Encouraging Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose: A Communication Arts Project Intended for Students’ Spiritual Growth
This article is about spirituality and teaching in higher education and the potential for faculty to encourage students’ spiritual development and search for meaning and purpose. The pedagogical approaches prepare students for future careers by enhancing professional skills and encourage students to engage in practices that enhance self-awareness and awareness of others. The Communication Arts course is designed for students to learn discipline-related content specific to multimedia and to explore questions of meaning and purpose. This article is written from the perspective of working at a private faith-based university where academics and spiritual growth are intertwined to increase self-understanding and to enhance respectful human connection.
Key Words: Communication, Faith-Learning Integration, Meaning and Purpose, Multimedia, Pedagogy, Spirituality
Cultivating an Environment of Belonging
Much of my intentionality in teaching is based on calls towards humility, love, and grace. As Barbezat and Bush state, when inviting students to deepen their spiritual development, “students need support in discerning what is most meaningful to them.” For this reason, one of my main goals in teaching is to foster a sense of community for students to explore who they are as human beings. I assign lessons to increase self-awareness, encourage students to have confidence in their abilities, to practice self-compassion instead of criticism, and encourage them to do the same with each other. I model kindness, compassion, patience, and understanding, and practice clear and consistent classroom management behaviors that contribute to the development of the teacher-student relationship. Palmer suggests that if students are to trust and develop understanding, there must be a sharing on the part of the teacher. In classes that I teach, I share personal examples of work that enhance academic understanding, which gives students a glimpse into who I am and allows them to see me as a human being.
Presenting Spirituality as an Invitation
There are practical strategies that cultivate an environment of belonging. Since I teach students of diverse religious and non-religious identities, I find spirituality more suitable than religion when it comes to the interactions I have with them. Approaching faith-learning integration from perspectives of spirituality, authenticity, meaning, and purpose allows for the spirit of each human being to be honored. As such, spirituality is presented as an invitation to enhance meaning and purpose in life and as an opportunity to increase self-awareness and awareness of others.
Spiritual development is critical to the development of young adults, who contemplate issues of independence, interdependence, authenticity, meaning, and purpose during their college years. College students form dreams and compose meaning, purpose, and faith. They have big questions that are at the core of meaning, purpose, and faith. “Who am I and why am I here?” “Why is the world the way it is?” “Who do I really want to become?”
According to a 7-year longitudinal study of 14,527 students attending 136 colleges and universities nationwide, “most students are searching for deeper meaning in their lives, looking for ways to cultivate their inner selves, seeking to be compassionate and charitable, and clarifying how they feel about the many issues confronting their society and the global community.” Students reported that they expected the college experience to assist them in their spiritual quest, even as the pressures of college created some of their greatest impediments.
The pedagogical examples included in this article commenced in a Communication Arts course that encourages students to explore questions of meaning and purpose in life. They are framed by the understanding that educators teach people, not just a subject. If we, as educators, are to help students develop spiritually, this understanding is critical. This course follows a prerequisite course that I teach, therefore students have a better understanding of my teaching methods and expectations; they have developed peer-to-peer relationships, and they begin to trust that they are supported and feel more comfortable in the learning environment.
Context of the Study: How the Course Came to Be
Purposeful curriculum development has been shown to support students’ spiritual development. Faculty who encourage students to engage in conversations about meaning and purpose in life “play a critical role in facilitating students’ sense of caring and feelings of connectedness with others.” Unfortunately, institutional barriers and misconceptions about the role of spirituality in higher education can discourage faculty from integrating pedagogical approaches that foster spiritual development. Some faculty report that they do not concern themselves with educational methods that encourage spiritual development because it is not their business, or because they do not teach subjects that relate to spirituality.
Zajonc describes such beliefs as either/or thinking. On one side of the continuum are “religion, faith, moral code, and values,” and on the other side are “science, reason, natural knowledge, and facts.” Spirituality is often grouped on the side of religion, resulting in a division between spirituality and higher education. Zajonc argues, however, that spirituality has a place interdisciplinary within higher education, asserting that both/and thinking results in “educational methods that support the development of student attention, emotional balance, empathetic connection, compassion, and altruistic behavior, while also providing new pedagogical techniques that support creativity and the learning of course content.” This perspective supports the notion that spirituality has a place in higher education, in both public and private institutions; this is similarly echoed by Astin et al. 
How Spirituality and Faith-Learning Integration are Conceptualized
The suggestions presented in this article for how to integrate spirituality within curriculum are grounded in three assumptions.
