Four Ways to Get More Student Participation During Gospel Lessons

By Jenny Smith

Most gospel teachers struggle with classroom participation. Sometimes you have a classroom of students who are very active and loud, and sometimes it seems your students will not talk at all. Following are some ideas to help teachers increase student participation in the gospel classroom:

  1. Talk Less
  2. Ask and Pause
  3. Make your Classroom a Safe Place to Ask Questions and Share Ideas
  4. Encourage Sincere Participation Attempts

Talk Less

When a teacher takes the spotlight, becomes the star of the show, does all the talking, and otherwise takes over all of the activity, it is almost certain that he is interfering with the learning of the class members. (.)

Teaching the Gospel: A Handbook for CES Teachers and Leaders (1994), p 14

If gospel teachers are speaking the majority of class time, they are probably talking too much. Teachers should provide examples, stories, testimonies, explanations, and instructions, but all speaking should lead to student participation. When teachers talk less, they become facilitators who help students learn from the scriptures, other students, and the Spirit. (adapted from Leading Class Discussions, Ensign, June 2009)

You might choose to set a goal to find activities that allow students to speak 60 percent or more of the lesson time. If your class is small, you could set a goal to have each student participate during each lesson. During your lesson preparation focus on these goals. Search for new teaching techniques that allow more students to participate. Teaching, No Greater Call has some teaching techniques you can adapt for your classroom.

Talk less, and you will help students talk more.

Ask and Pause

“[N]ever answer your own question!”

Mark E. Beecher, BYU Education Week; quoted in Ask Good Questions to Get Youth to Participate in Class

When asking questions most gospel teachers wait only one or two seconds for students to respond. If students don't respond quickly, inexperienced teachers often provide the answer themselves. Teachers who answer their own questions may actually train students not to participate. Students who are not given enough time to think, or for whom an expectation of participation is not set, may stop participating all together.

Robb Jones, head of curriculum development for the church, asked teachers to count silently to twenty after asking a question. This pause gives students time to ponder. Brother Jones trains gospel teachers to say things like, “I’ll give you time to think,” or “Please ponder this question, and then I’ll ask for responses.” As teachers paused for responses, class participation increased and class members felt the Spirit as they began to “teach one another” (D&C 88:77). (see Leading Class Discussions, Ensign, June 2009)

I have found counting to be an effective way to get better responses to questions, too. During the pause, I will ask myself, “Was the question stated clearly? Should I rephrase? Did I ask students to give information or share experiences they have not had yet? Was the question too personal? Did I set
the stage for sharing by giving a personal example myself?” Occasionally I realize I have asked a poor question. That’s okay — I can rephrase, or I may even say, “That was a bad question. Let me try again.”

Practice asking and pausing to set an expectation of participation in your classroom.

Make your Classroom a Safe Place to Ask Questions and Share

In order to make your classroom a safe place for sharing ideas, you must never allow students to be rude to each other or to make unkind remarks. If something unkind is said, respond immediately. You might respond in a sharp or stern voice, “That comment was inappropriate/cruel, James. Do not make that type of remark again.” Pause briefly after the rebuke, and then continue your lesson. Follow the advice in D&C 121:43-44:

“Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.”

D&C 121:43-44

Be sure to pull the offender aside after class and reaffirm your love for them. Tell the student you want participation and want to encourage appropriate humor, but cruelty can not be tolerated.

Correcting unkind remarks immediately creates a classroom culture where all comments and questions are welcome and timid students can participate with confidence.

Encourage Sincere Participation Attempts

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… 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. (Increasing Participation in Lessons, Claybaugh and Dahl, Ensign, March 2001)

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, p 64

You can encourage sincere participation attempts by saying:

  • Thank you for that comment.
  • I love how you said 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.

Gospel teachers encourage students to teach each other when they respond to students in this way:

  • That is a great question! Who here can answer it?
  • What did you learn from that experience?
  • That’s interesting. Please explain more of what you mean.
  • Thank you for sharing your experience, James. Who has had a similar experience?
  • How did you come to feel that way?

When teaching older Primary children and younger teenagers, you may find that students respond to questions in attention-seeking ways. Do not respond to these children with rudeness and sarcasm. I have responded to students with a sharp remark only to discover that a question I thought was rude or disruptive was actually sincere. Teachers must respond respectfully lest they inadvertently cause a student to stop participating in gospel discussions altogether.

I have found that treating each question – no matter how silly it seems to me – as genuine sets an expectation of on-topic commenting. Students who are not able to provoke a teacher into getting off topic often stop trying. Students who need to be heard learn to wait their turn as they discover their teacher will give every person a chance to respond.

Teachers encourage participation when they treat student comments respectfully.


Planning and practice are necessary, but even the most inexperienced gospel teacher can encourage student participation by talking less, asking and pausing, creating a safe place to ask questions, and encouraging all sincere participation attempts.

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