Religious Education professors encourage artistic projects

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There is a growing trend within BYU’s Religious Education department in which professors offer students multiple ways to earn their grades. Traditionally, teachers have their students take exams and write papers, but for religion professors like Gaye Strathearn, creative projects are becoming an alternative.

“I’ve wanted to do projects in Religious Education for a long time,” Strathearn said. “But I don’t know anything about art, so I wasn’t sure how I would be able to grade it accurately. For years, that fear paralyzed me.”

Since winter semester 2018, students have had the opportunity to turn in art projects to have a chance of being featured in the Visualizing Learning Art Exhibit held in the Joseph Smith Building. Featured students have the opportunity to share their pieces with a live audience. Strathearn said she was hesitant to start the exhibit, but it has been well-received by students. She recounted two turning points that lead to the exhibit’s conception.

The first event that eased Strathearn’s concerns came from the time she spent in Israel over the summer of 2015. When they weren’t in classes or on field trips, Strathearn and the students spent their free time at a beach in Galilee.

The recreation of the ancient city of Jerusalem with sand. Strathearn said that this visual project was a representation of what the students had learned throughout their semester. (Gaye Strathearn).

“I was just sitting down, watching the students having fun, when I noticed that there were two or three of them building a sand castle of some kind,” Strathearn said. “We had been spending the semester talking about Jerusalem and what it was like during the time of Solomon. These students recreated the ancient city of Jerusalem out of sand, and it was very detailed.”

Strathearn said this indicated to her that students could prove their learning experience through means other than writing.

Her second turning point came through her interactions with a student who struggled with written learning in 2017.

“He told me that he had trouble with lecture-based learning, so I assisted him throughout the semester,” Strathearn said. “Through his learning process, I found out that he was a gifted potter. Some of his work had even been displayed in the Ensign.”

Strathearn talked with this student to develop the art project into her curriculum. It was determined that the exhibit would be a chance for students to explain their own learning and inspiration. Later that year, she established a committee of professors to arrange the event.

Anthony Sweat, one of the committee members and another religion professor, also gives students the option of doing an art project for credit. Sweat said he thinks diversity in assignments is the best way for students to share what they have learned. He applauded Strathearn for putting the Visualizing Learning Art Exhibit together.

“The typical academic approach to learning is through paperwork, but some students don’t like writing,” Sweat said. “I think a number of professors are starting to shift to a more open curriculum, because it doesn’t pigeonhole the way students should show their learning.”

Sweat said students who like writing are free to turn in a graded report, but that the open curriculum leads to more inspiring results from each student. He has received a variety of different creative projects in his class, such as websites, apps and even board game inspired classroom material.

Nathan Balaich, one of Sweat’s students, brought a painting to the exhibit that was about revelation. He said that he appreciated the chance to express himself through art.

“I think that there is one more way of learning,” Balaich said. “The world is moving in a direction where people express themselves in different ways, and art in many forms can show that you have learned. I feel like it could help students’ learning.”

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