First, spirituality is the essence of who we are as human beings and does not devalue academic development or achievement. Whether it is acknowledged or not, spirituality is always present and lives within every student, and within every subject.
Second, the combination of spirituality in teaching is not about dogma or indoctrination. Spiritual matters should be presented as an invitation to participate rather than a prescribed ideology.
Finally, because spirituality is personal, definitions may differ. According to Tisdell, “spiritual development constitutes moving toward greater authenticity or to a more authentic self,” is “fundamentally about meaning-making,” and “most often happens by surprise.” Astin et al. support this claim, stating
Spirituality has to do with the values we hold dear, our sense of who we are and where we come from, our beliefs about why we are here—the meaning and purpose that we see in our work and our life—and our sense of connectedness to one another and to the world around us.
This approach to faith-learning integration stems from perspectives on spirituality, authenticity, meaning, and purpose. As Parks states, faith goes beyond religious belief, and is
“more adequately recognized as the activity of seeking and discovering meaning in the most comprehensive dimensions of our experience.” Faith, in this sense, is a process of forming and reforming meaning-making, which provides college students with opportunity to address big questions.
Although scripture is not mentioned expressively in the classroom (to respect a diverse student body), the assumptions give account to scripture. God is the ultimate Mystery “whose being is grounded in that Mystery.”  Consequently, as human beings, there is a continuous need to discover meaning, purpose, and understanding. As it appears in Psalms 145: 15-16, the Lord is near to us in all that is worthy of pursuit, to those who call Him and those who fear Him. As God lives within each of us, there is no need to indoctrinate students in spirituality and teaching, as the Lord walks with us in meaningful pursuit. This article demonstrates how spirituality, faith, and meaning-making can be brought forth in academic curriculum.
Multimedia Design and Production Course: Finding Meaning and Purpose
Often, college students are interested in deepening their “inner process of seeking answers to who we are, why we are here, and how we can have a meaningful life” but are often overwhelmed with responsibilities that get in the way of self-reflection. The pedagogical examples presented in this article describe a book project assigned in a required undergraduate Communication Arts course, Multimedia Design and Production. The curriculum purposely includes time for students to reflect on their lives, increase self-awareness and awareness of others, and explore meaning and purpose in life while learning discipline-related content.
Using learner-centered approaches, the course objectives support learning that allows for life examination and increased self-awareness. The theme of the course, “Finding Meaning and Purpose,” connects teaching philosophy and research interests to the curriculum. As Parks outlines, when designing a course, “educators declare what they believe to be of value: questions, images, insights, concepts theories, sources, and methods of inquiry that they have found to lead toward a worthy apprehension of truth.” In this case, students are encouraged to reflect on big questions that enhance spiritual development while attending to academic responsibilities.
Communication Arts Projects
As a form of communication, students create two multimedia projects: a book project and a video and website project. Students are encouraged to deeply reflect and to create content that honors their life and includes their friends and family. For the first project, students create a 12-page professionally printed book centered around who they are as human beings. Students learn how to use industry-standard software, demonstrate a basic understanding of design principles for layout and composition, and write content based on prompts centered on meaning and purpose. Students professionally print their book, present it to the class, and write a reflection paper on what they learned about themselves, their peers, and the discipline-related content during the academic experience.
For the second project, students either create a four-minute video about their life or a mini-documentary about someone else’s life. The project includes brainstorming activities that foster personal reflection and further help them determine how to create multimedia content that communicates a message and evokes emotion through storytelling. Students spend time recording and editing the content in a way that provides the audience with a glimpse into the student’s life. Students also create a webpage with personal text, images, and the video that further enhances spiritual reflection.
Both projects are designed to encourage students’ search for meaning and purpose in their entirety. However, in this article I share pedagogical examples from the book project and reflection only, since students address big questions and meaning there.
Creating the Book Project
Creating the book begins by describing the context of the project—finding meaning and purpose—and sharing how the project is designed for students to explore who they are as human beings. The book project is framed as a gift. It is something tangible that students and family can touch and look at in subsequent years. To facilitate students’ spiritual development, the context of the book is centered around big questions of meaning and purpose. Students write a minimum of 1,500 words for the book and reflect on the prompts provided, which connect to the theme of the course and encourage students to “connect with their own ‘inner landscape.’” The content of the 12-page book is structured in the following way:
- Page 1: Cover of the book
- Page 2 and 3: Author’s Note and Table of Contents
- Page 4 and 5: Who am I? What do I believe in? What are my morals, values, and beliefs? What are my attitudes about life?
