Over twenty years ago I made my foray into theological education. I began as a student, pursuing a bachelors degree in biblical exposition at The Master’s University. After graduation I took a job as a youth pastor in the San Francisco Bay Area. After four-and-a half years (and a wedding!), my wife and I moved to Louisville, Kentucky so I could pursue an M.Div. and Ph.D. at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. After seminary, we moved back to the Bay Area to so I could take a position as an associate pastor in a church in the Silicon Valley.
For the last few years, alongside pastoral ministry, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as professor and (for the last year) academic dean at The Cornerstone Bible College and Seminary in Vallejo, California. I currently teach three of our core classes: Bibliology, Soteriology, and Biblical Introduction while overseeing the faculty and course management.
My time in school as a student and now in the classroom as a teacher and administrator has afforded me the unique opportunity to reflect on the nature of theological education from multiple perspectives and consider how it can be improved. The first place we want to start improving theological education is in the classroom.
Professors, You Are the School
I regularly tell our professors that they are the seminary. Take away the building and the physical classrooms; if we had our professors, we would still have a seminary. That principle has been tested and validated over the last few weeks as local shelter in place orders have required our professors to conduct their classes online. We have no access to our classrooms, but the education continues.
So, when I suggest that improving theological education begins by improving the classroom, I am not referring to the need to acquire new instructional technologies like state-of-the-art ceiling mounted projectors or SMARTboards. Rather, I am referring to the professor improving course content and seeking to grow as a teacher.
While you might think that all professors naturally desire to bolster class material and make progress in their pedagogical skills, the truth is that not every professor is diligent to keep their classes up-to-date, sharpen their syllabi, or grow in their teaching competency. It’s not unheard of to find instructors who, once they reached a level of proficiency in a particular class, tend to neglect that class and fail to update the course material.
Serve the Students by Continuing to Refine Your Classes
This kind of neglect is a disservice to students. One advantage of serving in a higher education setting where you typically teach a fixed set of classes regularly and repeatedly is the opportunity to specialize and go deeper into a subject than you otherwise would. The very structure of educational specialization frees the professor to focus in on a few subjects and steadily refine his classes from year to year. It should be a professor’s goal (and passion!) to provide every incoming class a better education than what the students experienced the previous year. That is not to suggest that a teacher is incompetent one year and competent the next; but it is to say that continual growth in classroom quality should be the heartbeat of every professor.
But it may be that you have the desire to make progress in improving your classes, but you are unsure how to get started or implement lasting and useful change. Let me suggest ten areas of improvement that I hope motivate you to dust off that old syllabus and start polishing.
(1) Keep reading in your class subject. One obvious way to continually improve your course material is to regularly read within that class’s subject area. But this won’t happen unless you plan for it. My recommendation is that you make a reading schedule each year and deliberately plan what books and articles you plan to read. Make sure to stay updated with the latest material while also refreshing yourself in the standard works in your field.
Creating an intentional reading schedule is a useful discipline because it also helps you more productively structure your reading. Rather than just reading whatever interests you at a given time, how much better would it be to read in a way the continually sharpens our areas of specialization and directly benefits the people who will take your classes.
(2) Set aside time to transfer material from your reading to your lecture notes. Alongside the previous suggestion is the encouragement set aside quality time to transfer useful material from your reading to your lecture notes. You may not transfer much more than a paragraph; in some cases only a sentence or a mere citation in a footnote. Nevertheless, this part of the process is vital in order to keep your reading efforts from being wasted. This practice also provides a growing body of material that can be used for future articles and books.
(3) Regularly update your lecture notes. This recommendation is slightly different from the previous idea. Here you are not only adding material from your reading, you are, if necessary, re-structuring and re-formatting the basic outline of your lectures, taking into account the logical flow of your notes, relevancy of material, and the balance of topics in relation with the course description and how you are meeting your stated learning objectives. The substance and structure of your lecture notes should be an area of regular review and cultivation.
(4) Sharpen the syllabus. I know that the word “syllabus” can have a couple different connotations in a university or graduate school setting. Here I am referring to the document you provide for the students that delineates the scope and sequence of the class. As you remain current with material for your class, you should also be regularly evaluating the effectiveness of your syllabus. Are you requiring the best books and articles for the course? Is the class schedule apportioned appropriately? Should you give more time to a particular topic? Less? Introduce a new topic? What about the evaluative components for the class? Are the required assignments and exams promoting and assessing true mastery of the material or simply serving as fillers to round out the semester?
