Putting the Student into Action: How to Increase Participation in Lessons


When class members get involved, effective teaching can happen.

A stake leader was teaching 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 quorum members were inattentive; some even fidgeted restlessly. Why? After the closing prayer, as the teacher thought about his lesson, he realized that instead of involving his students, he had just given a very long talk.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently emphasized the need for Church members to improve their gospel 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” (Teaching, No Greater Call [1999], 61).

“The learning has to be done by the pupil. Therefore it is the pupil who has to be put into action” (Asahel D. Woodruff, Teaching the Gospel [1962], 37). Successful teachers focus less on imparting what they know and focus more on helping class members develop their own desires to seek knowledge and inspiration.

At home and in Church classrooms we are less effective when we try to “pour” knowledge and growth into others. In sacrament meetings, conferences, and other formal settings, speakers do not usually invite participation. But in classrooms, we can 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).

What then are some ways we can help students take an active part in gospel lessons?

1. Talk Less

Teachers who speak for 90 percent of class time are probably talking too much. Of course, as the teacher you will need to give explanations, instructions, examples, stories, testimonies, and so forth, but speaking should be part of your plan for promoting participation. In an effective lesson, students might speak for 40 to 60 percent of the time. This approach will help you avoid being just a lecturer or the dispenser of information. Instead, you can be a facilitator—helping students learn from the scriptures, from other students, and from the Spirit. Of course, you will need to introduce the lesson and help lay some groundwork and, at the end of class, clarify and summarize the doctrine taught. However, you will want to be careful not to take a great deal of time doing this.

One Sunday School teacher prepared a lesson on Doctrine and Covenants 135–137 [D&C 135; D&C 136; D&C 137]. However, in class the students became involved in a wonderful discussion about principles in section 135. As many class members shared insights, experiences, and testimonies, class time quickly ran out. The teacher was initially frustrated but then realized it was the students’ participation that had made the lesson successful.

“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: Priesthood and Auxiliary Leaders [1998], 304).

To begin the class, you might have a class member read a scripture passage or a quote from the lesson material. Then you might ask questions that elicit meaningful responses. Questions that require only a “yes” or “no” answer, questions that most class members know the answer to, and questions that require students to guess what you are thinking will usually not encourage participation and meaningful responses. Instead, you could ask questions such as:

2. Ask Effective Questions

  • What do these verses mean to you?

  • What gospel principles do you see in verses … ?

  • How does ___________ help you understand … ?

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

  • How would you say this in your own words?

  • What are some conclusions we can draw from this?

  • How can we apply this in our lives?

  • What comments or feelings do you have about this?

  • Would anyone like to share a testimony of or an experience with this principle?

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

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

  • Which verses indicate Nephi’s feelings?

  • Would someone tell about a challenge or affliction that brought spiritual growth?

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

Be sure to give students time to think about and respond to your questions or invitations to participate. You could let class members know that the silence does not need to be uncomfortable by saying something like, “We’ll take a few seconds to think about this, and when someone is ready to respond, please raise your hand.” If you are 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.

3. Give Positive Feedback

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

Don’t be overly concerned if a student’s comment seems to be taking the lesson in a direction you did not intend. If a comment is not helpful to the progression of the lesson, you can simply respond positively to the comment, introduce a new topic, and ask again for participation. Some ways to respond to class members’ comments are:

  • Thank you for that comment.

  • I like the way you put that!

  • Thank you for sharing your feelings.

You can also encourage more participation by saying:

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

  • That’s interesting. Please explain more about 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 …

You may have one or two class members who seem always willing to answer questions or make comments. Be grateful for their willingness to participate. But President Howard W. Hunter (1907–95) counseled: “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 February 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 Gospel Teaching

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, November 1996, 12).

The gospel of Jesus Christ truly is magnificent, and we can strive to let that magnificence shine through as we use the knowledge, feelings, ideas, experiences, and testimonies of all class members. Through effective gospel teaching “all may be edified of all.”

Participation Leads to Growth

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin

The more class members read their scriptural reading 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 of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (“Teaching by the Spirit,” Ensign, January 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 of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (“Gospel Teaching,” Liahona, January 2000, 96)

Illustrations by Greg Newbold

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.