You have been called to teach the Gospel Doctrine class in your ward. You spend hours researching the topic and reviewing your lesson. On Sunday you begin the lesson with confidence. But after half an hour of reading scriptures and talking to the class on subjects suggested by the manual, you look up to find stifled yawns and some blank stares. What are you doing wrong?
The Lord outlined a model for classroom teaching: “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.)
Class discussion is an effective teaching method. A well-stated question can evoke responses from class members that will breathe life into any lesson.
When the Savior was on earth, he frequently asked questions while teaching the gospel. For example, when Simon, the Pharisee, chastised Jesus for allowing the woman “which was a sinner” to touch him and wash his feet with her tears, Jesus told the parable of the two debtors (see Luke 7:36–50): one owed fifty pence, and the other one owed five hundred pence to a certain creditor. Since the pair in debt had nothing to give, the creditor openly forgave them both. Then Jesus posed the question to Simon: “Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?” (Luke 7:42.)
Class participation is being emphasized more and more in Church instruction. For example, in the 1990 Gospel Doctrine teacher’s manual, the following suggestions are given: “As a teacher you should focus on helping class members participate, not only giving a lecture. Having prayerfully studied the scriptures, class members should teach and edify one another (See D&C 88:118, 122). Participation helps invite the Spirit into the class and motivates members to apply and live scriptural principles.” (P. vii.)
You can more effectively involve the entire class in the learning process by using the following suggestions:
Class Discussion Techniques
Before beginning a class discussion, determine what the specific outcome should be. What information do you want to convey? What concepts do you want to derive from class members? What points do you want to make? Listing these items on a piece of paper in advance will help you crystallize the points in your mind and focus your lesson on getting this information from class members.
The most frequently used method to involve a class in a discussion is to ask questions. There are many different ways to do this:
Ask a general question that has several answers. For example:
“What has helped you to attend the temple on a regular basis?”
A general question starts all members of the class thinking because they do not know whether they will be called on to respond. After asking a general question, you can choose among class members who indicate they would like to comment.
Ask a general question, then, after a pause, ask for a person to respond. For example:
“What scriptural passage has been particularly helpful to you in your marriage?” (pause) “Bill, does any one scripture come to mind?”
Before asking this type of question, you may indicate that you are going to call on someone to respond. Most everyone will start thinking of something to say.
Ask an individual to respond to a specific question. Use your best judgment to not confront or unintentionally embarrass. For example:
“Brother Johnson, what could you do with a seventeen-year-old son who wants to go to a movie with his friends rather than attending home evening?”
One way to involve class members who might be hesitant to respond to an individual question is to ask them a yes-or-no question. For example:
“Sister Jensen, do you think men are helping more today in rearing the children?”
After a “yes” or a “no,” you may want to see if the student has any additional comments. If not, proceed with your lesson.
Assign all class members to groups to discuss a specific question or issue. For example:
“With your partner, discuss some ways in-laws might be constructive as well as disruptive in a marital relationship.”
After a few minutes, invite individuals to report on their discussions.
Divide the class into groups of three to five members and assign them a particular question or topic for discussion. Try to have both males and females represented in each group. Make sure the question or topic is clearly understood and relates to the lesson material. Ask each group to appoint one member to report the group’s conclusions or findings. For example:
“Discuss three ways to improve family home evening.”
Small group discussions should be held only when class periods are adequately long. After the group discussion, make sure you leave enough time to hear each report. Finish the class with a concluding thought, quote, or scripture to tie together the various groups’ comments.
When a teacher switches from lecturing to a discussion, he or she loses some control, both of the class and of the learning process. A few students may constantly volunteer to respond because they are more aggressive than others, or they may have a high need to participate.
Furthermore, some of the points brought up by students in discussions may not be pertinent, entirely correct, or not even in accordance with gospel principles or teachings. When this happens, class time sometimes is used correcting or even discussing a topic that has little relevance to the lesson.
Sometimes, too, the teacher, the class members, or both, allow discussions to wander. Soon they are discussing points that have little or nothing to do with the original question. When there is too much discussion, or when a few class members dominate the discussion, other class members may be unhappy.
The key to solving each of these problems is to keep the point of discussions clear and make sure class members stick to it.
The main advantage of class discussions is that they involve both the teacher and the students in the learning process more effectively than do lectures. Few teachers have enough skills to carry all the responsibility of learning for the entire class period. This is particularly true in classes lasting an hour or more.
During lectures and talks, most class members have an attention span of only about twenty minutes, after which their interest or learning capability diminishes greatly without additional learning experiences. Class discussions keep interest alive by allowing students to share what they have learned through personal experience.
Sometimes in sharing ideas and experiences, a class member may make a comment or ask a question that is more insightful than those asked by either the teacher or the class manual. Such a question may warrant exploration by the class. By creating an environment where this can happen, we are following the scriptural admonition to “teach one another.” (D&C 88:118.)
Involving class members in a discussion leads to another kind of learning as well—you can learn more about the students themselves, their interests, and their specific questions on a topic. Teachers do a better job when they address class members’ real needs and interests.
Well-planned questions and appropriate discussions are essential in classrooms where the gospel is taught. By following these few suggestions, you can more effectively create conditions where “all have spoken” and facilitate the process “where every man may have an equal privilege” of both teaching and learning. (D&C 88:122.)
Brent A. Barlow, an associate professor in Brigham Young University’s Department of Family Sciences, serves as bishop of the BYU Thirty-third Ward, BYU Seventeenth Stake.