For the past three semesters, students in my introductory Bible course have created websites as a way of learning the basic methods of academic research, analysis, and argumentation.
Following my first semester teaching Biblical Theology, I completely revised the assessment frameworks for my Biblical Theology class. That semester, I had realized that many of my students lacked basic experience with historical research, a situation that initially shocked and, frankly, dismayed me. After regrouping, I decided that, as an introductory course for second-year students, it was a perfect opportunity to introduce the skills that students would need for their future upper-division courses. Consequently, I committed to making this one of my primary learning objectives for the course and devoted my winter break to reconfiguring the course assignments.
The redesigned course centered on a major, group-based website project that incorporated an introduction to basic research methods and critical analysis. During the course of the project, we had ongoing discussions about the difference between primary and secondary sources, the importance of peer-review, and the murkiness of copyright issues (especially when it comes to publishing on the internet). Additional benefits of the assignment is learning to collaborate as scholars (including taking responsibility for fully contributing), working across disciplines, and becoming familiar with the current tools available for website design.
The project works as follows: Each group of five or six students constructed a website on a theme, biblical passage, character, or question related to the study of the Bible. While the students had some freedom of choice and creative license in how to organize their sites, they were required to include least two short essays deriving from their own research on that topic (with a total word count target of 3000 words, excluding bibliography), appropriate visual elements, and some form of multi-media component, whether a podcast, video, or an interactive feature (e.g., a poll). You can find links to the projects (now a total of twenty-four) at http://www.rebeccafalcasantos.com/biblical-theology.html.
My choice of assignment was based on two primary factors. First, I wanted to an assignment that would encourage students both to think of themselves as part of an ongoing conversation about their material and to take greater ownership of their work. A public platform would support this goal by pushing them beyond a conversation restricted between themselves and their professor. With a website, their potential audience was much wider and the results of their work more permanent. My hope here was that this combination would lend to greater interest in the material and higher quality work.
Second, I organized this assignment as a group project in order to make the research process more manageable for introductory students. I could walk the students carefully through the research process and provide them a greater depth of feedback than would be possible if each student did individual projects. At the same time, working in groups provided a supportive learning structure for students unfamiliar with the demands of research. The students could share the burden of finding and reading materials, and they could lean on each other’s strengths as they worked on developing their weaker skills.
In general, my aims with the assignment were fulfilled. First, I saw an enthusiasm among the students that I have not seen with traditional essays. Students have told me that they have sent links of their projects to their parents and friends, and they were excited when I passed along comments from colleagues at other institutions. Indeed, there was a palpable sense of excitement and “buy in” to the course that grew over the semester. Second, the projects were more careful and interesting than essays from the earlier, non-website, run of the course, and it was clear that students learned more from the process. For example, in end-of-semester evaluations, student frequently mentioned learning to navigate the library system and how to incorporate evidence from multiple sources. Moreover, it was evident that they were learning from each other, whether by pushing each other for stronger arguments or through the frustrations of managing long term project goals.
Managing the project:
Collaboration: To facilitate group cohesion, I arrange the class around four tables. The students work frequently in the resulting small groups during class discussion, especially during the first weeks of the course. This provides the students the opportunity to get to know each other and begin to think about themselves as part of a group. We finalize working groups at the end of Week 3, but until then, I allow students to switch between groups as they decide with whom they would like to work long term.
Research Proposals: Approximately four weeks into the semester, each group submits a one-page proposal presenting their topic, preliminary research questions, rationale for their inquiry, and a short outline of how the group will fulfill the requirements of the website. During the most recent run of the course, I required the students to provide a biblical passage or book as part of their rationale in order to ensure that they were thinking about how their topic relates to the study of biblical texts from the beginning of the project. Previously many groups would choose a topic that they thought was “biblical” (for example, “the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church”) only to realize that establishing the relationship between their topic and the biblical corpus was too complicated for the assignment. (Of course, such a realization is an important part of the learning process.)
Introduction to Research Methods: The week after research proposals are due, the class meets with one of the librarians to learn about the library’s catalogue, databases, and other resources. Before the session, I forward the proposals, along with my comments, to the librarian so that s/he can incorporate their topics into the session.
This past semester, as well, I revised our reading schedule to open up more space for discussing research in class. We had two sessions set aside specifically for discussing research methods: the first on finding appropriate sources; the second on constructing and organizing arguments.
Drafting and Revising: Over the course of the semester, the students have three further benchmarks to help them approach the assignment responsibly: (1) an outline and annotated bibliography, due around the midterm; (2) a rough draft, due several weeks before the final deadline and checked for plagiarism; and (3) the final publication of the website during the final week of class. I devote special attention to the first two submissions, commenting and responding to their submissions within a few days in order that they have an appropriate amount of time to respond to and incorporate my comments.
The entire course is assessed on a points-based system; the website project accounts for 560 points out of a total 1480 points possible. (As an aside, I choose a points-based system in order to encourage students to think about their work in terms of points earned rather than points deducted.) At present, I assign points as follows:
A significant concern for me in designing the project was accountability. Disagreements over focus and rigor, workload disparities (especially ones involving gender), and bullying were special concerns for me. My goal here was to address any issues early, but also to be fair in assigning final grades should there be any attempts at freeloading. Consequently, the assignment includes two assessments (“reviews”), one due around the mid-semester mark; the other at the end of the semester after the websites had gone live. Both reviews ask the students to evaluate both themselves and the members of their group. To ensure that the reviews are returned, students receive credit for completing them (up to 30 points each).
Room for Improvement:
Overall, I have been pleased with this teaching experiment. Nonetheless, there are a few challenges that I am continuing to address. For example, I had hoped to find a web-publishing platform that provided students as much control over their sites as possible. The first semester with the assignment, we decided to use weebly.com, using my own website as a host. Ensuring that students had full access to their own sites, but not to the sites of other groups, required my purchasing a domain. Even then, the students could create new pages within their site; setting up the websites, therefore, required careful coordination between professor and student. This past semester, the students voted to create their Weebly sites, which allowed them to have full creative control. Even so, the students struggled with the platform, particularly with its limitations on simultaneous editing.
There is a further significant issue that I have encountered: Each semester, a very small number of groups (1 or 2 out of 8 groups) experienced significant breakdowns that required intervention. I have dealt with these issues by severely penalizing students who clearly did not contribute to their group projects. In one extraordinary case where only half the students in the group contributed to their project, I curved the scores on individual components of the assignment to address the severe handicap the active members of the group encountered.
What other options might I have here? A colleague suggested allow a group to “vote a member off the island” and allowing that student to produce an alternate project to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. I have not yet resorted to this, but it might be a way of addressing severe cases of freeloading.
To summarize, a long-term, group website project provides a productive and creative way to introduce students to the basic skills and practices of academic research. Additionally, the platform and awareness of their large potential audience makes the students aware of the fact that they are part of larger scholarly conversations and encourages them to become more invested in their work.
Dr. Rebecca Falcasantos is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University.