Tuesday, April 26, 2005
“Thinking theologically”, distance study and integration ::

We held the first intensive block of our “integrative seminar” at Carey last week. Apart from the core introductions, this is the only compulsory course in our Batchelor of Applied Theology degree. It is intended to be the “capstone”, and encourages students to display an ability to “think theologically” in ways that integrate biblical, theological, pastoral, missiological etc. approaches in dealing with real world topics.

Actually, being realistic, we have seldom really equipped students to achieve such integrated theological thinking. So, the course also tries to help them to further develop such skills. Using a mixture of self-study and intensive blocks, means it is available to both onsite and distant students.

Like most of the staff and students involved I can see a number of ways in which this approach fails. But, also (I think) like both, I believe there is something deeply “right” about what we are trying to do. Davide, in his reflections on study experiences as an “external” student, stimulated by C. Drew Smith’s piece on SBL Forum ("’Between Athens and Jerusalem’: Reading Liberal Books at Church-Based Universities") comments on similar issues.

In particular he highlights how traditional exam-based assessment rewards deliberate failure to seek integration or more complete understanding.
In our (U London, external studies) examinations for Church History to 461 CE (only 461 years to study, right?) one could probably focus on just the first 250 years or less, select 4 questions at the exam that only deal with, say, the Apostolic Fathers, Justin, Cyprian, and Tertullian, and be done with it (maybe with excellent marks). Does this mean that the student did well in exam? No. It really does not. But that is what we (students) are advised to do: in the study guides, it is often explicitly said that, if one wants to get good marks, it is probably better to focus on just a few topics: a selection of the selection
Students are rewarded for “focusing” on a few topics. This approach to assessment, though all too common, contrasts strikingly with almost all of the things we say we are aiming for in our teaching.

Incidentally the fault is not with exams per se, the final exam we had in Oxford on the Old Testament presented us with a selection of short passages from the Bible (without attribution) and we had to comment on them. This task does indeed test the breadth of the student’s knowledge and their ability to integrate. (Do they still use gobbits at Oxford I wonder?) However, such approaches, like our “Integrative Seminar”, can only work at the end of a full course of study. They are inherently unsuitable for assessing semester-long modules.

So, over the last few years I have been trying other forms of assessment. One that I really like – and that the students often appreciate too, once they “get their heads round” what it means - involves performing a biblical text. By “perform” I mean just that, the text can be read, dramatised, displayed on paper or computer screen… This performance should aim to help its audience understand the text. It is accompanied by a written “justification” (referenced and footnoted in the normal way). This justification “ties back” choices made in planning the performance to aspects of the biblical text that require or suggest them.

To prepare this assignment the student must first prepare an exegesis of the text in the usual ways, but they do not write this up, instead they plan and justify their performance on the basis of this underlying exegesis. This task is highly integrative, and because the justification (and not the performance itself) is marked it does not discriminate against those who lack skills to produce a technically good display. It does however reward those who produce a good “reading” of the text.

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