When Students Are the Teachers

“When Students Are the Teachers,” Ensign, Jan. 2003, 17

When Students Are the Teachers

Want to encourage everyone to participate in your lessons? Try using small group assignments at home or at church.

I noticed her lingering in the back of the room after one of my classes, waiting for the others to finish talking to me. Finally, when everyone was gone, she approached.

“I am so discouraged!” she said with tears in her eyes. After composing herself she continued: “About a month ago I was called to teach a Sunday School class in my ward. One of the goals I set for myself was to get class members to participate, but most of the time they just sit there and don’t say much. I’m trying really hard, but nothing seems to work and I can tell they are bored. What can I do?”

After discussing the needs of her class, I suggested she try using small group assignments, not only because this method gets more people involved in the lesson but also because it can help prepare the class for a great discussion.1

Caution: When you divide a class into small groups, you should expect more noise, commotion, and less teacher-centered control. At first these changes may make you feel uneasy. Be patient, for improving one’s teaching requires courage, help from the Lord, creativity, and a willingness to learn from one’s mistakes. Following are a few suggestions to help you get started.

Prepare the Assignments

  • Each person should have a significant role in completing the group assignment. For example, if the group assignment is to make a list of ways to apply a scripture passage, you could have everyone do the assignment individually first; then in groups, each person can share his or her personal list as a part of fulfilling the group assignment. Or you could give a specific responsibility to each person, such as being the group leader, scribe, or reporter.

  • You could assign class members to look for words, phrases, or ideas as they study an assigned scripture reference or other reading material.

  • Assignments could include a question to be discussed and answered, a problem to solve, a picture to draw, or a few sentences to write.

  • Gather whatever materials students will need to complete their assignments, such as paper and pencils.

  • The Church lesson manual you are using will also have suggestions for assignments you could give.

Explain the Assignments

  • Help students understand their assignments before dividing into groups. Once in groups, some students may have their backs to you, and it will be more difficult to get their attention.

  • Assignments should be simple and easy to follow. If you sense that some students need more help, walk them through an example of their assignment, allowing time for questions.

  • Give a time limit for completing the task. Assignments that can be completed in 10 minutes or less work best.

Divide into Groups

  • Keeping the groups at two to four people each will enhance participation.

  • You can form groups by having students work with those closest to them or by asking them to work together in groups that you organize.

  • Choose a leader for each group who will encourage all in the group to be involved and see that the assignment is done on time.

Monitor the Groups

  • Move from group to group as they work, monitoring participation and helping as needed. “Group work … can easily become a time when students visit on personal matters or joke around with one another. The presence of the teacher and his or her active involvement in monitoring the learning activity will do much to prevent such problems.”2

  • When it is time to end, ask for class members’ attention, and wait until you have it before proceeding.

Have Each Group Report on Their Assignments

  • Invite students to return to the seating arrangement they had before.

  • Usually each group appoints one person to give the report. Reports that can be completed in one or two minutes work best.

  • You may want to invite students to ask questions of the group making a report.

  • It is often helpful to conclude by summarizing the main points of the reports, helping students review and apply what they have learned.

Note the Benefits of Class Participation

Not long ago I taught a class in my stake on using small group assignments. I encouraged the participants to give this method a try and tell me about their experiences. A sister who teaches on the fourth Sunday in Relief Society excitedly reported: “The sisters all participated! And it helped me cover more material in a shorter period of time. It took attention away from me and gave it to the sisters in the class. They were teaching each other.” Another teacher said: “I noticed the energy level in the class increase because everyone was participating at the same time. It has really helped the shy students because the small groups are less intimidating.” Another explained, “It is exciting to see my students sharing with and teaching each other rather than having me do it all.”

A teacher once reported to me that he felt he was in a teaching rut. “Each Sunday I did pretty much the same thing: I stood in front of the class and talked at them. One Sunday I decided to try small group assignments during my lesson. I am glad I did. I was pleased with how many participated. The thoughtful insights shared in each of the groups were excellent. It was a refreshing change that added variety to my teaching.”

Use Small Groups to Teach at Home

Small-group assignments can be just as effective in teaching the gospel at home as they are in the classroom.

During a home evening lesson, my family was talking about being clean, one of President Hinckley’s six B’s.3 We carefully read together the page and a half of counsel and made a list of the principles and ideas mentioned in the talk. We then did a small group assignment.

I explained that I wanted each group to choose three principles from the list and describe the problems a person could avoid by following President Hinckley’s counsel. We paired up, allowing 10 minutes to prepare a report. I watched as my children discussed and wrote down their thoughts. As each pair gave a report, the thoughts and feelings we shared led us to discuss in greater depth the personal application of the teachings. Everyone participated, we felt the Spirit of God, and our testimonies were strengthened. Later that evening my children commented about how much they enjoyed the lesson. My wife said that it was one of the best family home evenings we had had in several months.

If you are looking for a way to increase participation in your lessons at home or at church, give this method a try and see if it doesn’t enhance your classroom and family experiences.

More on this topic: Richard Nash, “Telling Personal Stories,”Ensign, Sept. 2002, 48–51; Robert G. Jones, “Asking Questions First,”Ensign, Jan. 2002, 23–25; Jonn D. Claybaugh and Amber Barlow Dahl, “Increasing Participation in Lessons,”Ensign, Mar. 2001, 32–36.

Photography by Craig Dimond