- Page 6 and 7: Making sense of my experiences: Where do I turn in moments of thankfulness and hardship? How do I find equanimity (e.g., calmness, serenity, centeredness, stability, and peacefulness)? What practices do I engage in that foster self-awareness? How do I get to know myself on a deeper level?
- Page 8 and 9: Who inspires me? Who are the special people my life?
- Page 10 and 11: Moving towards graduation: What does it all mean? What are my dreams, goals, and aspirations? What college experiences, e.g., friends, projects, collaborations, the university life, and other experiences will I share?
- Page 12: Back of the book
This project invites students to deeply reflect on their own experiences and beliefs as they form and reform meaning and purpose in life.
Requirements and Lessons for the Book Project. Around the fifth week of the semester, students begin to work on the book project. By this time, they are eager to create the 12-page book that is a personal reflection of their life. Students are required to create their book based on the prompts provided and follow specific requirements such as using high-quality images and ensuring that the text is readable. They have one month to create their book. All the content must be original to avoid copyright issues.
The curriculum includes two brainstorming activities to plan the project: a 12-page storyboard to determine layout and design for the book, and an audience planning sheet to consider the people who might read the book (e.g., family members, friends, professors). During the planning stage, students begin to reflect on their life and the people in it; they take notes about people who are connected to their life and memories that come to mind.
To address big questions, students complete three writing assignments using the prompts provided. Each writing assignment requires a minimum of 500 words and is reviewed
by the Writing Center on campus. I also read each assignment and provide editing suggestions. The due dates for the writing assignments are staggered in the course outline so that students have time to reflect on their beliefs and revise their writing before approaching the project deadline. Students typically use class time to design their book and write the content at home. Within the project scope, students are required to professionally print their book with saddle stitch binding. Prior to the deadline, I prepare students for sending their book to print. This is an intimidating aspect of the project since students are novices and want their book to print as perfect as they see it on the screen. They research printing locations, place the order for printing, and pay for their project to be printed, creating a real-world experience for them.
There is no oversight of academic concepts of the communication discipline. Students determine the effective medium to convey a message with meaning and evoke emotion for an intended audience. Within the project, students improve oral and written communication skills and learn the importance of design principles, how to use publishing software, and how to communicate through print medium that is also outputted for digital media. Since they create a publication that will be seen by family, friends, and peers, students are self-motivated to apply problem solving skills, critical thinking, attention to detail, organizational skills, and creativity. They begin to learn that effective communication with others (interpersonal) requires self-reflection and inner work (interpersonally). 
Sharing Self with Others
On the project due date, students present their books to the class. This presentation is framed as a celebration. Students are proud of the work they complete and describe it as a meaningful experience. They explain their aesthetic decisions and pass around their printed books for peers to see. Students demonstrate courage and vulnerability when sharing personal stories.
The presentations turn into a gift for the audience. Many times, our hearts are touched. Students share memories of people who have passed, discuss challenges in their life, and share examples of perseverance. They share their beliefs about God and highlight happy experiences with friends and family. Moments like this enhance student connection and demonstrate that we all have “the same capacity for hope, longing, love, joy, and pain.” Students attentively pay attention when their peers present. They comment on the presenter’s experiences, book design, and ask questions.
As a final component of the book project, students deepen their understanding of self and of others through written reflection. They reflect on and what they learned about themselves, their peers, and the process of creating the book.
What Students Learn About Themselves
In addressing big questions, students identify what is most important in their life. They learn things about themselves that they did not realize and share that it is special to reflect on past experiences. The questions are not easy for students to answer; many have not reflected on questions of meaning and purpose, and as communication majors, are more accustomed to telling someone else’s story.
Students share that writing the book requires vulnerability and self-reflection. They express that the project has purpose and they invest their time into the writing, despite the challenges of turning thoughts into words. Some students learn patience with themselves; others express how they pushed through the challenge of writing the content and achieving their overall aesthetic; many revise their book repeatedly. Students recognize how surprisingly creative they are. They feel proud of themselves for finishing the book and creating a work that is professional and unique. Some students learn that they enjoy writing and telling stories.
For some, creating the book and writing about their experiences is therapeutic. It gives them a chance to reflect on their past and the obstacles that they have overcome; they notice how much they have grown and are reminded of their ability to persevere.
Students also reflect on the people that they love and recognize how much family and friends mean to them. They express gratitude for the project and for the time to reflect on memories they may have forgotten. The project inspires students to think about their future and to think deeply on who they want to become. They enjoy creating a book that illustrates who they are as a person through text, images, and a cohesive design; through the process, they learn more about who they are as human beings.
