The Need for Assessing the Spiritual Growth of Students
On my journey to a PhD in Higher Education Administration, I became interested in the idea of assessing spiritual growth among Bible college students. Those involved in Biblical education propose that students will experience a positive impact on their spiritual growth at institutions with a Christian atmosphere and core Bible curriculum.
As a product and current purveyor of Biblical higher education, I tend to agree. However, that wasn’t good enough for me (or my dissertation chair). I wanted to know: does a distinctly Biblical education make a difference in the spiritual growth of students?
I found out that there is a gaping lack of research available to answer my question. Thankfully, through the Association for Biblical Higher Education I met up with Dr. Timothy Cooley, Sr. who has developed a survey instrument measuring the perceived spiritual growth of students involved in Biblical Higher Education. We were able to work together to modify the instrument for use in my research and rename it The Spiritual Health Profile. The good news? By and large, students affirm that the Biblical higher education experience does help them grow spiritually.
If the research supports what you already know, why would you even want to take the time and effort to measure spiritual growth among your students? A study of spiritual growth is important for several reasons:
First, surveying students regarding their spiritual development at their schools gives them a voice in the research landscape that has largely excluded them. It allows students to indicate what is important and influential to them in their spiritual lives as it relates to their educational experience.
Second, it may benefit administration, faculty, staff, and students by providing information that may influence curriculum, co-curriculum, policies, and programs to better meet the spiritual needs of students and provide evidence of fulfillment of the school’s mission.
Third, the information gathered could be useful to those invested in the Biblical higher education movement at large by providing a point of contrast and comparison to those who might wish to conduct studies particular to their own denominational interest.
Finally, the more the Spiritual Health Profile is used, instrumentation available to capture the nuances of Biblical higher education can continue to be enhanced.
Possible Procedures for Assessing the Spiritual Growth of Students
Now that I’ve convinced you of the importance, following are some suggestions for how to assess and invest in the spiritual lives of your students:
- Survey Distribution: Cooley (TimCooleySr@pvbi.edu) has been working with several colleges at $5 per participant. He can send the Spiritual Health Profile (SHP) as a pdf and you can print them locally, or he can print them and send the hard copies to you. You can either have someone at your college record the surveys in an Excel file that he provides, or you can send him the hard copies and he can record them. Either way, the Excel file contains the means of the spiritual components from previous research, and he usually offers notes of high points to celebrate, low points for further study, and miscellaneous observations.
The Excel file also contains other formulae to calculate several other statistics. The data are yours, but (with your permission) as he aggregates the data from more schools we can come up with broader benchmarks that will extend the usefulness of the profile. Of course, strict confidentiality with regard to your particular data is maintained so that only you decide what is done with your data.
- Promote Student Discussion: There has been some student response that just taking the survey made them do some deeper thinking about their spiritual condition.
So far, the colleges have not been returning information from the survey to individual students because it would likely skew the ratings if participants knew their name would be attached to their answers.
However, one follow-up measure that could be very useful would be to discuss the line items of the Spiritual Health Profile (not their answers, just the items) with individual students as a way to open the discussion further. That way the confidentiality of the data would be preserved, but the instrument could also serve as an outline to motivate spiritual growth.
- Use of Survey Information: Find out what areas of your institution are most impactful. What types of programs and activities do students rate highly as contributing to their spiritual growth and what might need modification? It is easy to get stuck in the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset, but what if the class, activity or tradition is no longer accomplishing the purpose for which it was intended?
Discover areas in which students may need guidance. The finding that stood out to me most in my research was the gap between what students said they believed and the actual living out of those beliefs. Perhaps students need more exposure to the sorts of opportunities that challenge them to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
- How often to give the survey: Another recommendation might be use of the survey in a longitudinal study. It could be given to freshman and new students perhaps at the end of their first academic year. This would garner a baseline of student spirituality and growth.
The SHP could then be given at the end of each academic year until the cohort graduated. This would allow for a tracking of spiritual growth from freshmen to senior years. Hopefully, schools would find a steady increase in spiritual growth in correlation with the educational experience. If this were not the case, perhaps individually-shaped mentoring programs could be implemented to strengthen areas of weakness.
Parks’ (2000) faith development theory could be used as a reference point to ascertain if students are moving from the early stages of faith development that are more dependent on the authority of teachers, parents, resident directors, and other staff to a faith that is indicative of their own beliefs and values.
These are just a few suggestions of the many applications of the Spiritual Health Profile. While some might balk at the idea of trying to measure a student’s spiritual growth, it is possible to evaluate indicators and perceptions to make sure your institution is doing all it can to promote the spiritual development of students.