Most professors want students to leave their classes with more than just a heap of information: ideally the student has also been transformed in some way, has become more complex in thought and intention, has an understanding of the significance of what’s been learned, and has made some progress on a larger life path. As a Jesuit institution, Georgetown embraces these possibilities, all of which can be traced to the practice of Ignatian Pedagogy.

Some History

Ignatian Pedagogy is rooted in spiritual exercises devised in the 16th century by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, a community also known as the Jesuits. These exercises called for a cycle of experience, reflection, and action to help an individual uncover truth, grow closer to God, and take steps toward bettering the world. Although Saint Ignatius did not create the exercises with an intention of founding schools, his approach to pursuing truth has long been applied in Jesuit education in a form known as the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm. The idea in this paradigm is not to limit this kind of learning to special “Ignatian courses” but to consider the possibility that it might be relevant across a wide range of disciplines and classes.

The Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm

The Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm is founded on the belief that education has to go beyond the mere transmission of information from professor to student. More than an exercise in memorization or a purely cognitive transaction, education is meant to be a transformational experience that affects the students on all levels—cognitive, certainly, but also emotional and behavioral. The student who has been through this kind of experience will have had old ideas unsettled in the service of developing a fuller understanding of self and the world, and in service of helping that world.

The process operates through a cycle, which, in its simplest form, works like this:

  1. Ignatian pedagogy begins with context; if the teaching experience is going to be productive, the teacher needs to let that experience be shaped and driven by the individuality and complexity of the learners, taking into account their background, skills, goals, and anything else that might be relevant.
  2. The next step is experience; whether students are doing community-based learning, completing a math problem set, or analyzing a text, they are meant to do more than absorb the facts surrounding what’s in front of them; they are meant to engage the material in a way that fully involves them. This means both cognitive and emotional involvement; personal investment; societal engagement; and behavioral investment. In this paradigm, the process of learning is as important as the content of learning, or perhaps even more so.
  3. The process continues when the experience ends, as the student engages in a process of reflection on the experiences and all the reactions it caused, again across a range of involvement: cognitive and emotional (what is this and how do I feel about it?); personal (what does this mean to me?); societal (what does this mean to the world?); and behavioral (what does this tell me about what I should do?). This is an opportunity for deeper meaning to arise, and for the student to see which reactions were fleeting and which ones endure.
  4. This is not reflection solely for reflection’s sake, however; the introspection is meant to lead to action. This “action” can involve choices about a variety of domains: the learning experience itself (e.g., picking an essay topic, taking on a certain issue to study further, etc.), the student’s personal life (e.g., implementing a solution for a personal problem, taking up an extracurricular activity, etc.), the student’s professional future (e.g., signing up for a related class, applying for a particular internship, seeking out information about one career or another, etc.), and, ideally—this is crucial in Ignatian pedagogy—the larger world. Specifically, it is hoped that real education will lead the student to take actions, large and small, to make the world a better place for all, and particularly those most in need.
  5. Because this is a complex process, we can’t just assume that it’s clicking along productively—not without taking the time to thoughtfully evaluate the learning. In what ways has the student grown? What changes are happening? Where is the student stuck? The teacher is certainly in a good position to do much of this evaluation, but the student, increasingly expert at reflection, may be as well.

None of the actions taken in this paradigm have to be permanent commitments, and none of the conclusions will be immutable. Indeed, each choice will of course produce an experience of its own—positive, negative, or (probably) more complicated—and after action the student is meant to seek out yet more experiences, which will in turn provoke reflection and further action, and so on, in an ongoing cycle of growth.

And it’s important to emphasize that the teacher has a crucial role in the process, getting to know students, calling on students to dive into the experience, to reflect, to take action; giving them opportunities to do all three, and modeling a serious engagement with the exercises.

Ignatian Pedagogy in Practice

How might these principles manifest themselves in a course?

  • Find out who your students are, perhaps through in-class surveys, required office hours meetings, or just through informal conversation at the beginning and end of class—not just their academic performance in the class but their larger interests and life situation—and invite their previous experiences into class;
  • Make class experiential by promoting active learning and also by asking students to engage with the material on an emotional and personal level, asking how they feel about what they’re learning and how it might be relevant to them;
  • Build opportunities for reflection into the course, whether through student journals, mid-semester course evaluations, reflective papers, group discussions and debriefs, or any other method that asks them to think about what they’ve learned and what it means to them;
  • Assess student learning regularly and with a focus on the specific areas of growth you believe are most important.
  • Allow students to articulate possibilities for action based on course material or even to take actions in class, including community engagements, designing projects, guiding discussions, and more;
  • Consider that you influence students not only through what you teach them and what they learn but also through the humanity you model for them—if you demonstrate an interest in the meaning of the course material and the process of uncovering it, they are more likely to follow suit.

Example Reflection Questions from Matthew Carnes, S. J., Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies, Department of Government

“The questions I usually ask my students come in two waves. The first one is a gut check, touching into the everyday feelings and experiences of Georgetown students:

  • What's your level of stress today?
  • How happy are you to be at Georgetown doing what you are doing today?

After discussing the responses, I then ask them to take stock of my particular course and their participation in it:

  • Am I getting what I wanted to out of this class?
  • How does this class fit into my goals and dreams for this year?
  • How does this class fit into my Georgetown experience and hopes?
  • How does this class fit into my life?

