Women’s studies have had a reputation of being fluffy. I am not sure exactly where this reputation began, although it may have to do with a preference for meeting “felt needs” rather than “real needs.” A felt needs approach would likely give preference to instruction on something practical that helps women meet every day challenges, such as marriage or parenting. A real needs approach would focus on spiritual growth, and might take a felt need and root it in Scripture and theological reflection. While some have scoffed at the need to provide more depth in women’s classes, one only has to reflect on the popularity of Bible study books that require near daily work to realize that women are hungering for something more.
Women seem to approach Bible study somewhat differently than men. Nicola Slee in her book, Women’s Faith Development, says that women tend to think about faith in concrete, experiential, visual, narrative, and embodied ways. She compared this to how men think about faith, which involves abstract, conceptual, and analytical approaches. During my doctoral research, one of the questions I asked students was about their experiences in the classroom, and I utilized Slee’s research to design a couple of questions.
While my results were not as dichotomous as I expected, women did choose “concrete, experiential, visual, or narrative” approaches in the classroom at a higher rate than men. However, men also preferred this approach over abstract ones. Although my results agree that there is a statistically significant difference between male and female learning preferences, it differed from Slee in that both genders preferred the concrete approach.
There was a bigger difference, though, in the specific things that encouraged or discouraged spiritual growth in the classroom. Men chose theological discussions as the number one thing that encouraged spiritual growth at a rate of 38.2 percent. When it came to women, they chose theological discussions as their number one encourager at a rate of 27.8 percent. This was their most popular choice. Women chose reading the text, people in the Bible, and professors’ comments and examples at a higher rate than the male students.
When it comes to the biggest discourager in the classroom, both genders chose the influence of other students as their number one choice. They fleshed this out in comments as students’ attitudes, closedmindedness, arguments, and distractions, among other things. The big surprise, however, was that women chose theological discussions as the second biggest discourager at a rate of 27.2 percent. Note that the percentage of women being encouraged by a theological discussion, and those being discouraged by it is nearly equal.
When taking this information and applying it to women, teachers need to realize that about 55 percent of women in the audience are having a strong reaction—either positive or negative—to theological discussions. Perhaps this can shed light on why some teachers have shied away from heavier topics, seeking to avoid discomfort among some in the audience. However, Heb 5:12-14 makes it clear that we need to be guiding people toward solid food, and not just milk.
There are some strategies that we can learn from this study to help us reach the women in our audience more effectively.
First, just as educational training guides us to consider different learning styles in the classroom, we should also consider incorporating different approaches of studying the text. Women seem to show a preference toward more active engagement, such as reading the text, and also character studies. A good approach could be to choose a character to look at, and then build up the background information and relate theological discussions to the character herself or himself. That could provide some more balance, while not seeming overly abstract.
Second, when teaching a theological concept, it could be approached in both abstract and concrete ways. For example, when discussing grace at appropriate points, it could be applied and discussed in concrete ways.
Third, be aware that there is no one way that works for everyone. We are sometimes tempted to think that there is one right or best approach to something. But when it comes to teaching, variety is key. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a new approach to a topic. Helping people see something in a new light is always a win.