What Students Learn About Their Peers
Students learn how finding meaning and purpose in life is approached in different ways. They notice how honest and vulnerable their classmates are when sharing personal stories and state that this helps them feel more comfortable and courageous when sharing their own stories.
Students write that they enjoy learning about their classmates on a personal level and find it refreshing to hear about topics that are not school-related. They learn that people have different characteristics, perspectives, and experiences that make them who they are. They are surprised at how much they relate to each person in one way or another.
Students notice each other as human beings. They notice the hard work and determination that their classmates demonstrate and write that they are inspired by their peers. They comment on the way their peers persevere through life experiences and how brave they are to share experiences with the class. As they reveal certain parts of their life, students learn that they are not alone and begin to understand that each person is on a journey of forming and reforming meaning and purpose. The project facilitates opportunity for students to know each other in a genuine way.
Students are also inspired by how their peers incorporate unique styles into designing their book. They comment on the different colors, shapes, themes, and layouts, and admire how each has a different way of expressing creativity and approaching the project.
What Students Learn About the Process
Students describe this project as meaningful and one of their favorite projects in college. They enjoy the creative freedom that they have when determining the layout and design, and appreciate the opportunity to make it personal. They write about learning design principles, problem solving to get the aesthetic they want, and using different software to create the artwork for the book. For many, writing is a challenge, although some point out that the writing prompts encourage them to be vulnerable and reflect on their experiences and beliefs. Others say that it is a struggle to write the content for the book because it can be difficult to put feelings into words.
Printing the books is a new experience for students, especially since they have to communicate their needs to a printing company and advocate to make sure the book is properly printed. For some, the process is smooth. Others are not satisfied with the printing and print it several times. Some reflect on the experience and wish they had made different design and printing decisions. Regardless of the printing experience, students say that they cannot wait to show the book to their family and many say that it is one of their favorite projects in college. Creating the book helped them appreciate people in their family, reflect on values and beliefs, connect with classmates, and learn communication skills.
Concerns About What Students Reveal
Students continue to reflect on big questions in the second part of the course, using elements of multimedia to tell a story, such as text, graphics, audio, and video, on a single webpage. As students work on each project, they are reminded that the project is designed to foster personal reflection, self-understanding, respectful human connection, and communication. They value the learning experience in its entirety.
It is important for me to mention that I do have fears about assigning projects that include personal experiences. Even though I encourage students to create projects that are personal and reflect their beliefs and experiences, I fear that a student will write about an experience that I am obligated to report, such as sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, stalking, and relationship violence.
One approach I use that seems to help is requiring students to have their work reviewed by the Writing Center on campus, which helps them understand that multiple people will read their work. Fortunately, in eleven years there has only been one issue. Upon reading the student’s work, I was obligated to make a report to the appropriate office. I informed the student about my professional responsibility and stated that someone would contact him to offer support. It was well-received and did not appear to hinder the teacher-student relationship and trust. The student and I had a good teacher-student relationship; he was in several of the courses that I teach.
The projects presented in this Multimedia Design and Production course are my way of encouraging students to explore and question their values and beliefs, no matter where such questioning can lead them.  Spirituality is in every student we teach, in every subject, and in every classroom, and God exists in everything and in everyone. If we fail to attend to the spiritual dimensions of the student, we fail to attend to the whole person and ignore the deepest values and issues of their life. The pedagogical approaches presented in this article demonstrate how faith-learning integration and spirituality can emerge in the curriculum, enhance discipline-related objectives, and be presented through invitation to explore meaning and purpose. They contribute to student development through practical pedagogical suggestions and offer students a “vigorous and ultimately positive approach to their world, rather than a disconnected amalgam of classes.” 
Because students report that they expect the college experience to facilitate their spiritual development, there is value in helping them develop the interiors and exteriors of their lives across academic disciplines. By reflecting on big questions in the curriculum, students balance academic responsibilities with making connections between their personal life, who they wish to become professionally, and how they respond to others. Spirituality in higher education is a way to encourage students’ search for meaning and purpose as they form and reform meaning and purpose in the world. The more that students understand about themselves, the better prepared they are to live in community with others through compassion, understanding, and effective communication.
About the Author
I am fortunate to work at a faith-based university where spiritual and religious traditions are connected to the educational experience. Founded by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in 1881, the university is rooted in the core values of its mission: education, truth, faith, service, and innovation. The university provides students and faculty with resources and opportunities to deepen our spiritual development and to celebrate persons of diverse backgrounds. Our work is motivated by the love and presence of God in each person.
