RESPONDING TO LEARNER PARTICIPATION
by Terry Powell
Published by Multnomah Press
Rita posed a question seeking hindrances to answered prayer. The second she finished the probe, Rita shifted her eyes away from group members to the Bible and sheet of notes in her lap. Ginny shared an insight gleaned from one of the Bible verses in that week's lesson. Then Elaine started to say something. But Elaine's interest evaporated when she noticed Rita's preoccupation with her notes. After a few seconds of silence, Rita supplemented Ginny's answer with a different truth couched in the Bible passage. It was the same point Elaine had excavated from the text. Except Elaine was also going to illustrate the truth from her own experience as a Christian.
* * * * * *
Brad peppers his adult Sunday School lesson with thought-provoking questions. He picks the best ones from a Leader's Guide he purchased, then adds a few of his own probes. That's why the absence of stimulating discussions in his class puzzles him. What answers he receives are terse. Seldom does anyone else piggyback on the first response.
"Why aren't they more responsive?" Brad wonders aloud during a breakfast appointment with David. David, Brad's best friend and a member of the class, decides to shoot straight with him.
"You specialize in questions that incite the intellect," David explains. "They're so analytical that it takes a little while to investigate the Bible passage and cull answers. Not even your application questions are obvious. We have to reflect on personal experiences and realistic weekday scenarios before coming up with ideas."
"But that sound like a compliment," interrupted Brad.
"So far, so good," David continued. "But I don't think you're aware of how little time you give us to think after you pose a question. No more than a couple seconds pass before you answer it yourself. Brad, you're already thought about your questions during the week. But the rest of us haven't. Why, just yesterday you asked about the difference between remorse and repentance. I had read something on that subject. My mind was busy formulating a response. Then before I could verbalize it, you dropped your research on us. I'd be less than honest if I didn't say that it siphoned off my enthusiasm."
* * * * * *
Tim goes out of his way to compliment teens' contributions during Bible study. When they answer questions, typical reactions from Tim include:
"Way to go. Who else?"
Yet the gushy commendations rankle Ed, a senior honor student and one of the few group members who takes God's Word seriously. He notices that Tim tosses out his verbal kudos without regard to the quality of the answer. No matter how shallow, illogical, or fuzzy a response seems, Tim praises it, or at least accepts it without critical analysis.
"It's like he's afraid of hurting somebody's feelings," Ed told his mom. "It makes me want to clam up. Why should I give serious thought to a question if his praise isn't based on what I say?"
Do those scenarios strike a responsive chord? A discussion facilitator whose poor nonverbal communication shortchanges her group. A Sunday School teacher whose fear of silence stunts adults' participation. A youth leader whose indiscriminate rewarding of answers waters down the power of verbal reinforcement. Rita, Brad, and Tim illustrate a taken-for-granted aspect of discussion-leading. A leader's behavior after posing questions is a hinge upon which first-rate discussions turn. What we do after firing a question either expands or constricts both the number and the quality of responses. Perhaps the relational skills and pedagogic know-how involved conspire to make this the most demanding phase of group leadership.
What follows are eight strategies for responding to learner participation. Add these pointers to your instructional repertoire, and you'll motivate rather than muzzle learners' expression.
In a Bible class or small group, positive reinforcement refers to specific leader behaviors that reward or extend learner participation. Perhaps the most potent verbal reinforcer is expressing excitement over group members' discoveries. When you lead Bible discussions, they often find fresh, I've-never-thought-of-that-before insights. In response to a study question, they may notice a truth for the very first time--especially if they're recent converts. Then they verbalize their discovery for others to hear.
What we say right after they contribute is a crucial motivational variable. If their point is elementary to us, there's a tendency to gloss over it, or give it only polite acknowledgement. Perhaps we nod and say "Yes," "Okay," or "Uh-huh." Then we seek additional input with a prompt such as "Who else?" But our verbal reaction should express fascination with their discovery! I'm not advocating mushy, superficial remarks. You saw the negative effect indiscriminate praise had on Ed, the senior high student. But I am encouraging a couple sentences that dignify their discoveries. Verbal applause that recognizes their textual investigation. Public congratulations that will spur them to keep delving into Scripture and keep participating in the discussion. Does our reply inject them with confidence when it comes to Bible study? Does our reinforcement convince them that God's Spirit can unveil Biblical truth to them?
