Increasing Participation in Lessons
March 2001

“Increasing Participation in Lessons,” Ensign, Mar. 2001, 33

Increasing Participation in Lessons

When class members get involved, effective teaching can happen.

A stake leader had been assigned to teach the elders quorum lesson in ward conference. He had obviously spent a good deal of time and effort in preparing, and he spoke with sincerity. But some quorum members were inattentive, some fidgeting restlessly. Why? Was it because the teacher did all the talking? After the closing prayer the teacher felt uncomfortable. As he thought about his lesson, he realized that instead of teaching effectively, he had just given a very long talk.

Teaching that is nourishing to the soul uplifts others, builds their faith, and gives them confidence to meet life’s challenges. It motivates them to forsake sin and to come unto Christ, call on His name, obey His commandments, and abide in His love (see D&C 93:1; John 15:10; Moro. 10:32). We all want to be a part of effective teaching, but how can we accomplish this? By doing certain things and avoiding others, teachers in the home and the Church can produce greater interest, participation, actual learning, spiritual edification, and increased understanding in the lives of those they teach.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently emphasized the importance of effective teaching: “Now, at a time when our prophet is calling for more faith through hearing the word of God, we must revitalize and reenthrone superior teaching in the Church” (“‘A Teacher Come from God,’” Ensign, May 1998, 25).

What Is Effective Gospel Teaching?

The role of a gospel teacher is “to help individuals take responsibility for learning the gospel—to awaken in them the desire to study, understand, and live the gospel and to show them how to do so. … The learning has to be done by the pupil. Therefore it is the pupil who has to be put into action (Teaching, No Greater Call [1999], 61).

Successful teachers focus less on imparting what they know and focus more on helping class members gain and develop their own desires for seeking knowledge and inspiration. At home and in Church classrooms we are often ineffective when we stand in front of students and try to “pour” knowledge and growth into others. Speakers in sacrament meetings and conferences and other more formal settings address the congregation and most often do not invite participation. But in classrooms, it is better to follow the model established by the Lord’s instructions for the School of the Prophets: “Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege” (D&C 88:122; emphasis added).

An effective gospel teacher helps “class members participate meaningfully in the lesson. Such participation enables students to teach and edify each other. It also can invite the Spirit into the class. It enhances learning by making class members active rather than passive participants. It will also help them apply and live gospel principles.

“Teachers should help class members feel comfortable sharing their testimonies, insights, experiences, questions, and ideas” (“Gospel Teaching and Leadership,” in Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 2: Priesthood and Auxiliary Leader [1998], 303).

One teacher was asked to teach a Sunday School lesson on Doctrine and Covenants 135–137. He carefully prepared questions and discussion ideas that related to each of the three sections. However, in class he was only able to teach section 135 and did not use his other lesson material. The class became involved in wonderful discussions that revolved around principles in section 135. Numerous class members shared personal ideas and feelings, and the class time quickly ran out. The teacher was initially a little frustrated, but the many comments by class members afterward helped him realize that spending the class time on one section had been guided by the Spirit. The insights, experiences, and testimonies shared by so many were what had made the lesson so successful. Instead of “highlighting” three sections of scripture on that day, his class had gone deeply into one. Testimonies were strengthened, lives were touched, and all had been edified.

“Teachers should be careful not to end a good discussion prematurely in an attempt to cover all the material they have prepared. What matters most is not the amount of material covered but that class members feel the influence of the Spirit, increase their understanding of the gospel, learn to apply gospel principles in their lives, and strengthen their commitment to live the gospel” (“Gospel Teaching and Leadership,” Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 2, 304).

As we strive to increase student participation in our lessons, we may want to consider the following three suggestions: (1) talk less, (2) use teaching methods that promote student participation, and (3) provide positive feedback.

Talk Less

Teachers who speak 90 percent of class time are probably talking too much. Of course, teachers need to give explanations, instructions, examples, stories, testimonies, and so forth, but their speaking should be a planned part of promoting participation. In many lessons, students can speak 40 to 60 percent of the time. This approach helps teachers avoid becoming lecturers or the only dispensers of information. Instead, teachers can be facilitators—helping students learn from the scriptures, from other students, and from the Spirit. Of course, teachers may introduce the lesson and help lay some groundwork and, at the end of the class, clarify and summarize the doctrine taught. However, they should also be careful not to take a great deal of time doing this.

“Lessons should help class members see how gospel principles apply to daily living. Encourage discussions about how these principles can influence our feelings about our Father in Heaven, Jesus Christ, ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. Invite participants to live according to the principles being taught.

“Involve as many people as possible during the instruction period by inviting them to read aloud, answer questions, or share experiences” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young [1997], vi).

Use Methods That Promote Participation

Teachers or parents could begin a lesson by reading (or having a class member read) a few of the scripture verses or quotes from the lesson material and then asking questions that elicit meaningful responses. Questions that only require a “yes” or “no” answer, questions that most class members know the answer to, and questions that require students to guess what the teacher is thinking will usually not encourage participation and meaningful responses. Rather, ask questions such as:

• What do these verses mean to you?

• How can we apply this in our lives today?

• What did the Lord teach in verses … about … ?

• What gospel principles do you see in verses … ?

• How does … help you understand … ?

• What important things do you see in verses … ?

