Building Community in the Adult Learner Classroom

Dr. Paul Criss
Dean of Faculty – Memphis/DeSoto

Ages ago, the Christian college I attended had a chapel service five days a week with a missionary fellowship on Fridays and the expectation that students attend a local church at least three times per week. To some attending a congregational meeting nine times a week may seem excessive, however, the one of the achieved purposes was to help build community within the college and help students make connections outside of the college. Unfortunately, the adult studies schedule does not allow for a regular chapel service, but an excellent opportunity exists in every class to build community among the student body and faculty. What can we do in the first fifteen minutes of each class we teach to build community?

Building community is important. Scripture states: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25 New International Version). Adult learners need the support and prayers of their fellow students and their faculty. We all need encouragement and God has designed this to happen organically in Christian community. This is our distinctive and strength; we need not be ashamed of it in Christian higher education.

We all normally take attendance in the first few minutes of class. I would suggest that we add a few more intentional actions to the first fifteen preliminary minutes of our time together creating a miniature chapel experience. Initially, on the first night take a few minutes to allow each student to introduce themselves. This is a purposeful way to allow time to learn something about each student. I sometimes write a few questions on the board to have each student answer, but feel free to mix-it-up a little. Here are some examples of what student could share:

  • Name
  • Major
  • What you do everyday (Vocation)
  • Something about your family. (kids, family memory, last vacation, etc.)
  • Something no one in the room knows about you. At least not yet!
  • Hobby or Pastime.
  • Favorite movie, television show, or novel.

You get the idea. The point is to help students learn about each other and perhaps find points of connection and familiarity. Introductions usually happen only in the first class, but what follows could happen in every subsequent class.

Sharing how God is working in a student’s life is an important part of building community. Sometimes we skip this essential step. The Apostle Paul tells us, “When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight (1 Corinthians 14:26 The Message), the same might be said for the Adult Studies classroom. We want students to come prepared with some insight from the material to be covered that night, but perhaps they could also come to class prepared to encourage one another by sharing how God is working in their life. I often open with simple questions asking each student to briefly share something, such as:

  • How has God ministered to you or through you this past week?
  • Tell us something good that happened to you today?
  • This past week, when did you feel closest to God? When did you feel furthest from God? (We know that God is always with us, but we are not always in right relationship with Him. This question helps students begin to pinpoint things that affect their spiritual health.)

The point of this is not to be too heavy, but to allow the class to share with and encourage each other, at the same time practicing overcoming the world “by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11 New International Version).

The next action to build community is to share prayer requests and to pray. Prayer requests allow students to engage in each other’s lives. It is valuable not only to pray but to revisit the prayer requests in subsequent classes to receive updates or additions.  It is also important that our students know that we are praying for them and that we lead the other students in class in prayer for their personal needs. When I first started in ministry, I was hesitant to call out specific names or situations in prayer partly because I did not want to offend anyone by leaving them out of the prayer. One day an Elder told me how important it was that members of the congregation hear others calling out to God on their behalf. And this is a fulfillment of our calling to walk in Christ’s steps as Prophet, Priest, and King. We shadow Christ’s ministry by speaking the truth in love (prophet), leading others as servant-leaders (king), and interceding for others in prayer (priest). I believe the same thing is true for adult learners as well. Assist students in thinking outside of their own lives and into the lives of their community by praying for community, county, state, national, and international leaders and communities, community events and concerns (I always ask what is happening in local, national, and international news that we need to life up), and for the university and its faculty, staff, and administration.

The instructor could round out this miniature chapel time in their class with a short devotional, if time permits. Each class has three to five scriptures that undergird the topics of the evening and breathe God’s revelation into what the textbook will have stated. Perhaps you could use one of these scriptures to base a devotional thought or reflection. It is important here to ask “What is God saying” before we ask “What is God saying to us (or me).” This will help us to do exegesis (what the text is actually saying) rather than isogesis (reading what we want to into the text). At the end of class, try asking students how the required scripture reading spoke to the topics of the night – this is a great way to triangulate the material while simultaneously allowing students the opportunity to think critically from a Christian perspective.  Keep in mind, however, that this introduction/chapel/devotional time should not exceed 15-20 minutes AT THE MOST, before turning to the subject content for that class session.

One final component of community building is to connect your class with the community in which they live. As a faculty member, you can engage students in community events and community concerns, and connect them with members of the community. Invite community leaders and business professionals into your classroom as guest speakers for a short presentation in the discipline or on the topic for the evening, for example our Instructor of Business has developed relationships with speakers from Fed Ex, UPS, and Nike to share with business classes on our campus.

Invite students to join you in community service. If you are involved in a community service organization, such as Lion’s Club, Rotary Club, Kiwanis, or even a Chamber of Commerce, then look for ways to involve your students. We recently partnered with a local Rotary club to initiate the first adult student Rotaract Club. The University’s mission “not to be served, but to serve” fits quite well with “service above self.”  Consider connecting with recent alumni for possible internships for your students. One alumnus of our campus contacted us regarding interns needed in the Americorp Vista program offered through our local county school board’s community and family engagement office. This has turned out to be a very nice internship and a valuable experience for our students.

In all of the above, remember that your Dean of Faculty would be happy to assist you in both community development and community engagement. All of these opportunities are valuable enhancements to the adult learner’s educational experience. Do not let the ideas end here. Share your ideas with your Dean and with other faculty on your campus through the campus Canvas page and at your next faculty development workshop. Remember, when it comes to community development and engagement, your input and participation is essential. Together, the sky truly is the limit!

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