Something Happened

Exploring Student Religious Experiences Through the Eyes of Their Teacher
EvaluationAction ResearchReligious EducationReligion Studies
Although measuring religious knowledge can be fairly straightforward, assessing whether students are having religious experiences can be more difficult. The purpose of this self-study is to develop a clearer understanding of the interactions that enable my students’ religious experiences and support me in recognizing when such experiences are occurring. The data from this study were reflections I created of my experiences with students which led to them having deeper religious experiences. I wrote ten narratives that captured my understanding of what occurred. Next, I interviewed those students taking notes on their responses to the narratives. In analyzing these two sets of data, I used the Listening Guide (Gilligan et al., 2006) to analyze the narratives. In the analysis I sought to verify that I had recognized their experience and uncover how I recognized this occurring. and find whether and in what ways I was able to tell when a student was having religious experiences in my classroom. The Student responses indicated that for some the plotline for the event was just regular attendance and participation to the experience from our interaction involved then engaging in extensive outside seeking and preparation. While the plotlines were diverse, I did uncover common elements which included taking time to know students and attending to my intuitions about their needs. Implications of the present study are explored for both religious educators and teachers in other content areas who might be interested in helping students move beyond content knowledge toward meaningful engagement with a discipline.

Context of the Study

I teach religion in a private teaching context where as part of their regular class schedule students are allowed to leave their secondary school setting and come to a separate setting to participate in religious instruction. The curriculum for this is somewhat proscribed and provided by the church that sponsors the program. The school is in a small, rural community where the majority of the population belongs to the church that sponsors the instruction. State law allows other churches to provide similar programs.

In Religious Education more broadly there are two goals: teaching religion and teaching about religion (Kollar, 2005). My focus has always been on the first goal of teaching religion by creating deep religious experiences to help my students become committed and full participants in the religion that sponsors the program. Determining whether my teaching leads to these kinds of experiences is more difficult than simply measuring the success of the second goal of teaching about religion. The difficulty for me emerged when I tried to assess how well my instruction met my goal for my teaching. In trying to determine whether my instruction was leading students to have deep religious experiences in class, or because of class. Formal or even informal ongoing assessments of student learning were problematic because I recognized that students might be dishonest about their experience when they were asked about the impact of my teaching on their learning religion rather than about religion. They may try to please me as their teacher, or that their comments might impact their grade, or feel these experiences are private. This was my struggle: how might I determine whether my teaching did impact their religious experience and if I could uncover clues could I adjust my teaching to capitalize on my understanding? Therefore, this question guided this study: Is something happening in the lives of my students because of their involvement in my religious class?


Thus, the purpose was to develop a clearer understanding of when and how my teaching and interactions with students deepened their religious experiences, and how I might recognize when such experiences are occurring. The following question guided this study: From my experiences reflecting on my students, what are the elements of teacher and student interactions that I perceive promoted deepened religious experience?


In the Gospel of Matthew, the Savior states that “Except ye be converted… ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (King James Bible, 1769/2013, Matthew 18:3). At the end of each of the Gospels in the New Testament, Christ gave the admonition to his disciples to go and preach to all nations. The commandment to preach in a way that might facilitate conversion is in many religions, not just in Christianity. In fact, this concept can be found in any educational endeavor. Does the math teacher only want to teach concepts to her students, or does she want her students to have the kinds of experiences with math that might lead them to become mathematicians? Becoming a mathematician does not fall into the realm of religious conversion, but there is a change or conversion in the person as they assume a new identity for themselves as a mathematician. They are becoming a new being. Paul in the New Testament says, “And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Colossians 3:10). I wondered about the experiences in teaching practice that could or were leading to the sort of changes I wanted my own students to experience. Was I accurately perceiving the influence of my teaching on my students?

