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A How-To: Designing New Religion Cornerstone Courses for Improved Student Learning

It's rare that changes in course requirements affect more than just a fraction of BYU students. Usually it's just the students in a particular major who are the only ones paying attention to the new or dropped classes in their chosen college or discipline.

But it comes as no surprise that last fall's announcement of changes to religious education courses and requirements attracted widespread attention from students and faculty at BYU (and across the Church Educational System as well). This is one area of the BYU education that touches everyone.

The November announcement named four new courses - Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel (REL A 250), Foundations of the Restoration (REL C 225), Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon (REL A 275) and The Eternal Family (REL C 200) - as the new cornerstone religion classes required for any student starting at BYU in Fall 2015 Semester and beyond.

Over the past several months, the BYU Religious Education faculty members have been busy creating curriculum to get these new classes ready for their Fall Semester debut. Here's an inside glimpse in how they've approached the work.

'Our Principle Activity: What is Essential for Students'

To create the new curriculum, select Religious Education faculty members were divided into teams tasked with creating course objectives and learning outcomes for each of the four classes. All the professors selected for the four teams have teaching experience and academic training in similar areas. The teams sought guidance and advice from many places, including from their own teaching experiences and from experts outside of BYU.

"They are seeking to get the best information possible in the development of these courses," said BYU Religious Education Dean Brent Top. "They are interviewing people who have wide experience, including academics, church leaders and religious educators at other institutions. They are really diligent in asking, 'What is the best way to approach this course and what are we not thinking about that we should be thinking about?'"

During the process the focus of the curriculum building kept coming back to the needs of the students.

"Our principal activity has been to decide what the essentials are for students," said Religious Education Associate Dean Robert Freeman.

The teams working on three of the four classes - Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel, Foundations of the Restoration and Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon - had the advantage of testing the new curriculum in the classroom. A trial run of these courses has been taught over the last year exploring how the material could be most effectively taught. Testing the classes in a real classroom setting also allowed professors to measure students' reactions to and evaluations of the new course styles.

"This class isn't just teaching me the scriptures, is it teaching me who I am as a covenant person and as a member of this church," said Nate Garlick, a chemistry student who is taking the Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel trial course this semester. "It's not just teaching me about the plan of salvation, it is teaching me about how I fit into that plan."

The trial courses were extremely successful; professors were generally pleased with the outcomes and are working hard at getting them ready for this fall. 

Course development won't stop when the new classes start in the fall. As they teach, professors will continue to evaluate what works in the class and what doesn't. The courses will evolve over the next few years to ensure students are taught what they need most.

In addition to continuing to assess and evolve the curriculum, teachers will be given flexibility to teach concepts on top of the general course objectives to directly meet student needs. Professors will be able to cater each class to student needs ensuring relevance for many years to come.

"We can give the students a broader understanding of the current social and religious issues facing the Church by updating the curriculum as we go," said Professor of Church History Alex Baugh. "And that will help students be better saints as they leave BYU."

Offering Choices to Best Serve Individual Students

All four classes will be available to all BYU students, both continuing and incoming freshmen, when they register for Fall 2015 Semester classes starting later this month.

"We knew there would both be excitement for the new classes and students who would appreciate the chance to take the old religion classes, so we created this hybrid approach," Top said.

Giving students more opportunity to choose the best religious education path for them is key to best serving all students, says Top. Because no classes are going away and new classes are being added, students have some flexibility to take either the current classes or new classes to fulfill the 14 credit hour religious education requirement. 

Returning students will still be required to take Book of Mormon, New Testament and Doctrine and Covenants classes. However, the new classes can be used to fulfill the current requirements. Or they can take the new cornerstone classes as electives. 

For freshmen entering BYU in Fall 2015, or anytime after, the required class hours will be fulfilled through the new four cornerstone classes. However, they can choose to take the traditional classes to fulfill the new cornerstone class requirements. They can also take the current classes as electives. 

Help Students Come to Know the Savior Better

These new cornerstone classes came about because in recent years BYU Religious Education professors, as well as their counterparts across the Church Educational System, have noticed more and more students coming to class already experienced in a story-based, chronological study of the scriptures because of mission and seminary experiences. With the lowering of the missionary age, that trend is expected to continue to expand across the student body.

In discussing the development of these new classes and the best ways to teach students, faculty decided to add another skill to the students' repertoire: studying across texts. The result is classes that are, in simple terms, committed to greater scriptural literacy. Students will learn how to read and contextualize, but also to understand what the scriptures meant historically, as well as their relevance today.

"The new courses will be taught from the scriptures. Our department will not teach any courses that are not based in the scriptures at their very roots," said Professor of Ancient Scripture Kerry Muhlestein. "These courses are to teach students additional skill sets. We believe true scriptural literacy includes the ability to study topics, themes and patterns within their scriptural context."

Muhlestein and the rest for the faculty members want students to come away with the ability to see scriptural themes and patterns more clearly across all scriptures, understand how they fit into the overall gospel plan and learn skills to draw more meaning and power from the scriptures. To accomplish this, students will be prompted to ask different questions than they have before and explore patterns they haven't in the past.

"In this type of classroom setting, there is an ease of conversation and dialogue," said Professor Nick Frederick, who has been working on developing the Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon class. "The flexibility in the new curriculum allows us to examine important themes or doctrines as they appear in an entire text or group of texts, rather than studying only the first or second half of a single text."

Still the ideology behind each of the new classes is entirely focused on what benefits the students most. The classes will give students skills they need to develop a better understanding of the scriptures and teach students how to more deeply and personally know the Savior. 

"We want to take the best of what we were already doing, and rise to the occasion," said Ancient Scripture Professor Eric Huntsman. "I love studying the New Testament. But I love Jesus Christ more. And if these classes help students come to know the Savior better, that's what I want to do."

Writer: Jenna Randle

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