Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Ralph G. Brockett

Committee Members

Katherine H. Greenberg, Howard R. Pollio, Mary F. Ziegler


The challenging of one’s existing ideas has long been acknowledged as an integral component of the learning experience. In a university classroom, challenges are often inherent to the process. When challenges address personal beliefs, there is potential for the experience to be unsettling. The current study is designed to gain a deeper look into this phenomenon.

The purpose of this study is to examine the experiences of adult students in a college religion class who have encountered questions about and challenges to their previously held beliefs. The study was conducted with adult non-traditional students who have participated in an academically-focused college level religion class at a Baptist affiliated university with a liberal arts emphasis. Using the phenomenological research method developed at the University of Tennessee (Thomas & Pollio, 2002), eight participants were interviewed regarding their experience. All were asked to talk about a time one of their beliefs was challenged in their undergraduate religion course.

Utilizing the concept of figure/ground as an interpretive framework, the data revealed three themes that stood out against the ground of the learners’ expectations of being challenged. First, participants experienced an environment of challenge filled with varied and powerful challenges that often came quickly. While some spoke of theological beliefs that were challenged, others described challenges to beliefs about others and how they would be treated in a religion class, the teachers’ pedagogy, and their own personal epistemology. The influence of professors stood out as a second theme as they set a tone for the class, and served as models for the environment. Professors had both positive and negative effects on the learners. The final theme deals with the choices participants made: the challenges caused some to broaden their mindsets, while others chose to not allow their beliefs to be corroded.

These findings reveal highly individualized learning experiences laden with the potential for powerful challenges to the learner’s beliefs and identity. The level of expectation for challenges to beliefs brought to the learning environment influenced the impact of the challenges. Teachers played a significant role in establishing an environment where effective reflective learning could occur.

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