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Best Practices for Interfaith Learning and Development in the First Year of College

The first year of college is a time of considerable change. As students begin a new chapter of life, they are met with a host of challenges and opportunities that necessitate adjustments academically, socially, and personally. With the optimal blend of engaging curricular and co-curricular experiences, first-year students stand to grow in ways that will prepare them well for continued success. Some of the key developmental tasks in the first year of college include reflecting critically on personal beliefs and values, making commitments to a religious or nonreligious worldview that is personally relevant, becoming adept at productively interacting with peers of different backgrounds and worldviews, and appreciating and understanding those peers who orient around religion differently. As college educators consider ways to facilitate and support students in relation to these developmental aims, they may ask themselves: What are the best ways to do this? What conditions, educational practices, and experiences help first-year students to accomplish these milestones in their interfaith learning and development?  Data from the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) address this question and provide guidance for higher education leaders, practitioners, and faculty who seek to support students in making the most of their first critical year on campus.

In 2015-16, 7,194 first-year students attending 122 colleges and universities participated in IDEALS—a national study that assesses students’ experiences on campus related to religious diversity and interfaith engagement, and tracks changes in outcomes such as their religious diversity attitudes and behaviors across the college years. Students responded to an initial survey in Fall 2015 as they began their first year of college, and to a subsequent survey at the end of that academic year.

Important trends surfaced in the first-year data, including increases in appreciative attitudes toward different social identity groups, decreases in interfaith engagement, and opportunities to close the resulting gap between attitudes and behaviors. These can be explored in Navigating Pluralism: How Students Approach Religious Difference and Interfaith Engagement in Their First Year of College, available at This report builds on the broader findings featured in Navigating Pluralism with an eye toward educational practices, and examines relationships between collegiate experiences and first-year students’ interfaith learning and development. Each outcome was examined in relation to 61 distinct campus experiences. This report focuses on the ten experiences that had the strongest relationships with each of the following outcomes: appreciative attitudes toward specific social identity groups, self-authored worldview commitment, appreciative knowledge, and pluralism orientation.