Assessing Bible Learning At Christian Schools

Raising up theologians.

Written by Riley DueckDecember 1, 2019Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

I work at a faith-based school, and one of the benefits is being able to teach about the Bible for chunks of time throughout my week. In addition, the province where I work has a competency-heavy curriculum. This makes for an interesting mix when teaching and assessing a labelled “Bible” class.

When I think about a competency-heavy Bible class I have the following questions…

  1. What are age-appropriate learning targets to be assessed?
  2. What do I do if students do not have biblical background knowledge to accomplish the learning targets?
  3. What does proficiency look like in Bible class?

What are age-appropriate learning targets that should be assessed?

I’m lucky to work at a school that has a K-12 Bible curriculum, so I am aware of what Bible content I am expected to teach and I have a list of theological competencies sixth-grade students should be learning.

Let me give an example of this at work.

In sixth grade, I teach about the Babylonian exile and in the second lesson, we learn about Jeremiah. As exile approaches, Jeremiah critiques the supposedly spiritual Israelites by saying they’ve turned the temple into a “den of robbers,” because they do not love their neighbour.

One of the competencies for this Old Testament unit is to “Explore and analyze how scripture passages point to the person and redemptive work of Christ.”

This shouldn’t be too difficult, especially since Jesus also calls the temple a “den of robbers,” quoting Jeremiah. As a class, we investigate the two stories together and explore together. In the end, we come to a consensus that if Jesus is saying it, and Jeremiah said it many years before, perhaps not much has changed (extended exile — go see NT Wright or O Come O Come Emmanuel).

Great. But have they learned anything? I just delivered a wonderful homily on the story of Jeremiah with mild student participation, but how many of these students are successful according to the learning target?

How do I accurately assess what these students have learned?

If I asked them how they feel about exploring how OT texts point to Jesus, how would they feel?

Was there any actual scaffolding in that learning target, or did I just explain a theological situation to them?

I’ve used Kahoot as an ‘entrance ticket’ assessment with proficient results. However, I’m not convinced that the students would meet expectations with an independent written entrance ticket.

The three big questions are helpful here (I’ve used adapted language from John Hattie).

What am I learning?

Why am I learning it?

How will I know that I’ve learned it?

As a teacher, I struggle with how best to assess how students will know if they’ve accomplished the learning target in Bible class.

While I’m optimistic about correct Kahoot answers, as that shows me that students have memory of previous lessons and a basic understanding of the content, I’m not convinced that assessment data gives me a clear picture of whether students actually understand why their answers were correct.

In the end, the students give me correct answers but they have yet to understand truly “what they are learning” and “why they are learning it.”

How to assess theological competencies could be another complete blog post. The fact is that theological competencies are difficult to assess and it comes down to teacher preference on how they would like to do so. Often literacy or social studies assessments have translatability, but the fact remains that assessment in Bible class is difficult.

One of the main reasons for this difficulty that I’d like to address surrounds students who are unable to participate in class learning targets because of background knowledge deficit.

What do I do if a student does not have the biblical background knowledge base to accomplish the learning target?

So much of K-12 Bible class is listening and absorbing content. That’s why it is such a stark contrast from our competency heavy core curriculum.

It is so listening-heavy because we’re dealing with so much content (66 books of content plus more), and that content is not a middle-grade textbook, it’s a historical document translated into English.

On my podcast and other Faith and Learning circles, learning to teach this content is called translation. Not literal language translation, but theological translation. It’s the process by which truths from the narrative of scripture, are made age-accessible for students (this process is also used for translating to adults. Think of the work Tim Keller or NT Wright do to write theology books).

So much of this translation hinges on the story of scripture being well-told (see this poem and this resource for good examples), and students actively listening.

A lack of student engagement in previous years can create an issue for making text-to-text connections when learning about the Bible. Just think about a student who never learned their multiplication facts, it makes the next year’s math difficult.

For instance, as my students and I looked closely at John chapter one, I only had a few students who recognized that “In the beginning…” in John 1:1 was a direct quotation of Genesis 1. While most of my class succeeded in learning something new about John 1, the majority of them were unable to make the scriptural inference on their own, even with scaffolding.

