SRHE funded project – Academic identity and religious identity: cognitive dissonance in students’ higher education learning and assessment

Interesting juxtaposition 2

Interesting juxtaposition 2


Interesting juxtaposition 1

Interesting juxtaposition 1

Alex Baratta and Paul Smith (University of Manchester) and Lydia Reid (Nottingham Trent University) have been awarded funding from the Society for Research into Higher Education (a grant of £5000) to investigate the interplay of two identities – academic and religious – in students who profess a faith. We wish to investigate how students manage these two identities, especially when there is an identity clash, as it were, between them, involving students’ religious beliefs, notably in assessment, not agreeing with those from the discipline (e.g. creation vs. evolution).



    Here is a news story from the other day on the kind of thing that can happen. In particular it hints at the idea of the two leftist camps that are being talked of as existing on university campuses – I think they’ve been described as the libertarian left and the liberal left.

  • Latest news:

    This new story by Jackie Stevenson.

    We have ethical approval for Stage II and hope to start it soon.


    Copying this link more for one of the comments BTL, in which at least one person picks up on the message to suggest that religion is one of the things “that cannot be said” in the academy.

  • I’m very pleased to say that our bid for Faculty strategic investment funds (HSIF) was successful. We will therefore be undertaking stage two of our research into religion and HE this year. Until it no longer makes sense to do so, we will use this page to keep you updated.


    Link to the video of our recent LANTERN lunchtime talk on this research.

  • We have recently sent this project summary as a potential press release to the Media Office.

    “For the last few years, we have been interested in the experience of religious students in higher education. Our focus has been on a hitherto neglected aspect of this experience: what happens when these students are confronted by the largely secular curricula of UK universities, and the instruction and assessment that back them up? What is the detail of life in the classroom, in assessment, and discussion for students who profess a religious faith?

    Thanks to a grant from the Society for Research into Higher Education, we have been able to make some initial investigations. We interviewed seventeen students, all professing a religious faith, at the University of Manchester, notable for its non-denominational origins. The study has provided a series of fascinating anecdotes and general insights.

    We noted at the outset Guest et al.’s (2013:131) observation in their study of the Christian university experience that most students “did not experience cognitive dissonance between their faith and academic study”. The authors noticed, however, that many students nonetheless realised that some of the central tenets of their faith were, on the face of it, at odds with certain orthodoxies currently taught in universities. Most students operated a pragmatic separation of faith and study, involving techniques such as prior “working out”, conscious avoidance, or accommodation of such issues. Our study has begun to address these matters, and suggests that a dissonance or disjuncture between faith and academic orthodoxies is perhaps more pervasive than has previously been thought.

    One Jewish student described episodes that illustrate the importance of place and location on campus. She would not meet her interviewer outside the Students’ Union building, due to the SU’s sympathy for Palestine, which she perceived, as well as other Jewish students (some uncomfortable to wear the yarmulke on campus) as ‘anti-Jewish’. This was described as a regular practice on behalf of Jewish students. The same student, who was studying for a Music degree, regularly declined the opportunity to sing in churches: “personally I wouldn’t feel comfortable performing a religious mass for religious reasons to do with a different religion”. These anecdotes beg questions about specific “campus geographies”; also about the value and location of so-called “safe spaces” on campus.

    A Catholic student described an episode in her English Literature degree of a lecturer who spent a good ten minutes decrying Tennyson for the religious influence in his work. This disquisition was described as an “open letter” rather than as part of the course proper and the student’s perception was that he was “playing to the gallery” of a generally atheist and secular student body. This led to her writing course work on a different author as a way of distancing herself from possible problems.

    Two other Catholic students independently cited the same episode from a Neuroscience lecture, where they took part in a classroom vote on “Who should have rights to IVF treatment?” Four options were given, where “all four options presupposed that someone should have the right to IVF. There was not an option that said, ‘no-one should have the right to IVF’”. These students independently pointed out that ‘no-one should have the right’ is a logical and ethical possibility that was not discussed in a Bio-Ethics class delivered to a group full of future health professionals. The conclusion: “Personally I don’t think we are being taught Bio-Ethics… I think we are being shown what we can do [with the science], and why we should do it”.

    As piquant as these anecdotes are, they play only a part in building up an overall picture of the complex relations between religious students and secular universities. A composite image of the student accounts we heard suggests that faith identities and religious opinions can be toughly policed in teaching and learning settings, not least by the remainder of the student body, which comes across as atheist, individualist, relativist, egalitarian, and libertarian. When messages that are seen to be outside the bounds of acceptable academic discourse are raised by students of faith, they generally described this policing work as being carried out by their peers, and to a much lesser extent by their instructors. An overtly expressed faith identity is often an invitation to make assumptions about that person’s perspectives and opinions; a common approach is to treat someone as representative of their faith, and so to attribute the same predicates to the individual that one would to the group. Our student interlocutors certainly found in their classroom experience that their peers used these assumptions about their views as starting points in discussion with them; and even, occasionally, as heuristics for understanding their course material – for instance, conflating Catholicism and the gothic in analysing literature.

    There was some concern expressed about the implications of the “Prevent” strategy. This concern was centred on the possible conflict between freedom of speech in class and the risk of reporting by teaching staff. One example concerns democracy as political system – we teach students to be critical thinkers, and that no political system is above critique. But if a Muslim student delivers a critique of democracy as an academic exercise, how is this to be seen as different from a manifest expression of extremism – especially given, as outlined above, that students who manifest their faith are seen as representative of that faith and manifesting aspects we ‘know’ about it?