What they point out from the passage may seem cut-and-dried to us. Perhaps it's a principle we encountered back in an eighth-grade Sunday School class. But maybe it's a vibrant, brand-spanking new truth to them.
Here's the flip side of the positive reinforcement coin. Temper your enthusiasm in relation to the quality of a group member's answer. Don't dish out the same reward for various degrees of accuracy and mental effort. Remember how Tim reacted when his high school students answered a question? He praised them without regard to the nature of their answers. His attempt to salute participation backfired because his commendations came across as insincere. So reserve your praise for correct answers. Or for feedback that reveals critical thinking on the issue you're discussing. For thought-provoking questions they raise about lesson content. For input that at least shows an honest effort to wrestle with the text.
A sure-fire way to diminish the impact of verbal reinforcement is repeated use of the same word or phrase. Overusing a particular reinforcer such as "Good," "Okay," or "Uh-huh" creates a bland rather than a stimulating learner environment. Voicing the same words over and over may give us a second or two to conceptualize our next comment or question. Yet the sameness affects group members the same way a gift-wrapped pair of socks affect eight-year-olds at Christmas.
To insure variety, use the tactic described in the next section.
POINT OUT PARTICULARS
Which part of a group member's commentary hit bull's eye? Or were you complimenting effort instead of substance? Does everyone know precisely what it is you're rewarding? The more specific your verbal praise, the more meaningful it is. Notice how the following reinforcements shine the spotlight on distinctive aspects of learner contributions.
"Excellent answer, Valerie. I like the way you kept referring to Jesus' words to support your conclusions."
"That's a provocative question. Sometimes our zeal for God's Word shows more in the questions we ask than in the answers we give. Anyone want to take a shot at Joseph's question?"
"Way to go, Bryan! You answered correctly because you factored in the context of Paul's remark."
"Beth, that's good thinking. I want you to repeat your answer so it soaks in." (Turning to others in the group) "Notice how Beth unites these two episodes. The connection isn't obvious at first glance."
"It's evident you fellows don't see eye-to-eye on this issue. But I appreciate the way you listened to each other. And you expressed your respective viewpoints in a tactful manner."
"I'm impressed by the way you connected this verse to last week's lesson."
By pointing out particular elements within a learner's remarks, you accomplish variety as well as demonstrate sincerity. It's proof that you listened carefully to what was said.
WIN WITH WAITING
When you pose a question, how long do you wait before answering it yourself, or rephrasing it? How many seconds elapse before you feel obligated to keep things moving? Do you view a conversational pause as a threat to effective discussion? Or do you figure that passage exploration and analysis requires a reasonable amount of time?
Research in school classrooms offers relevant findings for Bible study leaders. Educators equate a teacher's delay with instructional effectiveness, and a teacher's impatience with diminished student outcomes.
Students have very little time to think. Research shows that the mean amount of time a teacher waits after asking a question is approximately one second! If the students are not able to think quickly enough to come up with a response at this split second pace, the teacher repeats the question, rephrases it, asks a different question, or calls on another student. Moreover, if a student manages to get a response in, the teacher reacts or asks another question within an average time of nine-tenths of a second.... When teachers learn to increase their wait time from one second to three to five seconds, significant changes occur in their classrooms:
1. Students give longer answers.
2. Students volunteer more appropriate answers, and failures to respond are less frequent.
3. Student comments on the analysis and synthesis levels increase.
4. Students ask more questions.
5. Students exhibit more confidence in their comments, and those students whom teachers rate as relatively slow learners offer more responses and more questions.(1)
Bible study questions jump-start the mind, sparking thought about the passage and its practical implications. But when we show disrespect for silence and expect instant replies, discussion sputters.
NOTICE THE NONVERBAL
Whether you're engaged in a casual conversation, or leading a Bible study, your communication takes three forms: actual words; tone of voice; and nonverbal cues. A wise communicator realizes that his message travels on all three avenues of expression. To maximize effectiveness, he packages his message in a way that utilizes all three modes.
And for good reason. Experts on communication theory insist that how we say something packs more of a wallop than what we say. Here's how one report breaks it down.
In a conversation or teaching situation, 7% of our message is conveyed through words; 38% through tone of voice; 55% through nonverbal signals.