"Religious conversion cannot be explained simply as a psychological process but involves a spiritual dimension” (Iyandurai, 2014, p. 189). Paul, to the Corinthians, said: “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11). This is what makes measuring the kind of spiritual experiences that tie a person to a particular religion so difficult. These religious experiences are something that happens between a person and God in the context of their religious faith. This spiritual dimension might make it difficult for someone who has had a religious experience to explain, let alone someone observing the experience to assess what happened. Even if it is difficult to explain, this spiritual dimension of religious experience is still something that is essential to conversion and important for me as a teacher seeking to create increasing numbers of such experiences. “The spiritual dimension cannot be ignored in religious conversion, and it is vital to understand the phenomenon of conversion” (Iyandurai, 2014, p. 191). This spiritual dimension of religious experience allows a person to connect with God and potentially leads to conversion. Lewis Rambo found that converts claimed to be closer to God and that “God is no longer an abstract concept but a living reality” (Rambo, 1993, as cited in Iyandurai, 2014, p. 191).

Understanding how personal conversion is to the individual has brought me to this difficult conundrum of whether my students are having these religious experiences of pure, intimate, connected communication with God. What happens in these religious experiences is deeply internal and not easily perceived by other people. Court (2013) elaborates on this idea:

Religious study should not only lead to religious knowledge and a moral life, but to creating a framework for a religious life within which students of any age might be surprised by joy, peace, insight, meaning and connection – whatever inadequate words we ascribe… A religious life sustained only by habit or fear, by community, security or stability or by the acquisition of an extensive body of knowledge is not a full religious life. While we cannot teach, promise, evaluate or verify religious experience, we must include it as a revealed and valued aim. Clearly, this is not an aim that can be broken down into goals and behavioral objectives. No ‘behavior’ is intended. (p. 257)

Encapsulating this quote, Court makes the claim that we cannot evaluate or verify religious experience and that no behavior is intended, but she uses the words “joy, peace, insight, meaning and connection” which gives cause for contemplation. While there may not be a specific behavior intended for the students to show a religious experience, there are indicators such as joy, peace, insight, meaning, and connection. One can often tell when someone’s emotion moves from anger to joy or from anxiety to peace. Though it has been shown that nonverbal communication is not 93% of all communication (Lapakko, 1997), as was once thought after a famous study by Mehrabian and Ferris (1976), it is clearly an important factor when trying to communicate how we are feeling. A teacher can often tell when their students are experiencing deeper meaning or gaining understanding by the body language or facial expressions of the students. This nonverbal communication cannot be context free if we want to identify its meaning (Barrett, 1993). I believe there can be indicators of conversion when coupled with shared thoughts and feelings. The behavior might be as simple as a brief moment of eye contact, a nod, a change in posture, etc. These alone might not mean anything, but coupled with shared thoughts and feelings, a teacher can have a shared religious experience with a student.


S-STTEP was a natural fit because of the personal nature of religious experiences for the student and teacher. In this study, I am not trying to figure out if my students are having spiritual experiences. I am trying to discover if I, as their teacher, can tell whether they are having those experiences or not and how I can develop contexts that allow for more of such experiences. The study was self-initiated, self-focused, and oriented to improving my practice as a religious educator seeking to improve his ability to help students have deeper religious experiences (LaBoskey, 2004). Through a S-STTEP approach, I observed my classroom and my student interactions seeking to identify characteristics of religious experiences as they occurred in order to better engage my students in religious instruction. Throughout the data collection, analysis, and representation of findings, I worked with my co-author as a critical friend who questioned and provided support.

Through observations and analysis of the students, I sought to determine the accuracy of my intuitions about students’ learning and experience in moments of instruction. I interviewed ten students who had previously been in my classes. My data consists of my observations, notes on my reflections, and my journals about experiences and interactions with my students that I labeled as spiritual or enlarging their religious development. I presented my narrative to each student and asked him or her if they agreed with the narrative and if there were any additional details. I adjusted the story based on their details to make a more accurate and cohesive story. I inquired if they felt this religious experience was significant for them and recorded the interview. I presented my narrative to the students themselves. I asked them if they agreed with what I had written and if there were any additional details that needed to be added. I asked them if they felt like this was a significant religious experience for them. I recorded those interviews and with that text, I was able to add their narrative to my own to create a more cohesive story about what happened. All students interviewed were no longer my students and the results of the interview would have no impact on their classroom experience. My narratives and students’ responses to them constituted my data collection.

For the analysis process, I used Gilligan’s work on using listening to guide analysis (Gilligan et al., 2006). The first part of the Listening Guide is looking for plotlines. I was able to piece together four different plotlines based on the student’s readiness before the event. Then, with those plotlines, I showed I moved to the next aspect of the listening guide which involved the construction of I-poems based on the data. These are created by identifying every “I” statement in the narrative. I-poems force the researcher to listen to the first-person voice and to hear more clearly how this person speaks about themselves. This was such an enjoyable part for me because it made the narratives live for me. When the narrative is put into an I-poem, small but important details are easily seen. Through I-poems and my consideration of them, I was able to determine the plotlines in the data and how each story fit within the plotlines. The third part is Contrapuntal Listening which comes from the concept of contrapuntal music. I started with the entire narrative and looked for different voices. I looked for negative versus positive voices, my voice versus the student’s voice, or my actions versus the student’s actions. From this, I was able to begin to form my conclusions about the narratives. Following my analysis based on the Listening Guide, I next engaged with critical friends (my coauthor, my colleagues, and others) to critique and then deepen the analysis helping me broaden and deepen the analysis and develop the trustworthiness of my interpretation.


From plotlines that I created from narratives, I developed I-poems to represent each experience recorded in my data (see Gilligan et al., 2006). The I-poems captured the interactions I had with my students. For this paper, I will be only focusing on one of the interactions with my students. To represent my findings, I included descriptions of what happened to me as I prepared a lesson for a student while that student was at school that day.



I felt passionate.

I had read.

I just felt really inspired.

I went to work.

I did more collaborating.

I did more talking.

I did more planning.

I did more wrestling.

I got in class.

I could feel.

I wanted this.

I asked.

I felt.

I asked.

I looked at a student.

I walked by.

“I needed to hear this today.”

I felt depressed.

I felt lazy.

I procrastinated.

I was a lot less happy.

I began to care less.

I wasted time endlessly.

I just lacked the care.

I began to question.

I had no reason.

I was stuck.

I couldn’t feel joy.

I entered my scripture study.

I went to school.

I felt sad.

I felt God would help me.

I walked into Brother Pearson’s.

I listened.

I never wanted to leave.

I never wanted the feelings to diminish.

I recognized.

I heard.

I wrote.

I know God is aware of me.

I needed.

I realized.

As the form of the poem suggests, this was an interactive process. You will note that my focus was on what I was doing and while as the poems’ structure suggests, the student was involved in their own experience of this in this interaction. In my memory, as captured in this poem, I felt very passionate about a certain topic that I wanted to teach. For some reason, I just had an idea, and I couldn’t make that idea fit into the block of scriptures that we were teaching that day. I worked hard and seemed to produce a decent lesson. For the most part, though, it felt like a normal lesson when I taught it.

When I look at these two I-Poems side by side, I can see my struggle–which was a struggle to say the right thing to my students that day, and at almost the same time the student was struggling with the opposite emotions. The student presents herself as being depressed and apathetic. I have presented her experiences of depression and apathy in opposition to my desire to create a lesson about which I felt passionate. It is only in the last stanza that the impact of my passion becomes visible in the student’s expression of her response. As my drive to try and convey a message to my students grew, I was using words like passionate, inspired, work, collaborating, talking, planning, and wrestling. The student is using words with the opposite feeling: depressed, lazy, procrastinated, less happy, wasted time, lacking the care, and stuck.

As I act and teach with passion, the language of the student reveals a shift in her experience and her motivation. I notice this shift in this student and the motivation that comes into them. Her statements: “I never wanted to leave,” and “I never wanted the feelings to diminish.” reveal her shift from action to inaction captured in the phrases: “I listened,” “I recognized,” “I heard,” and “I wrote.” I was completely unaware of what was happening to this student before that lesson, and even throughout the lesson I still didn’t realize the impact that the lesson was having on this student. In fact, I wrote my side of the story before I knew all the details of the student’s side of the story. As I was able to write the I-Poem, it was beautiful to see both experiences side by side and how parallel they were. It wasn’t until the lesson was over and as I watched this girl prepare to leave that I noticed that she indeed was trying to stay and linger longer.

When I analyze my motivation to give that lesson that day and see the student with that specific circumstance happening to them, it really does feel like there was some other force assisting me in the preparation of that lesson. I felt that way in my lesson preparation, but it seems that the student felt that way as well, as the student says in the last stanza, “I know God is aware of me.”