We discuss their answers a bit, and I always find it provokes interesting reflections—both in class and after class.”

Our Work with Ignatian Pedagogy

CNDLS’ work in teaching, learning, and scholarship is informed by and incorporates complementary pedagogical frameworks and ideas. This is particularly true of Ignatian pedagogy, a set of pedagogical principles and practices that are part of Georgetown’s Jesuit identity and tradition. Our programs and resources are defined by our commitment to educating the whole person, to understanding the role of reflection in learning, to creating community in diversity, and to many other principles fundamental to Ignatian pedagogy. Although Ignatian pedagogy is rooted in the Catholic faith, Ignatian pedagogy offers faculty and students of diverse faith traditions a human-centered approach to conceptualizing teaching, learning, and scholarship rooted in social justice and engaged reflection.

Ignatian by Design

At CNDLS we regularly employ a design thinking methodology when supporting faculty in course innovation and redesign processes. An approach to problem-solving and innovation based on architects’ and designers’ creative processes, design thinking has become increasingly popular not only in business but also in higher education. We find a surprising yet satisfying connection between this twenty-first century design approach with roots in Silicon Valley and Ignatian pedagogy with roots in spiritual exercises devised in the 16th century by Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (known as the d. school) has popularized a five step design thinking process for jumpstarting innovation that requires designers to empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. As illustrated in the two diagrams below, this design process has important echoes of Ignatian pedagogy, which consists of a continual interplay of context, experience, reflection, action, and evaluation.

As shown in the image above, Ignatian pedagogy as a continuous cycle of design, starting with context, moving to experience, reflection, action, and finally to evaluation, and then back to context to begin the cycle again.


And as shown in the image above, the Design Thinking model is a continuous cycle of design, starting with empathize, moving to define, ideate, prototype, and test, and then back to empathize to begin the cycle again.

Both design thinking and Ignatian pedagogy are fundamentally human-centered approaches. Each has at its core the value of empathy, or the quest to understand another. The aim of Jesuit education is that a focus on the full growth of the person will lead to action. Jesuits embrace a tradition of practical spirituality which intersects with design thinking’s bias toward action and solving real world problems. This focus on the practical connects with another central mission of both enterprises: service. Nelson and Stolterman in their influential book The Design Way define design as service, a definition that aligns with the goal of a Jesuit education to form “men and women for others.”

CNDLS provides faculty opportunities to understand and apply design thinking by following an iterative design process that mirrors that of the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm. The cycle of the iterative design process places students in the center of the process and at each phase. The process begins with envisioning, which focuses on deep dives in relation to context and experience. Then, the emphasis shifts to designing; however, the focus on context and experience carry through. During the design phase faculty ideate and reflect on their designs individually, with their peers, and with CNDLS designers. Taking action when moving from design to development enables faculty to continue iterating with peer and expert formative feedback. Evaluation in the iterative design process doesn’t only come at the end; it marks the beginning of the implementation and is threaded throughout the process so that it informs future envisioning.

Ignatian Pedagogy in Our Work

Here are some of the CNDLS programs and initiatives that employ Ignatian pedagogy and other Jesuit values:

The Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning

The Engelhard project invites faculty into cohorts and course redesign processes that focus on cura personalis, reflection and care for the whole person.

The Engelhard Conversations on Teaching

Faculty join regular conversations on topics such as Teaching to Mission and Inclusivity and Well-being.

Teaching, Learning and Innovation Summer Institute (TLISI)

Each year at our summer institute we offer workshops introducing faculty and staff to Ignatian pedagogical principles. This year, we are planning a series of workshops that will constitute a full Ignatian Pedagogy track at TLISI.

Online Course Design

In designing online courses at Georgetown, our learning designers work with faculty and subject matter experts to make the experiences as meaningful and rigorous as our face-to-face courses. This means adapting certain Ignatian principles for new environments. For example, we worked with Prof. Frank Ambrosio to design a Dante MOOC on the edX platform that encourages the Jesuit values of reflection and contemplative reading. CNDLS supported the design of Intersections, a course with the Center for Social Justice that guided students doing community-based learning with a larger cycle of experience, reflection, action, and evaluation.

Technology Enhanced Learning

CNDLS supports faculty in adopting technology in ways that supports their goals, including goals around teaching to the whole person and student formation. For example, a group of faculty joined together for an ITEL cohort on Using Technology to Support Whole Person Learning. In another ITEL project, First Year Colloquium: Discovering the Authentic Self, faculty worked to build their capacity to create meaningful, engaged, and reflective learning. Lastly, another ITEL project integrated reflection and technology for self-care in medical education.

Domains and ePortfolios

We have launched a service called Georgetown Domains that offers students, faculty, and staff web space to encourage the development and ownership of digital identities. These web spaces allow students to connect their life and learning with the larger world, a key part of the Jesuit tradition.

Course Blogs

Technologies such as blogs can be used to encourage writing, critical reflection, and to see learning as a process rather than a product. If used well, blogs can help students develop a greater sense of their overall experience of learning by making the entirety of their learning engagement visible as a collection of their writing and thinking.

Additional Resources