Imagine.....both tone of voice and nonverbal signals affect perception of our message to a much greater extent than our vocabulary!(2) That's why our nonverbal reinforcement is more potent than our verbal feedback.
When is a leaders' nonverbal communication most potent? While others in your Bible study are talking. As they answer or ask questions, what message is your body language sending? Do you come across as tense or relaxed? As interested, or impatient? What you say without vibrating your vocal chords will either fan the flames of group participation, or throw icy water on it.
Educational researchers have compared the relative effect of verbal and nonverbal reinforcement to student comments. On one occasion, college teachers intentionally sent conflicting reinforcement messages as a way of determining which students perceive as more powerful.
In one group, the teacher displayed positive nonverbal reinforcement (smiled, maintained eye contact, indicated positive attitude to student answers with facial and body cues) but, at the same time, sent out negative verbal messages. In the second case, the process was reversed, and negative nonverbal reinforcement was coupled with positive verbal reinforcement (frowns, poor eye contact, and the like coupled with "good," "nice job," etc.)
In both cases the nonverbal reinforcement was accepted as the primary message by the majority of students. Whether the nonverbal message was positive or negative, most students responded to the nonverbal rather than to the verbal reinforcement. This study provides fascinating support to the notion of "silent language"....and it emphasizes the importance of teachers attending to what they do not say as well as to what they do say as they reinforce student participation.(3)
Responding to a group member's question or input is "the art of the immediate." It's hard to prepare for because your response requires a number of complex, on-the-spot decisions. It's as much a relational skill as it is a teaching proficiency. Yet I'm convinced that with prayerful effort, a small group leader or classroom teacher can control the transmission of nonverbal messages. Work on the following aspects of your nonverbal delivery system.
Body movement and posture. If you're a stand-up classroom instructor, expedite participation by stepping closer to the students when you pose a question. When you get an answer, minimize the distance between you and the respondent by walking to the appropriate side of the room. Even if movement isn't necessary in order to hear the student, closing the gap conveys interest in what's being said. If you're sitting in the den of your home, lean forward or inch closer to the edge of your chair whenever others contribute. They'll feel that you're listening with your heart, not just your ears.
In a presentation on teaching style, Bruce Wilkinson accentuated the body's role in conveying one's feelings about the subject matter and the learners. "I have one tool to deliver my heart--my physical body. I must dedicate my body to serving my audience."(4)
Facial expressions and eye contact. In the Bible, "face" is often a figure of speech representing the whole person--whether human or divine. "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you" (Number 6:25). When God's face shined upon Israel, He was blessing them. When He turned His face away, He was withdrawing His favor. Why did the Holy Spirit use "face" as a metaphor for the sentiments of the heart? Because without the aid of words, one's face usually expresses his inner convictions or condition.
When your group members participate in a discussion, does your face convey boredom or enthusiasm? Do you nod as a way of letting them know you're following their line of thought? Do you rivet your eyes to the person who's talking, or shift them back and forth between the respondent and your notes? You may hear everything a group member says without looking at him. But listening requires eye contact.
FOLLOW-UP THEIR FEEDBACK
Not all answers to your Bible study questions are refined. Often a group member is on to something, but his comment needs clarification or specificity. Or what she says is fine so far as it goes, but needs elaboration. Follow responses of this sort with probing questions. Your follow-up probes should spur them to modify or expand their initial answer, to beef up its support, to illustrate it, or to think more critically about it.
To probe for extensions of original answers is challenging. You need on-the-spot sensitivity because you can't prepare follow-up questions or comments in advance. Yet improvement begins with an awareness of their usefulness. Here's a script from a Bible discussion that demonstrates the effectiveness of follow-up prompts. Notice that the leader doesn't blandly accept the initial answer. Questions in italics were prepared in advance by the leader. Bold face questions and comments illustrate follow-up material inserted on the spot.
Small Group Bible Study
Leader: Satan initially tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread (vs.3). What fact in this passage explains why he used food as a lure?
Mary: Jesus was hungry.
Leader: That's correct. But why was Jesus hungry at that particular time?
Mary: Verse 2 says Jesus had just finished a 40-day fast. So humanly-speaking, He must have been starving!
Leader: Okay. Good attention to detail. Let's build on this factual information. What does the nature of this first temptation teach us about Satan?
David: He's obviously pretty smart.
Leader: What do you mean by that? Elaborate a bit.