(5) Really listen to student evaluations. One of the best ways to grow as a teacher is to take time to genuinely hear from your students. You may consider yourself a fine instructor, but it’s the students’ opinion you should care most about. If the students are not learning from you, then you are not accomplishing your basic task as a teacher. Do your students perceive that they are growing in knowledge? Are you testing them fairly? Is the amount of work challenging but reasonable? Listening to your students will help you shore up areas of weakness and prompt you to make intentional plans for improvement.
(6) Think specifically about how to improve your teaching. In the last five points, I’ve encouraged you in how to improve the content of your class, but we can’t stop here and assume that our students’ educational experience will improve in correspondence with how many books we’ve read on our given topic. Yes, read as much as you can, but remember that your mastery of the material is a necessary but not sufficient condition to facilitate student growth.
Indeed, it is a common complaint among college and graduate students that some professors (not all, of course) apparently care far more about their areas research than they do about improving their pedagogical skills. This kind of neglect leads to classes where knowledge remains generally out-of-reach from the students because the course material is communicated in a way that is boring, unclear, far too complex, or all the above. In order to improve our classes, we must think intentionally about how to make progress as teachers and not just about class content. I will address teaching specifically in the next few points.
(7) Don’t just read your lecture notes. Fortunately, I never had this experience, but more than once I’ve talked with people who have sat under professors who did little else than read their lecture notes for an hour. If this is your general style, you have to ask the question: what about this in-class educational experience would be any different if the students simply read my lecture notes? We must remember that teaching is not merely the downloading of information into the minds of our students. Yes, much of our work is knowledge transfer, but we should labor to make our students’ in-class experience as conducive as possible to this task of knowledge acquisition. When a professor engages with students through the teaching process—asking relevant questions, posing problems for reflection, and so on—students usually find they make greater progress in learning than they would have had the professor merely recited a large set notes. Furthermore, when we are not tied to our notes, we are able to field questions in class.
(8) Learn how to answer questions in class. Related to the last point, the education experience is also enhanced when teachers are able to answer student questions in class. My experience as a student and as a teacher confirms this observation. During college and graduate school, some of the best times of learning came when a student asked a relevant question and the professor carved out a few minutes to answer that specific inquiry. Often, the question was already on the minds of the other students, so the whole class benefitted from the teacher’s response.
As a professor, I find that students on the whole appreciate it when I make space in the lecture—typically in between every logical division in the outline—to field questions. Granted, professors do not look forward to fielding foolish, impatient, arrogant, and otherwise distracting questions, but the payoff for the students is worth the occasional frustration.
Granted, the ability to answer your students’ questions requires that you are consistently growing in your knowledge of the material, so the discipline to keep reading and studying is a must. But if you don’t know the answer to a question, take that as an opportunity to go repair deficiencies in your preparation.
(9) Pay attention to other excellent professors. As in the rest of life, we learn much and grow in our skills by simple observation and imitation. Do you know of some colleagues who are well-loved and respected by the students? Don’t be jealous: figure out what they are doing and start implementing those practices in your classroom as you are able. We are all gifted differently and it is unwise to attempt to slavishly copy what another person is able to do, but it is equally foolish to ignore the best resources you can find to improve your teaching: other excellent teachers.
(10) Take “growth-notes” during class. Finally, create a pattern of noting the areas where you can improve. If you come across a typo, confusing quote, or error in your notes, or if you discover a deficiency in your preparation or glean an immediate insight as you are teaching, make a few notes in your lecture material right away. This simple yet effective practice will pay you dividends in improving your class and help you more efficiently update your lecture notes (see #3).
As we close, I encourage you to take a long-term approach to course improvement. Make it your aim to steadily and consistently enhance your class from quarter to quarter, year to year; don’t sporadically incorporate massive changes here and there. You may think you need to make major modifications and additions each year in order to improve your class—in some cases, a large-scale change may be necessary—but, like investing, if you maintain a pattern of seemingly small but regular contributions to your syllabus, course material, and teaching skills, you will experience the power of compounding as each year builds on the previous year. Yes, this requires a fair amount of work—we can’t coast during the summer and winter breaks, and we may have to hang up a few hobbies—but our students will benefit from our labors, and that’s what really matters.