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Gospel Q&A: How Can I Encourage More Meaningful Comments in My Church Class?

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Gospel Q&A is a series from LDS Daily that strives to answer important gospel questions from readers. Today, we answer the question, “How can I encourage more meaning comments in my Church class?”

Do you have a question you’d like to see answered? Send us an email at calledtoshare@ldsdaily.com or leave it in the comments below.

When I was a youth, my Sunday school class and I thought ourselves very clever. At the ripe old age of 14, we discovered that 99% of the questions we were being asked in class could be answered by the “primary” answers. Rather than thoughtfully answer these questions each time, we devised an acronym we could use in response to all of these questions. At the time, it didn’t seem overly rude, just efficient, but frankly, it was rude. I think back now on a class of 14-year-olds yelling “COWPERS!” at their Sunday school teacher every time he had an innocuous question and I’m no longer surprised we went through so many Sunday school teachers during that time period.

COWPERS represented the following:

C – keep the Commandments

O – Obey the Lord and the words of the prophets

W – keep the Word of Wisdom

P – Pray

E – Endure to the end

R – Repent

S – Study Scriptures

Our teacher might ask, “How can we feel the Spirit more in our lives?”

And we would yell back, “COWPERS!”

He might say, “How can we prepare to serve worthy missions?”

And we would yell back, “COWPERS!”

He might ask, “How can we protect ourselves from temptation?”

And we would yell back, “COWPERS!”

See? We were nightmares.

(Brothers Atherstone, Campos, and Mohr, I’m sorry. You were terrific teachers. We were rather sub-par students. The gospel got in many of us, even if we were awful, snarky teenagers.)

As we begin, recognize that both the teacher and the student have a responsibility in the classroom setting. While there is usually something we can do to improve the teaching, bear in mind the possibility that sometimes the learner is shirking his or her responsibility as a student, and not be overly critical of yourself if that’s the case.

Still, what can be done to improve the learning environment and invite more discussion and participation from the class?

Ask Questions

I have seen teachers who have 45-minute prepared monologues, but start with, “Just interrupt me if you have any questions.” Seldom will learners do this. They’re absorbing the monologue and are often not given a moment edgewise for their brains to quiet down enough to think of a comment or question. If you want your class to talk, you must invite them to do so through questions.

Ask Good Questions

Yes or no questions can be effective if you’re trying to drive home a point. However, they are most often used instead of a more thoughtful counterpart. Yes or no questions can eliminate most of the thinking done by the participant. The obvious questions function the same way. When the answer to a question is glaringly obvious, the class will not often bother to answer it. This tends to lead the teacher to answer his or her own weak question.

So, what kinds of questions should you ask? Teaching, No Greater Call gives some clues about what questions are good and how to ask them.

Yes or no questions should be used “primarily to obtain commitments or to determine if someone agrees or disagrees.”

Factual questions “can help learners begin to study scripture passages, understand major points, review ideas, and overcome misconceptions.”

Deeper thinking questions, on the other hand, “help learners apply gospel principles in their lives.”

There is little purpose in a gospel that is merely philosophical and not applicable in our day-to-day lives. Ask questions that include how to use the gospel to help bring peace and solve problems. For instance, “In this circumstance, what would it look like to ‘trust in the Lord?’ What actions could we take to show this trust?” Or, “We know we must forgive. What steps can we take to get us closer to total forgiveness of someone who has wronged us or someone we love?”

Consider how your students may want or need to use the gospel and ask them questions to help them tease out life applications to your lesson principles.

Make it Safe to Ask Questions or to Answer Them

I’ve been in classes where I was criticized for even having a question at all—that my question was evidence of something lacking in me. All sincere questions must be met with respect and validation. It can take courage to speak up in class. When someone is sharing his or her thoughts, express gratitude to that person for sharing. It will show this student, and the rest of the class at large, that both their questions and answers are safe with you.

Additionally, give your students time to answer the question. Sometimes teachers fear nothing more than dead air. It’s not dead! It’s growing answers! When we answer our own questions too quickly, we don’t give the students enough time to formulate a thoughtful answer. Count silently in your mind, if you need to, while you wait for responses, but don’t step in with an answer for at least a count of 10 seconds. Even then, consider rephrasing the question and trying it out again—for another full 10 seconds—before you jump in and answer your own question.

Love Those You Teach

If you don’t yet love your students, pray to feel a portion of the Lord’s love for them. You will be amazed at how much you can love strangers when you can love them the way the Lord loves them.

When you love your students, they will feel it and your words can have a lasting impact. It has oft been said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” If you want engaged learning in your classroom, make sure your students know you truly care for them.

Remember Who Is the Real Teacher

As teachers, we are there to invite the Spirit and let the Spirit be the teacher. If we have studied and prepared, it will help to bring the Spirit to our lesson. When the Spirit touches hearts, people will be more ready and willing to share what the Spirit is teaching them.

I can’t guarantee that a bunch of cheeky 14-year-olds won’t think themselves clever and invent a new “COWPERS” for your Sunday School class, but if we love our students, create a warm environment for learning, ask varied, life-applicable questions, and invite the Spirit through our preparation, the quality of our class participation will improve.

Disclaimer: While all of my answers will use scriptures and/or words of modern prophets, I do not represent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don’t believe any of my answers are comprehensive. I’m just one person using the gospel I have been blessed with to bring hope, peace, and answers to other seekers of truth.

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Rebecca Wright
Rebecca Wright
Becca loves audiobooks, dark chocolate, singing, hiking, walking,  going out with her husband, and raising their chickens and children. She still wants to meet her hero Sheri Dew, see flowing lava and a blue whale in person, and uplift others with her words.

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