David: He apparently knows all our weaknesses, so he custom-designs his temptations accordingly. That seems to be what's illustrated here.
Barbara: Yeah. And if we weren't vulnerable to it, it wouldn't really be a temptation!
Leader: You've both identified an important characteristic of our enemy. He tempts us with things that obviously have appeal. He knows everyone's Achilles' heel, spiritually-speaking. Let's see what else the episode tell us about the devil. Notice that he tempted Jesus three times, not just once. What is significant about that fact?
Joseph: Well, resisting the devil isn't a one-time thing. It's something we have to keep doing all our lives.
Leader: Absolutely right, Joseph. But what does that imply about Satan?
Joseph: He doesn't give up easily, that's for sure.
Barbara: Another way to put it is he's persistent.
Leader: Exactly! That's why a word picture for the Christian life is warfare. Let's keep unpacking this point. If Satan is persistent, how should that affect us as believers?
Mary: We need to be persistent, too. Or else we're in trouble. We won't be ready to defend against him.
Leader: Mary, you hit the bull's eye by pointing out the basic application of this fact about Satan. But I need you to be more specific. How does persistence show in the life of a Christian?
In a span of several minutes, the leader employed four impromptu, follow-up probes. The range of possible follow-up questions is broad, depending on the discussion context. Let the following examples serve as additional catalysts for your thinking.
Why do you say that?
Can you be more specific?
What else did you notice?
That term connotes different things to different people. What do you mean by it? Can you illustrate the point you're making?
Do you mean.....?
Could you rephrase your question? I want to make sure I'm tracking with you.
How does that apply to ...?
How does your answer relate to what Brad said earlier?
There's a different way leaders can respond to an individual's participation. It's a form of follow-up that tries to involve other group members in the discussion. For details, proceed to the next section.
Some discussions are nothing more than a question-and-answer dialog between the leader and one other participant. The interaction consists of a two-way conversational flow. Only one volunteer responds to a question before the leader kicks in with either commentary or the next question. Or a group member poses a question, and no one but the designated leader ever addresses it. Rarely do you hear a second participant piggyback on the initial answer someone gives. Seldom do other group members answer a question posed by a peer. It's as if they're afraid to trespass on the leader's domain of expertise.
A discerning discussion leader broadens the base of involvement--especially when a question has several possible answers, or during a brainstorming session on application ideas. She often encourages multiple responses to a question before adding her own research, or going on to the next question. When a learner asks a question, he often taps the wisdom of others by deflecting the question and redirecting it to them. The more mature and biblically-literate your study group, the more you should strive to expand learner participation.
Which visual distinguishes your Bible discussions?
Participants respond to one Two-way conversations between leader and another, not just to the one other group member. Leader is leader. Leader is a catalyst. considered the only expert in the group.
Before you supplement a group member's answer, or tackle someone's question yourself, increase involvement and interest with techniques similar to the following:
Would someone else like to address Bob's question?
What do the rest of you think?
Bob, your nonverbal signals reveal keen interest in Stan's comment. What's your reaction to what he said? (Normally, I direct a question to individuals only when their expression warrants it.)
Jenny identified an important principle in this chapter. Who can illustrate the consequences of either obeying it, or neglecting it, in our relationships?
I appreciate your transparency, Myra. Your question stems from a sincere desire to honor the Lord in that situation. Who has a biblical perspective or personal experience that can help Myra sort out her Christian responsibility in this predicament?
You've discovered that your behavior after posing a question is a hinge upon which stimulating discussions turn. Evaluate your discussion procedures in view of the eight strategies described on the last few pages. It will have the same effect as squirting WD-40 on a rusty, squeaky door hinge. You'll open the door--smoothly--to a more invigorating Bible discussion.
Even if you excel in response techniques, leading Bible discussions still isn't a piece of cake. Do you know how to foil foes such as monopolizers and tangents? How to cover controversial content? How to rescue group conversations from the threat of relativism and uninformed conclusions? Chapter 10 takes a stab at those impediments to successful interaction.
1. Myra and David Sadker, "Questioning Skills." In Classroom Teaching Skills. James M. Cooper, General Ed. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Company, 1986. Page 171.
3. Myra and David Sadker. Pages 172-73.
4. Bruce Wilkinson, Teaching With Style. (Course Workbook). Fort Mills, S.C.: Walk Thru The Bible Ministries. Page 59.