    Guest et al.’s large-scale study came across a handful of students whose university experiences had led them to abandon or change their faith. We found no similar cases. Students tended to see their faith as positive and even generative in relation to their studies. The examples above demonstrate, as the students themselves noted, the need for a criticality that is one of the most important skills that universities try to inculcate.

    An obvious question at this point is: what are the applications of this research? It is clear that these episodes have the potential to irrupt at any time and in any setting from beneath the surface of university life. Our modest aim has been to faithfully (pun intended) record student accounts of their experiences. Emotions can run high when discussing religion, and it is far from clear that any other outcomes, other than awareness-raising, are necessary or desirable.

    Among other things, we are left with questions about the overarching aim of university teaching: how much should we aim to change our students in the sense of ridding them of misconceptions and provide them with a ‘right’ version? How overtly should we be encouraging our students to align their religious beliefs with what they tend to see as determinedly secular curricula? And how much are we prepared to be accepting of the same modes of critique that we teach them, when these are reflected back on our own teaching, orthodoxies and bodies of knowledge?”


    I thought this deserved to be posted in the light of some of our findings and similar findings from others – I think there will be an increase in such anecdotes.

  • Well, we have finished the data collection part of the study and are now focusing on what are nowadays called “outputs” and what used to be called “dissemination”. So, we hope to post more on this page soon. There are some extremely interesting things in the interview transcripts and an interim report has been sent to the SRHE.

    In the meantime, I thought this report from the University of Westminster was extremely interesting:

  • This looks very interesting Alex and Paul – I imagine it is even more of an issue in those former polytechnics which have a widening participation focus, such as those where I have worked. Could expand more on that idea but going to work now – perhaps another time.

  • Slightly odd comment here – I want to add some pictures to this page but can’t see how. Can anyone help with this?

    Briefly, there was an Islamic awareness day at the university last week, so I went along and took some good photos. One is a juxtaposition of the Islamic tent outside University Place. One is one of the exhibits inside. Last, one of our posters advertising the research ended up next to a flyer on a pinboard advertising a Bible reading group.

    • Susan Dawson

      Hi Paul,

      If you go to the original post and click on the ‘add media’ tab, you can upload your pictures and then insert them into the post. You won’t be able to put them in the comments. Any problems, just let me know.

  • I thought it was worth providing a brief update on our research so far, not least to give some idea that something is happening. To my mind, the research is proceeding well. We have seven interviews conducted, with many more in the pipeline. This is without so far exhausting our advertising possibilities. It has been pleasing to hold interviews with students from a range of faiths. The details of the interviews are to come, but something that occurs to me early on is that there seems to be hardly any university discipline that does not entail some aspect of its disciplinary orthodoxy or assumptions that do not find a religious alternative in some way. In other words, if an academic viewpoint and a religious one can be seen as possibly in dialogue, then they probably will be. The kinds of issues that we are interested in seem to appear all over the campus and sometimes in unexpected ways.

    A few thoughts on conducting research:

    I have found student biography a very useful way into discussion.

    I have found avoiding terms such as “confrontation” and “conflict” quite hard in conversation with students. Of course, our students are generally very clever and adept and it’s often clear to them what manner of material is going to be most useful to us. While not wanting to overdramatise the description of relevant events, it is clear that these terms can be reasonably used in some cases. In others, they are reasoned or synthesised away, but that’s not to say that the opposition doesn’t occur to start with.

    It is tempting to think about religious faith providing a set of principles that set out an ethical infrastructure for living against which all choices are to be measured. However, this seems to over-intellectualise the reality of living by a faith and from the early stages of research I would say that just as much of interest can be got out of asking about how a faith is practiced. Perhaps we will want to address this dichotomy at some point.

    • Susan Dawson

      Thanks for updating us Paul. Reading the above brings back to me my own experience as an undergraduate student. In my first year I had to choose two subsidiary subjects alongside my main degree, which was geography. I chose sociology and anthropology. However, it became very clear to me within the first couple of weeks from the introductory lectures that the assumptions on which they were based were very different from my own world view, which was to a large extent shaped by my faith. As an immature undergraduate, my way of dealing with that was to change subjects and I ended up doing double geology, which was undoubtedly founded on similar assumptions to both sociology and anthropology, it was just not quite so obvious to me at that time. Looking back, I wish in some ways that I had had the gumption to stick with it – I think I would have enjoyed sociology and anthropology much more. To what extent I would have been able, or allowed, to challenge the status quo I have no idea, especially in relation to assessment, but it would have given me something to push against and probably sharpened my own thinking in the process.

    • Magda Rostron

      Hi Paul,

      Your research sounds fascinating to me since I’m dealing with some related issues in my own doctoral work conducted in Qatar, in an American-run institution preparing Arab/Muslim students for admission into universities in the US and UK.

      Student biography is indeed an interesting entry into this minefield of spiritual, cultural and intellectual interactions, attitudes, values and viewpoints. I found that most participants in my study were prepared to talk extensively and, I believed, freely, about their own “cognitively dissonant” educational experiences in the institution where I teach and where I carried out my field research. However, I had to exercise extreme caution while handling some of their stories and comments. It can get very deep and personal when it comes to discussing one’s religious faith and encounters with other points of view – as it did in the case of a few of my interviewees. But all in all, it was a very powerful experience for me as a researcher to be allowed that degree of access to personal beliefs and inner struggles.

      I imagine you are not just focusing on Muslim students and their issues, like I did. I’d be very interested to know how it goes and what you find out.

      Best wishes to you and your co-researchers!


      • Magda

        thanks for the comments. In terms of dissemination, watch this space!

        Also, let us know if you want to discuss your students at any time.


  • Susan Dawson

    This sounds very interesting Alex – I’ll follow progress on your website, which I have now added to our Links page.