Learning, teaching and researching biblical studies

The first article in the Spring 2010 JBL is David Clines’ presidential address from the last SBL Annual Meeting. His topic is “Learning, Teaching, and Researching Biblical Studies, Today and Tomorrow” and in it, he looks at using student-centred learning in Biblical Studies.

I found it particularly interesting because I have been working as a research assistant on two teaching and learning focussed grant projects over the last few months, as well as teaching into a Religious Studies unit on Earliest Christianity. These three things have started me thinking about effective ways of teaching and learning and Clines’ article pushes some of the things I’ve been thinking a bit further.

He talks about designing courses around the outcomes that students want and around the learning styles that best suit them, and about teaching them to be researchers from day 1. Thus, he recommends asking students what they want to get out of a course at the beginning and then designing learning material around this. This sounds like a great idea. It would certainly make the transition to postgraduate studies easier. One of the common problems that we experience with new postgrads is that they expect their supversiors/advisers to organise everything for them and the supervisors know that this is not their role but often forget to point this out. Students who were used to being part of a research culture would cope much better.

Lots of students, however, don’t want to be researchers. They want to get the degree they need to get the job they want and they resist strongly any notion that university education should be more than being told what they need to know and the practical skills they need to get the grades they want. Lots of the students I went through ministerial formation with just wanted to pass the course so they could be ministers. Clines draws the distinction between knowledge, which allows you to:

  • name
  • describe
  • list
  • state
  • given an outline of
  • given an account of
  • give and example of
  • summarize

and understanding, which enables you to

  • explain
  • give reasons for
  • give reasons against
  • find connections between
  • discuss the issue of
  • show the purpose of
  • state the meaning of
  • show the importance of
  • state the results of
  • draw conclusions (p 10)

(Bother – I hit publish before this was ready to go…)

IMHO, the attributes of someone with understanding are what is wanted in ministers and something that employers want in a wide range of fields, but the challenge is to get students to see this.

(Update)

I also wanted to comment on the practicalities of totally student-driven courses. At least here in Australia, it takes about 3 months to get enough text books for all the students in a course into the bookshop and the library resources can be rather limited if you have a large class, so there is a limit to how flexible you might be able to be in developing courses once you have students enrolled and ready to start.

I’m also not sure that Clines’ ideal of designing learning around the preferred learning modes of the students you have in your class is do-able, but certainly developing a range of ways of helping students to engage with the material is possible and a good thing. This is, of course, a challenge for a teacher who is not a multimodal learner. I did the questionnaire that Clines pointed to at www.vark-learn.com and discovered that I am quite strongly read-write. When I read ideas for developing learning for other styles, I found myself saying “but students wouldn’t want to do that, surely?”

And, of course, the more student-centred you make your classes, the more work assessing them is going to be, because you will have a wider range of assessment tasks to get your head around as a marker.

Looking back over this, it sounds as though I am rather negative about the article, but I’m not. I think people teaching Biblical Studies (or any other theological discipline) really need to give it some serious thought, if they’re not already doing the things he is talking about.

Complete reference: David J A Clines. “Learning, Teaching, and Researching Biblical Studies, Today and Tomorrow”, JBL 129, no 1 (2010): 5-29

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