I’m content with the idea that I have students who are still learning, and with support and growth they can come to understand anything — that’s just a plain growth mindset. There is nothing wrong with students still learning. I want to make that clear as day. It is a beautiful thing to see learning as a continuum.

However, I do admit that lapses in understanding can put a hiccup into my practice as a Bible teacher.

How do I get my students doing something when I feel like I need to catch them up on so much content?

How do I differentiate Bible class for students who are at different levels of understanding?

How do I report out to parents? Is a lack of background knowledge reflective of who they are as a faith and learning student?

What does proficiency look like in Bible class?

In most Christian education circles I’m a part of, it is difficult to score poorly in Bible class. There is an unwritten guideline that says if you’re present and engaged in Bible class, you’re proficient. This assessment, however, is different from any other curricular subject area.


I think this starts with the absence of a vision for what Bible class should be like.

Should it be purely based on engagement?

Should it be more intellectual?

Is it both?

I think in every class you may get different answers.

To get to the bottom of this debate, I think you need to ask yourself what you want your students to take away from this class. In my experience, the best environment for theological growth has been in curiosity-driven discussion with others. These discussions are supplemented with scripture and expert theologian opinions.

I’m interested in recreating this curiosity-driven environment for my students and my aim is to increase their investment into age-appropriate theological discussions.

When looking at the assessment of Faith and Learning, I think the Practicing Faith Survey can be a helpful tool (see NMOY Notes for a shorthand version).

In a paper on the survey, David I Smith (Calvin College) talks about student investment in Christian Practices. While the Practicing Faith Survey looks to asses faith and learning beyond the knowledge doctrines, and much of what we consider to be taught in Bible class is closely associated with teaching and learning doctrines, I think that the language of “investment” is important.

Are my students invested in Bible class? Are they seeking to become more faithful learners through our class conversation? — We can call this formative Christian practice.

Investment in Bible class can take many shapes. I can see student investment numerous ways such as:

  • Contribution to class discussion
  • Asking critical questions
  • Making inferences and connections
  • Growth mindset when accomplishing difficult learning targets
  • Reflective practice

These are just a few examples of what an invested learner may look like in any subject area, and it permeates into a Bible class.

Below is a rubric for a Bible class entitled “Christian Perspectives” that I find to be helpful for assessing student investment.

The language on the left can be translated into whatever proficiency scale you may use, but the criteria is clear on what is expected of a proficient Bible student.

I find this rubric helpful for establishing a vision for what Bible class should look like, and it also gives a learning target to students to aim for.

Now that I have this new rubric that is solely based on investment, what happens to all of the competencies I was mentioning before?

I still think the competencies are incredibly important, but I’m not sure they drive a Bible class in the same way as other subjects.

In my opinion, Bible class is content-heavy with a strong emphasis on recurring competencies such as discussion, critical thinking, and making connections.

The last thing I want to do is to toss out all of the competencies that are in the K-12 Bible curriculum at the school where I teach. These are still helpful tools for scaffolding students into becoming invested with the content we are learning. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In fact, without these competencies, it is easy for a Bible class to fall into a life application class in which students are continually asked to “see how scripture applies to their lives.” This is purely pastoral, which has its spot in Christian education, but it abandons the golden opportunity to dive theologically deeper into the narrative of scripture.

My conclusion is that in my Bible class I am meant to…

  1. Teach the content
  2. Practice the competencies alongside students
  3. Assess student investment

I think that this reframing of investment gives an opportunity to include both differentiation and growth mindset. Students who are still learning about background content are no longer assessed on their knowledge, but rather their investment in Bible learning.

The best way to capture data of investment, in my opinion, is to use rigorous self-assessment, reflective practice, one-on-one conferencing, in conjunction with professional judgement.

Finally, theological competencies in class are always scaffolded. Think the classic format of “I do, we do, you do” is helpful, with a heavy emphasis on “we do”. If the competencies are done together, it allows for stronger student A to work at their own pace and allows for struggling student B to learn with the teacher.

The best part is that both students display strong investment, and consequently, proficiency.

Student investment gives me hope that practicing competencies, as opposed to assessing and reporting on them, will lead to spiritually forming learners.

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