Profs should foster students’ spiritual growth: study

TORONTO (CUP) — The role of religion and spirituality in the classroom has been hotly debated since the movement for teaching creationism in public schools.

But although arguments for putting creationism into curricula are nowadays often dismissed for the discipline’s lack of scientific basis, a seven-year study by the University of California in Los Angeles suggests, with concrete data, that spirituality has positive effects on students’ performance in college and university.

“Spirituality in Higher Education,” launched in 2003, is the first national study of undergraduate students’ spiritual growth in the United States.

Researchers examined more than 14,000 students in 136 different colleges and defined spirituality through five qualities: Equanimity, or the capacity to remain calm and centred under stress; spiritual quest, or hunting for the answers to life’s big questions; an ethic of caring for others; charitable involvement; and a world-view that transcends the self.

The study discovered that educational experiences that promote the growth of these traits — such as service learning, self reflection and studying abroad — have positive effects on students’ grades, leadership skills and their satisfaction with school.

This has led the researchers to conclude that university professors should actively foster spiritual growth and encourage students to explore questions of meaning and purpose.

At Christian colleges like Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont., encouraging spiritual growth and character development is already standard practice.

Syd Hielema, chaplain and associate professor of religion at Redeemer, said the findings of the study resonate with his experiences both as a professor at two Christian colleges and as a student at the University of Toronto.

Students with a faith basis often have a stronger sense of meaning and purpose than non-religious students, said Hielema.

“When students are grounded and have a sense of where they’re going and what their purpose in the world is, that helps them to study with more discipline and more diligence,” said Hielema.

Although there are many university students with clear career goals who are also very focused, having a broader sense of one’s place in the world can help students carry on if they lose their enthusiasm for a particular field of work.

“Many students graduate with a different degree than they started with and often in that transition time students experience a feeling of lostness and drifting,” said Hielema.

“For a faith-based student, during that time of transition, there’s a deeper anchor.”

Hielema added that although drinking and partying are inevitably a part of the college experience, the party lifestyle is, on average, less of a distraction for faith-based students.

“Our students do some drinking, but from what I’ve experienced, there is a more disciplined morality overall that enables one to keep studies in focus a little better,” he said. “Faith provides some kind of moral guidance that suggests moderation and self control, not living by instant gratification.”

Hielema agrees with the notion that community involvement can improve academic outcomes. Many students at Redeemer do volunteer work, he said, and that work contributes to shaping their characters in such a way that also makes them more disciplined students.

But Sandra Khine, a fourth-year bio-physics student at York University, said that while she doesn’t doubt that validity of the study’s findings, one can apply the same principles and partake in character-shaping experiences without being religious.

Khine grew up Catholic, praying and attending church until she neared the end of high school. By the time she started university she had become an atheist, and in her first year at York she attended several meetings hosted by a club called FREESAY, or Freethinkers, Skeptics and Atheists at York.

Khine believes that the most important factors for academic achievement are dedication and being actively interested in your studies.

“There is a sort of calmness to putting your faith into God or another being, but just because you feel that calmness and your stress relieving doesn’t mean it’s the only way to deal with stress,” she said.

Khine believes that exploring issues around purpose and meaning in life has a place in the classroom, but only in relevant courses, like psychology. She pointed to the fact that there are a number of faith-based clubs on campus that can tend to that need.

“As an extracurricular thing it’s great, but I don’t think all professors should be encouraging philosophical thinking in their classes,” said Khine. “I don’t think it should be a requirement to graduate, either.”

At Redeemer, religion is the framework for every subject taught, but Hielema said that is the case at all universities.

“It’s our conviction that there’s really no such thing as objective knowledge,” said Hielema.

“For example, everyone who studies and teaches history is interpreting history. So there’s a Marxist interpretation of history. There’s a feminist interpretation of history. When our history professors teach history, they interpret it in such a way that it resonates with their faith conviction.”

At Redeemer, faculty work to fulfill students’ spiritual needs and shape their characters through leadership development, encouraging charitable involvement, providing optional worship opportunities and by modelling character.

“We believe that there’s something contagious about character,” said Hielema. “When you’re around people whose lives exhibit character, it will rub off on you because there’s something attractive and inviting about it.”

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