Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1995
Volume 7, Number 1

Spiritual, Religious Growth at C.U. Reassessed

Gary Leak
Associate Professor of Psychology

Experiences obtained over four years of college can dramatically affect one's social, intellectual, moral, and spiritual development. In an era of outcome-based and value-added education, it seems desirable to directly assess the changes that may occur during a student's four years at Creighton University. To this end, the Center for the Study of Religion and Society has undertaken a project to assess the changes in spiritual development that occurs among our students.

The impetus for our project came from a recent survey of students who were graduating. The survey asked them how satisfied they were with Creighton University's contribution to seven areas of their development (e.g., intellectual and social development). The results indicated that students were the least satisfied with the contribution Creighton had made toward their spiritual development/religious growth. Given the mission of Creighton University, this finding was disturbing to faculty and administrators. It is not known whether the survey outcome was an artifact of the single question used to assess religious development, or instead indicated a fundamental shortcoming in the educational and socializing experiences we provide for our students.

To address the measurement issue, the Center for the Study of Religion and Society established a task force composed of psychologist Cary Leak, sociologist Charles Harper, and theologian David Schultenover. The task force reviewed the literature on the conceptualization and measurement of faith development from various perspectives. Special emphasis was given to the writings of educator Sharon Parks and theologian James Fowler. From their framework we developed an 8-item scale designed to provide a more direct, precise, and meaningful (i.e., valid) measure of spiritual growth than the single question that had been used in the survey of our graduates. The items in this instrument emphasize perceived change on the following issues and dimensions related to spiritual growth: simplicity vs. complexity of beliefs, absolute vs. relative beliefs, differentiation from others and institutional structures vs. rigid adherence to prior beliefs, source of beliefs (self vs. others), relevance of beliefs to one's personal life choices, salience or centrality of beliefs to one's being, and a direct question that asks for self-reported religious growth while at Creighton University. This instrument was first administered to graduating seniors during the Spring of 1994.

Unfortunately, this instrument will not allow us to measure change directly, but relies instead on students' perception of change. With this limitation in mind, we supplemented the "perceived change" survey with two other scales. One was developed and validated over the past 7 years at Creighton University (the Faith Development Scale or "FDS3. The FDS contains 8 items derived directly from Fowler's writings, and it provides a measure of one's current level of faith development. The eight items are arranged in a "forced-choice" format, and respondents are asked to choose the option that best reflects their view on a religious or spiritual issue. For example, one item is: "I believe that my church offers a full insight into what God wants for us and how we should worship Him" vs. "I believe that my church has much to offer, but that other religions can also provide many religious insights."

The other scale was a modified version of the "perceived change" instrument, but retained the underlying dimensions of the original scale (e.g., source of authority for beliefs). It asks students to respond in term of one's present level of faith development in absolute, not relative, terms. This scale, along with the FDS, were first administered to Arts and Sciences Freshmen during the Fall of 1994, and will be administered again during their Senior year in an effort to directly measure changes in spiritual development over the college years. This procedure was expanded to include Business Administration students beginning in the Fall of 1995.

Some interesting results are already available. We have compared the average score on the FDS from seniors who graduated in the Spring of 1994 with the average FDS score of freshmen who entered Creighton in the Fall of 1994. This "cross-sectional" design cannot assess change directly, but will give an indication of whether or not seniors are different from freshmen in level of faith development. A statistical analysis of mean scores on the FDS indicated that the seniors had a higher level of faith development than did freshmen. Further, among seniors the highest levels of faith development were obtained by the Arts and Sciences students. These findings are consistent with the idea that changes in values, attitudes, and commitments within the religious realm do take place during the college years. Our inprogress longitudinal study will shed further light on the processes underlying these changes.