School of Religion
Teaching is a creative enterprise, and if there’s one thing I learned about it this year, it’s that you have to be willing to try a variety of methods that may or may not work. This year I had the opportunity to run a tutorial for RELS 161 Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Students were introduced to topics like defining religion, religion and modernity, fundamentalism, new atheism, ritual studies and new religious movements and I, having a more traditional education in Christian thought and culture, learned along with them.
The most valuable learning experience from teaching this tutorial was about how to nurture an environment for discussion in which students felt comfortable participating. When I started the tutorial in September with a couple of discussion questions, I was met with nervous glances and the “don’t pick me” look. As a result, I had to scale back on the amount of discussion I planned in my tutorials and slowly added it back in when my students were ready.
In my final tutorial, I am happy to report that we had a semi-structured discussion which my students largely led for 45 minutes. The topic that week was new religious movements and we debated whether members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be allowed to wear a colander on their head for official photographs. The discussion ended up going for 20 minutes and I had to cut it off so we could move on. It was amazing to see how far my students had come. They took turns, they didn’t talk to me but to each other and came up with some strong arguments for and against the colander. While that discussion may have been a lucky moment, I’d like to believe that it was the result of a variety of strategies that I tried to create an inviting classroom for discussion.
With that said, here are some of the teaching strategies I used to invite discussion:
- Making participation count: I made discussion participation worth almost half of my students’ tutorial participation grade. As students left tutorial each week, they reminded me if they had participated in discussion and I marked it down on an attendance sheet. This created accountability for the students to speak.
- Talk to your neighbour first: Before starting a whole class discussion, I asked students to discuss the question with their neighbours. This allowed students to share their ideas in a low-risk setting. It also developed and validated their thoughts, making it easier to share them with the class when I opened the question to the whole group.
- Brainstorms: I used brainstorms to get my students to think of the key terms and arguments for different course readings. I would only explain a key term once it had been added to the brainstorm so the onus was on the students for doing their readings and adding to the discussion. Adding a key term to a list is also an easy way to participate.
- Group Activities: These can take some time to organize, but the photo below shows the setup for a group activity that I ran one day. I created 5 charts with key terms and discussion questions on topics we covered that week. Each group got about 5 minutes to fill in as much as they could on the chart before passing it to the next table. I spent each 5-minute increment with a different group which allowed me to answer questions and gauge how well the students knew the material.