• What is another way to say … ?

• What would you underline or mark in these verses? Why?

• How would you say this in your own words?

• Can someone summarize what has been said?

• What are some conclusions we can draw from this?

• What comments or feelings do you have about this?

• Would anyone like to tell about an experience that illustrates this principle?

• Do any of you have a testimony or an experience of this that you would be willing to share?

Here are some examples of some questions for teaching 1 Nephi 16:

• How did each of the members of Lehi’s family feel when Nephi broke his bow?

• In 1 Nephi 16, which verses indicate Nephi’s feelings?

• Have any of you ever had an experience when something went wrong and you were not sure how to solve it? Would anyone like to tell us about it?

• Can any of you tell an experience when a challenge or affliction helped you learn and grow spiritually?

• Which verse in this chapter do you like the best? Why?

Teachers need to give students time to think about and respond to their questions or invitations to participate. A brief period of silence is appropriate and should be expected. A teacher could let class members know that the moment of silence is welcome by saying something like, “I know you need to think about it for a few seconds, so when one of you is ready to respond, go ahead and raise your hand.” If the teacher is comfortable with the silence, the class members will be also. Teachers should not pressure class members to tell about personal experiences or feelings if they do not freely volunteer. Some experiences may be too sacred to share.

Provide Positive Feedback

Teachers “can help those [they] teach feel more confident about their ability to participate in a discussion if [the teacher] responds positively to each sincere comment” (Teaching, No Greater Call, 64). Teachers should not ridicule or criticize any questions, comments, expression of feelings, experiences, or testimonies. Teachers should show courtesy and love and do their best to encourage helpful participation. Teachers can help students feel that their contributions are valued and that their participation is important, even if sometimes they must kindly clarify doctrinal misunderstandings. Teachers should keep in mind that students are taking emotional and spiritual risks when sharing personal insights. They will hesitate to share again if they do not receive positive feedback.

Teachers should not be overly concerned if a student’s comment seems to be taking the lesson in a direction that was not intended. Remember the teacher’s role is to help students learn. Teachers should have the Spirit with them and follow its promptings. If a comment is not helpful to the proper progression of the lesson, the teacher may want to simply respond positively to what has been said, introduce a new topic, and then ask again for participation. Some examples of ways to respond to class members’ comments are:

• Thank you for that comment.

• I like the way you put that!

• I think you said it well.

• Let’s write that on the board; it is so insightful.

• Did the rest of you hear that? Please say it again.

• Thank you for sharing your feelings.

• What a wonderful testimony you have shared!

Teachers may also want to respond to comments in ways that encourage more participation by saying:

• That is a good question. Who would like to respond to it?

• That’s interesting. Please explain more of what you mean.

• How did you come to feel that way?

If a class member states something that is inappropriate or incorrect, you might want to say:

• Thank you. The principle I want you to think about is. …

• I’ve heard that too, yet my understanding is. …

Teachers sometimes have one or two class members who seem always willing to answer questions or make comments. Be grateful for their willingness to participate. President Howard W. Hunter, however, suggested: “Do not fall into the trap that some of us fall into by calling on the ones who are always so bright and eager and ready with the right answer. Look and probe for those who are hanging back, who are shy and retiring and perhaps troubled in spirit” (Eternal Investments, address to Church Educational System instructors, 10 Feb. 1989, 4). Teachers should not, however, pressure or force participation from students who, for whatever reason, prefer not to respond, and teachers should not embarrass or make class members uncomfortable while attempting to involve everyone.

The Joy of Being Part of Gospel Teaching

Teachers can gain great satisfaction from observing class members as they discover and express truths and principles of the gospel for themselves. As truths of the gospel sink deeper into the hearts and minds of class members, teachers are often surprised to find that insights from class members may be more profound than their own. Effective gospel teachers are humble, willing to give up the “spotlight” and let class members have an important role. Sister Virginia H. Pearce, who served as first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, said: “The skilled teacher does not want students who leave the class talking about how magnificent and unusual the teacher is. This teacher wants students who leave talking about how magnificent the gospel is!” (“The Ordinary Classroom—a Powerful Place for Steady and Continued Growth,” Ensign, Nov. 1996, 12).

The gospel of Jesus Christ truly is magnificent, and we can strive to match its magnificence with the kind of teaching that uses the knowledge, feelings, ideas, experiences, and testimonies of all class members, “that all may be edified of all.”

Participation Leads to Growth

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin

“The more class members read their scriptural assignments, the more they bring their scriptures to class, and the more they discuss what the gospel actually means in their lives, the more will be their inspiration, growth, and joy as they try to solve their personal concerns and challenges.”
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Teaching by the Spirit,” Ensign, Jan. 1989, 15.

Teach Students, Not Just Lessons

Elder Dallin H. Oaks

“A gospel teacher does not focus on himself or herself. One who understands that principle will not look upon his or her calling as ‘giving or presenting a lesson,’ because that definition views teaching from the standpoint of the teacher, not the student.”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Gospel Teaching,” Ensign, Nov. 1999, 79.

  • Jonn D. Claybaugh is president of the Costa Rica San José Mission.

  • Amber Barlow Dahl is a member of the Centennial Ward, Eagle Idaho Stake.

Photography by Matt Reier