Appointment of tenure is determined through behaviors that are consistent with the mission of the university. Faculty must demonstrate effectiveness and growth in areas of teaching, scholarship, service, professional activities, and institutional fit, an essential part of which includes “showing respect for the dignity of each person” and “promoting life-long learning and the development of the whole person.” As a result, I am encouraged to teach discipline-related content that prepares students to enter future careers, centered in opportunities for them to explore their authenticity and spirituality.
My teaching philosophy embraces the heart, mind, and spirit of the student where “the encounter of student and teacher . . . is a meeting of spirit and spirit.” As an Associate Professor in the Communication Arts Department, I implement pedagogical approaches that help students make connections between their interest in communication and their role and responsibility to enhance human connectedness, where the human self can be interwoven in education. Further, I include pedagogical approaches that are inspired by scholars who acknowledge that spirituality is fundamental to our existence in the academy.
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Barbezat, Daniel P., and Mirabai Bush. Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.
Chickering, Arthur W., Jon C. Dalton, and Liesa Stamm. Encouraging Authenticity and Spirituality in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.
Eifler, Karen E., and Thomas M. Landy. Becoming Beholders: Cultivating Sacramental Imagination and Actions in College Classrooms. Liturgical Press, 2014.
Guinn, Trey. Communication Essentials: The Tools You Need to Master Every Type of Professional Interaction. New York: McGraw Hill, 2023.
Palmer, Parker J. “Evoking the Spirit in Public Education.” Educational Leadership 56, no. 4, December 1998.
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University of the Incarnate Word. Employee Handbook. San Antonio, TX: University of the Incarnate Word, 2021.
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Zajonc, Arthur. “Contemplative Pedagogy: A Quiet Revolution in Higher Education.” New Directions in Teaching and Learning, no. 134, 2013.
Zajonc, Arthur. “Spirituality in Higher Education: Overcoming the Divide.” Liberal Education, no. 89, 2003.
 “Core Values of the Mission,” Core Values of the Mission (University of the Incarnate Word, 2022), https://www.uiw.edu/mission/about/values.html.
 “Employee Handbook,” Employee Handbook (San Antonio, TX: University of the Incarnate Word, 2021), 33.
 Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith, Revised (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 214.
 Barbezat and Bush, Contemplative Practices.
 Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).
 Alexander W. Astin, Helen S. Astin, and Jennifer A. Lindholm, Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011); Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams.
 Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams.
 Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, 178.
 Astin et al., Cultivating the Spirit, 4.
 Astin et al., Cultivating the Spirit; Arthur Zajonc, “Spirituality in Higher Education: Overcoming the Divide,” Liberal Education, 2003, 50-58; Parker J. Palmer, “Evoking the Spirit in Public Education,” Educational Leadership, December 1998.
 Ibid., 75.
 Astin et al., Cultivating the Spirit; Zajonc, “Spirituality in Higher Education.”
 Astin et al., Cultivating the Spirit.
 Zajonc, “Spirituality in Higher Education.”
 Arthur Zajonc, “Contemplative Pedagogy: A Quiet Revolution in Higher Education,” New Directions in Teaching and Learning, 2013, 83.
 Astin et al., Cultivating the Spirit.
 Palmer, “Evoking the Spirit.”
 Elizabeth J. Tisdell, Exploring Spirituality and Culture in Adult and Higher Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).
 Daniel P. Barbezat and Mirabai Bush, Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).
 Ibid. 29.
 Astin et al., Cultivating the Spirit, 4.
 Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, 10.
 Becoming Beholders, 4.
 Trustees, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. The New American Bible.
 Astin et al., Cultivating the Spirit, 47.
 Arthur W. Chickering, Jon C. Dalton, and Liesa Stamm, Encouraging Authenticity and Spirituality in Higher Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006).
 Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, 211.
 Chickering, Dalton, and Stamm, Encouraging Authenticity, 119.
 Guinn, Communication Essentials.
 Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, 181.
 “Employee Handbook.”
 Astin et al., Cultivating the Spirit.
 Palmer, “Evoking the Spirit”; Barbezat and Bush, Contemplative Practices; Eifler and Landy, Becoming Beholders
 Palmer, “Evoking the Spirit”; Palmer, The Courage to Teach; Zajonc, “Spirituality in Higher Education,” 50-58.
 Eifler and Landy, Becoming Beholders. X
 Astin et al., Cultivating the Spirit.
 Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams.