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Assessment in Religious Education: Why It Matters

By: Bernard Bull

Assessment in religious education isn’t a popular topic, but it is an important one. When I use the word assessment, I’m not talking about grading, testing, or quizzing. I’m referring to something far more fundamental. Allow me to explain.

I taught two courses on Teaching the Faith at Concordia Theological Seminary several years ago. The students in one class were specific ministry pastor students. The other class consisted of deaconess students. Both groups had access to a parish, so I designed a series of “life assignments” where students could test out ideas from the class in a real world setting. This gave me an idea for teaching about the role of assessment in teaching the faith.

The assignment was simple. Meet with the pastor prior to the upcoming Sunday sermon. Interview him about the content and purpose of the message. What are the key ideas? What are the important lessons that you want people to get from this message? Then, after the Sunday service, interview people who had just listened to the sermon. What were the key ideas? What were the important lessons in the sermon? How did the listener’s answers correspond to those of the pastor?

This was a quick and effective way to teach about the role and value of assessment. Many students reported back with surprise, sometimes even concern. They found people walking out of the same service having completely different notions of what they just heard. They listened to the exact same sermon. Yet, the listeners retold the message in wildly different ways. Some were on track with the pastor’s intended message, but others walked away with completely different ideas, sometimes even directly in conflict with the actual content and intent of the message.

How is this possible? How can you have a group of people sitting in the same room, listening to the same message, but walking away with such distinct understandings of what was said? Furthermore, regardless of how these differences can happen, what are the implications for teaching the faith?

Regarding the question about how it is possible, there are many potential answers to that question:

  • People are coming to church with different pre-existing ideas about the topics in the sermon.
  • Some have significant background knowledge about Lutheran doctrine; others have less.
  • Some are going through challenges in life that impact what they hear and their readiness to hear the message.
  • People have different levels of interest, motivation, biblical literacy, and even different levels of trust in the pastor.
  • Some know him well, while others are just getting to know him.
  • Some related with the examples and illustrations in the sermon. Others might be confused or sometimes even offended by them.

All of these factors and more contribute to the fact that people don’t always hear and understand faith messages as we hope or intend.

What are the implications for teaching the faith? This is where assessment plays a useful role. In its simplest form, assessment is simply checking for understanding, finding out what people understand and what they do not. It helps us discover whether there are any misconceptions, whether we need to review an idea further, or whether we might benefit from new examples, illustrations, or activities to clarify or correct.

The type of assessment that I am describing is often referred to as formative assessment. This is the check for understanding as we are teaching or helping students learn something new. Without it, we have no way of knowing whether our messages are sticking or understood. We could be teaching everything correctly, but assessment allows us to determine if it is understood correctly.

When it comes to teaching the faith, we can start to get at this in simple ways. As a way to get you started, I’ll conclude with seven question or ideas for your consideration.

Learning Journals

What if you gave students five minutes at the end of class to share what they think regarding the lesson for the day? What interested them? What confused them? What were the main or most personally meaningful lessons? This can be a treasure trove of insights into how the students are understanding the lessons.

Put It into a Picture

This can work for students of all ages. Ask people to draw a picture or illustration to represent one or more of the concepts that you are teaching. Encourage them to create it as if using it to teach the idea to someone else. Even simple stick-figure depictions are welcome. It doesn’t need to take more than a few minutes or be a masterpiece, but it can be incredibly telling. Having students go around the room sharing and explaining their images is a great way to “quiz” students without them feeling like they are being quizzed. You can also have them write up an explanation or record a one or two minute explanation and share it with you using a myriad of apps or web-based technologies. Or, if time allows, you can have them share their ideas with you one-on-one.

Letter to a Friend

As a spin on the learning journal, you can also frame that five-minute written reflection as a letter to a real or imaginary friend. Their job is to simply tell or write about what they did and learned as they would with a friend.

Exit Tickets

Similar to learning journals, an exit ticket can work like an ungraded mini-quiz or check for understanding. It can even be as simple as asking them to record the main lessons for the day. Or, if you take a few minutes, you can often craft a single question that goes beyond regurgitating information, which quickly shows you how well students truly understand what was taught. Exit tickets can also be framed in creative ways, such as a letter to a friend. You can share with them a short letter that an imaginary person wrote to the class, and then have each person write a short reply to that letter.

Student Response Systems

There are countless apps, web-based tools, and clicker devices which can provide constant feedback and help you check for understanding in a class. These tools allow you to do things like embed questions (T/F, multiple choice, short answer) into a PowerPoint and then have each student use a device to answer the question. In this way, you can collect real-time feedback about what students understand at any moment in the class, allowing you to sometimes make immediate adjustments or provide further clarification.

For some simple examples of using a digital student response system, be sure to look at our Resources page.

Recorded Peer Conversations

Craft a few questions or prompts for students to discuss with one another about the lesson. Pause at different points in the lesson for a three to five minute conversation among the students. I’ve even been known to carry a small digital recorder around, placing it on the desks as the groups are discussing. Then I review it later to get a sense of what they were discussing. It was a great way for me to get to know them, and by listening to how they talked about the ideas when I was not present, I gained rich insight into their understanding. Of course, getting the necessary consent before recording people is always important.

Peer Share

Even if the recording is not your style, having times for students to discuss ideas with one another can be helpful, especially if you teach students how to do this well, encouraging them to focus on whether they have a shared understanding of a given idea. Of course, there is the danger that everyone in the group had the same misunderstanding, so you want to use this method in conjunction with some of the more objective ones that I’ve already shared.

Assessment is important if we want to understand what our students are thinking and learning. It doesn’t need to be complex. It doesn’t need to be formal. It doesn’t need to be graded. It just needs to be a way for you to get to know what is happening in those wonderful minds of the learners that you have the privilege of teaching and serving.

About Concordia Publishing House

Concordia Publishing House (CPH) is the publishing arm of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. For 150 years, CPH has been providing individuals, churches, and schools with products that are faithful to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. From books and Bibles to church supplies, curriculum, and software, CPH offers over 10,000 products to support the proclamation of the Gospel worldwide. Visit CPH online at