Through this work, I sought to develop not traditional findings but assertions for action and understanding based on my empirical analysis of these experiences. This analysis occurred via an I-Poem. My exploration of the I-poems reaffirmed my understanding of the elements of teacher-student interactions that I needed to be awakened to as I made efforts to increase the meaningful religious experience of my students. Acting on these findings I have improved my practice. The findings have implications for others who seek to teach students in ways that cause them to develop morally and intellectually and impact their lived experiences. This study also provides guidance for teachers in other content areas who seek to determine their influence in their students’ lives.

My Realizations

As I reexamine my teaching, there are things that used to matter to me that don’t matter as much anymore. The physical interactions that I thought were important, like raising your hand, writing in your journal, sharing with a partner, or following along, don’t seem as important. I used to feel that if students were raising their hands in class and talking, they were having religious experiences, or at least that the student was having a good time. Maybe having a good time was all that mattered. Engaging my students in any way was so important before but now as I have analyzed my purpose in teaching seminary, I want my students to have religious experiences and not just be engaged. That could look different for every student. The themes of following intuitions and focusing on relationships emerged as I inquired into the stories. I explore these below

Following Intuitions

After doing this research, I thought I would have a list of tips or tricks that I could implement into my teaching that would increase the likelihood of my students having religious experiences. This is not the case, and I am more trusting of my own intuitions or inspirations than I was before instead of relying on new tips and tricks. Because of all the things that led up to these religious experiences, I am much more aware of my own intuitions and the influence they can have on the classroom. The more closely I follow my own teachings about attending to religious experiences, the more I will be led to interact in ways that support students’ religious experiences. Many of these experiences with students happened after I had personally had a powerful religious experience in which my own commitment was fortified. Before one experience, I had gone to one of our temples and had a deep connection with God that day. In another, I was wrestling with a spiritual topic that was troubling me deeply and the answer to that problem just happened to be the thing one student needed. When I teach my students religion, my own connection to religion is essential.

In every story, I made a lesson plan or had an idea of how I wanted the interaction to go. Somewhere before or during the interaction, I felt a need to change what I was doing. For example, I felt I needed to do something, I remembered a dream, I had a thought, I asked a question. I didn’t plan for these feelings to come. I don’t believe it is possible to force them to come. After hundreds of lessons, I could never guarantee a student was going to have a religious experience. I never knew a religious experience with a student was going to happen before it happened. As a young teacher, I would have never noticed my students’ reactions during a class because I was so concerned about what I was going to say next. As I have done this research, I am much more aware of what my students are experiencing during a lesson. As I notice their reactions, I am paying more attention to what contributed to those reactions. This causes me to recognize more when I am being impressed to make changes in my teaching and be more willing to follow those promptings.


This type of study could potentially be important for any teacher. In this modern age, teachers are being replaced by online learning programs. If a teacher is just there to stand and deliver material, then replacing them with YouTube or Khan Academy seems like a great financial or logistical plan. However, there is more to a teacher than just standing and delivering the material. With all of these stories, there was a relationship that was developed between me, the student, and the topic. These connections are essential in human interaction and create spaces where people feel an identity and a closeness to a topic. It is not enough to know a topic so that you can receive an income someday. A teacher wants their students to become something more. They want their students to feel great joy in connection with their learning, and for that learning to become part of their lives. Although this paper is focused on religion, the connections I feel with my students feel similar to those I had in my college math classes as I sat in wonder and awe at the beauty of mathematics. Those classes made me want to become a mathematician and because of that, I made connections with the people in those contexts and with the topic, and it is now a part of my identity. Math brings me joy. After spending time with teachers in the public schools, they are there to help their students feel the joy of their subject and become something because of it or become converted to it.

I found that as I began to gather data for this paper, I became much more purposeful in my efforts in class to identify when my students were having a religious experience. I felt pressure to gather enough stories to make this paper relevant. This pressure caused me to rethink the way that I prepared lessons and how I interacted with my students. I was much more driven to have more meaningful classes and interactions. Doing this for a prolonged period of time has changed the way that I prepare and teach.


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Iyandurai, J. (2014). Religious conversion: A psycho-spiritual perspective. Transformation, 31(3), 189-193.

King James Bible (2013). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Original work published 1769).

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Jason Pearson

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Michael Richardson

Brigham Young University

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