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Undergraduate Learning and Interreligious Understanding

Leader: Michael Kessler

Between 2007 and 2011 the Berkley Center and Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) at Georgetown University conducted a four-year longitudinal study to track student attitudes towards religious diversity and their evolution in response to experiences at Georgetown in and outside the classroom. Part of the Doyle Engaging Difference Program, the project's goal was to help educators at Georgetown and around the world identify best practices in building tolerance as part of an educational experience. The final project report was published in 2016.

Undergraduate Learning and Interreligious Understanding (ULIU) Update, Summer 2012

The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) have worked closely with students in the class of 2011 to discover their attitudes toward, and involvement in, interreligious and intercultural experiences at Georgetown University.

In fall 2007, an online survey of these students as incoming first-years was administered to gauge their attitudes towards religion and diverse traditions. The results indicated that students came to Georgetown with significant exposure to persons of other religious traditions, that they were generally liberal and open-minded on questions of religious faith, and that students demonstrated a high degree of tolerance of diverse religious views, including a willingness to see some truth in others' beliefs.

During the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 academic years, the ULIU project is coordinating focus groups and a series of in-depth individual interviews that engaged students in conversations about their interreligious and intercultural understanding, their participation in religious services (within their own faith or outside of it), and the effect of their curricular learning on their social experiences.

In 2010-2011, final interviews and a comprehensive senior survey were administered to the students who were now graduating and interviewed over the previous four years. Insights from their four years at Georgetown are now being analyzed.

Significant recurring themes that have emerged so far in the focus group and interview data include:

1. Students develop their perspectives about religion or their attitude towards religious adherents (or people with no religious affiliation) primarily through the classroom/curriculum (intellectual/theoretical knowledge) and through interactions with friends (emotional understanding/ knowledge of practice).

  • Classroom/intellectual and theoretical experiences have expanded students' perception of religion. It appears that more academic knowledge leads to more positive perceptions, or at least greater tolerance, of other faiths or of religion in general.
  • The influence of friends leads to an increase in emotional understanding and practical knowledge of religious practices and beliefs. Students report enjoying and expanding friendships with people who have different religious or spiritual beliefs.

2. While students' lack of knowledge often inhibits their discussion of religion, gains in knowledge about particular faiths produce a more complex view of religion in general and do not necessarily lead to more confidence in discussing a faith or visiting others' religious services.

  • Lack of knowledge about religious traditions (rituals and doctrines) makes students hesitant to discuss religion in a classroom environment or to attend services outside their own faith tradition.
  • Students with a religious affiliation (and those without) are learning that religion is complex and should not be disregarded or discounted politically, intellectually, and theologically.

3. Most students agree, and prize, that there is something unique about the Catholic/Jesuit identity and campus climate of Georgetown that fosters interreligious understanding and facilitates interfaith dialogue.

  • Many students have encountered pluralism within their own religious traditions through encountering the diverse Georgetown community.
  • Students are more open to attending religious services outside of their own faith tradition (or if they do not have a faith tradition) and more comfortable inviting others to participate in their own services than they were in high school or when they lived with their parents.

For the remaining two years of the study, we will continue to track changes over time in student attitudes towards other faiths, as well as changes in how students interact with people of different faiths. Our overall goal is to explore levels of student engagement, both through building knowledge and engaging in dialogue. Primary research questions that we will address, through focus groups, individual interviews, and a final survey, include:

  • How students change, and what experiences throughout the campus experience made the difference.
  • What experiences affected students, and why they were successful
  • How interreligious and intercultural understanding could be increased through the college academic and co-curricular experience.
Interfaith Group of Georgetown Female Staff and Students

Project Leader

Michael Kessler headshot

Michael Kessler

Executive Director
Department of Government and Georgetown Law


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