one that grounds other concepts. Other concepts in the course can be understood through the fundamental concept, and for that reason Nosich describes fundamental and powerful concepts as ones that can be used to think about and reason through a large number of questions, problems, and information. Class lecture, impromptu writing assignments, semester-long writing assignments, and questions on the final exam evoke a concept or an idea that students invoke in order to understand another term or idea we are discussing. What I have found is that students retain more information, gain confidence, and make more meaningful comparisons between ideas, concepts, practices, and traditions if they have a common term that they approach the topic through. 

How does this aid in teaching the religious traditions of others? In a way, we are always teaching the religious traditions of others. Unless instructors share a religious tradition with their students, then they are teaching the traditions of others. That makes the teaching of religion an inherently comparative enterprise. But what is comparison? What is a meaningful comparison? As Decosimo (2010) points out, all things can be compared but not all comparisons are interesting or meaningful. In my class, I used the Blackboard journal tool to ask students to spend the semester writing about comparison. The journal tool was useful because it collected all of their submissions in one place and allowed them to see their past submissions. I asked students to define comparison and to explain what makes a good and meaningful comparison. For every subsequent unit, I asked students to compare at least two things. Students had to explain similarities and differences, and explain why the comparison they had made was meaningful. At the end of the journal entry they had to redefine comparison and explain how and why their definition changed or remained the same.

Increased Understanding, Increased Confidence

I have been using this assignment for several semesters, tweaking it around the edges, but the general format has remained the same. The results are encouraging: students left the class with a much more developed understanding of comparison and what comparison entailed, and they gained a deeper sense of one aspect of the academic study of religion. Nosich says that one benefit of the fundamental and powerful concept is that because the concept is fundamental to a discipline, students get a chance to do the kind of thinking that defines the discipline. This is particularly valuable for students who are not majors and who may otherwise be practicing thinking like an accountant, chemist, or interior designer. For a semester, though, they are thinking like a religionist and leave the class with a better understanding of the practices, issues, and concerns that shape the discipline.

Another positive result is that students used a wider variety of terms and concepts, and at the end of the semester they were still referencing readings, lectures, and ideas from the beginning of the class. This project allowed them to make connections to the various learning units and to assume more control over their learning as they were the ones picking the terms to compare. Because the students were choosing the terms of comparison and evaluating them, their voices became more confident: they were constantly refining their assertions and making better arguments. As a result, their voices became more credible and articulate.

One concern with this assignment is that students will not have had sufficient practice reflecting on their own thoughts to express why it is significant that their definition of the fundamental concept remained the same or changed. My experience has been that students can identify similarities and differences, but that it takes several attempts before they can explain them. Presenting examples of student work and working on this activity in class helped students to understand the difference between identification and explanation, and by the end of the semester more students than not were successful at this part of the assignment.

There is no one correct fundamental and powerful concept. Different courses could use different concepts. In an ethics course I teach, I use fairness as a fundamental and powerful concept. In a similarly structured assignment, students are asked to define fairness and then explain how different approaches to moral and ethical decision making are fair and unfair. At the end of each entry, students explain how and why their definition of fairness changed or remained the same. Another concept that would work just as well in this class is empathy: students could write about how each approach to moral and ethical decision making encourages and discourages empathy, and then define and explain their definition of empathy. Keeping fundamental and powerful concepts central to instruction helps students see the big picture.


Nosich, Gerald. 2011. Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum, 4th Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Decosimo, David. 2010. "Comparison and the Ubiquity of Resemblance." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78.1: 226–258.

Steven Benko holds a PhD from Syracuse University and is an assistant professor of religious and ethical studies at Meredith College, where he teaches courses on religious ethics and contemporary culture. He has presented at conferences and published on religion and technology, religion and comedy, and how critical thinking activities can enhance class discussion and student retention of class material. He is the director of Meredith College’s critical thinking initiative, Think Strong.