As a university, BYU is uniquely known around the world for more than the fact it is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
To name a few, 25 percent of the student body is married, there is an Honor Code with severe consequences for those who have unmarried sex and it has a mission of teaching all disciplines in the light of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
On BYU’s website, LDS Church President Brigham Young is quoted talking to BYU founder Karl G. Maeser on the importance of teaching with a spiritual emphasis.
“Brother Maeser, I want you to remember that you ought not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God,” President Young said.
The LDS Church and the university have a mission reaching higher than simply gaining a degree. According to BYU’s mission statement, its mission centers around assisting “individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.” In order to accomplish this mission, BYU created four aims of education all faculty are responsible for not just incorporating into their classrooms, but into everything they do.
The aims of a BYU education are spiritual strengthening, intellectually enlarging, character building and leading to lifelong learning and service.
Tracking how professors are doing in this mission is something the BYU Faculty Center has sought to do, and recently published a study titled, “Spiritually Strengthening and Intellectually Enlarging Faculty: What Students Want.”
“Combining the spiritually strengthening and the intellectually enlarging will always be a challenge we will choose to embrace,” said BYU’s Academic Vice President Brent Webb in an e-mail. “The study revealed that students recognize the achievement of the spiritually strengthening aim predominantly by faculty showing they believe in their students’ potential, being authentic and genuine, and being an example and role model of someone who lives the gospel.”
Students support spiritual aim
The study showed 72 percent of students felt every course should have spiritually strengthening and intellectually enlarging connections. Almost 60 percent of students expected professors to incorporate these two aims, while only 35 percent of students felt professors met these expectations.
The Faculty Center held focus groups with students to determine what these expectations were. What the students wanted more than having a professor take their subject matter and find some profound connection to the gospel was to have “an example and role model of someone who lives the gospel.”
Professors need to find their voice
The Faculty Center also talked to professors highly rated by students about advice they would give a new faculty member. The conclusion was “each teacher, each professor, needs to find his or her own voice.” One method that works for one professor will not necessarily work for another.
The center also found making a classroom focused on BYU’s aims does not depend upon subject matter.
“In every discipline, professors are doing well,” said the assistant director for faculty development Jane Birch. “It’s not really the discipline. It’s about experimenting, trying new things and making a difference in the lives of their students.”
Finance professor emphasizes learning
While teaching at the University of Florida Jim Brau, a professor of finance in the Marriott School of Business, would tell a joke during lectures to wake his students up.
When he came to BYU, he replaced the jokes with spiritual thoughts or experiences. He said his thoughts come from his personal scripture study and from the weekly devotional he watches while doing cardio at the gym.
“I try to surround myself,” Brau said. “I’m always thinking [about] how I will work the thoughts in. Then I will incorporate a short story or an anecdote.”
Because of his evaluations and emails from students, Brau feels his method works for him, but the most difficult aim to help students understand is lifelong learning and service. He said students are still more concerned about their grades at the end of the semester than retaining knowledge.
“If you master the material, A’s will come,” he said.
One of his spiritual thoughts at the beginning of each semester is from a devotional Elder David A. Bednar gave at BYU called, “Learning to Love Learning.”
“My graduation gift to you is a … commencement message that focuses upon the principle of learning to love learning,” Elder Bednar said. “Learning to love learning is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ … and is an absolute necessity in the world in which we do now and will yet live, serve and work.”
“Bilinguality” in biology
Each semester Professor Richard Gill shares a quote by Elder Neal A. Maxwell in a past devotional called, “The Inexhaustible Gospel.”
“You and I should be fully qualified and certified in traditional education and its processes for … bilinguality,” Elder Maxwell said, “[being] truly educated and articulate as to secular knowledge [and] also . . . educated and articulate in the things of the Spirit.”
Gill came to BYU in 2008 and in the beginning said implementing the aims was a difficult task for him.
“Incorporating the aims was difficult in a few ways,” Gill said. “I would go too far one way, then too far the other. And I found I didn’t trust the students early on.”
With a subject such as evolution, Gill said some students felt a topic denouncing the divinity of God should not have a place at a university like BYU. Over time, however, he said he has reconciled students on the two subjects and found ways to teach the two together.
“At first, I would deconstruct First Presidency statements on evolution and spend whole class periods on what they said,” Gill said. “Now, I spend 20 minutes and teach that we learn about the material world through science and the spiritual world through revelation.”
Comparing the sacred and secular
When Professor Brent Gilchrist, a political science and philosophy professor, came to BYU, implementing the aims into his classroom was a challenge. In fact he said he avoided it. He wanted students to have the same thing they would get at another university. But luckily for him, he feels philosophy has an advantage over other courses.
“It is all about spiritual matters,” Gilchrist said. ” When I first came here, I was overly cautious from making my classes a religion class,” Gilchrist said, “but I’ve found students are hungry for it. For me, incorporating this aim and the others have become increasingly deliberate.”
Gilchrist has themes for his lectures he ties the aims in with. For example, a topic Gilchrist teaches in Western Political Heritage 2 is totalitarianism, which is defined as a governing body that has total control over a state. During lectures students sometimes misinterpret this for the Law of Consecration in LDS doctrine.
“Totalitarianism is a counterfeit for the political kingdom of God,” he said. “I help them see the difference.”
After teaching at BYU for nine years, Gilchrist has noticed the impact implementing the aims into his classes has had on his life.
“Going to another university would be pretty hard,” he said. “I would lose joy in part of my teaching.”
Seeking to apply principles in life
Kerry Muhlestein, a professor of ancient scripture, said he feels focusing on the aims is easy to facilitate, but cannot have any impact if students do not take action to apply what is taught.
“I think that building character is integrally tied to the ability the student develops for seeing how the gospel principles we discuss apply to his or her own life,” Muhlestein said. “To make this happen, we have to make it part of the class discussion and part of the assignments.”
A difficulty Muhlestein has encountered in his religion classes in helping his students see these courses are intellectually enlarging. But he feels, many students reject this idea.
“For some reason, many students think one should not approach scriptures with any degree of intellect,” he said.
Throughout his class discussions he tries to emphasize that scripture study should enlarge his students intellectually and God expects them to bring everything they have to study the scriptures.
“I tell my students that if they learn a ton of things in my class, but do not emerge from the semester better able to get more out of the scriptures for the rest of his or her life, then I will have failed as a teacher,” he said.
These professors and many others have discovered as they have implemented the aims into their classrooms, regardless of the subject matter, they have impacted the lives of their students and have become the people and the professors the university wants.
“As I become more deliberate in incorporating the aims the last couple of years,” Gilchrist said, “I have hit my stride.”