When I was young my parents would ask after church something like this: “What was your Sunday School lesson on today?” or “What did you learn about in primary/priesthood?” Many times my response was non-existent (if I wasn’t feeling particularly chatty) or as insightful as “I don’t know [remember].” There were numerous times I honestly could not remember what my lessons were about.
Fast forward many years. Just over a year ago I was teaching Nursery (one of my favorite callings ever). The Nursery manual is built around repetition, which is the only way we really learn anything. Key concepts from the lessons are reinforced over and over in the brief span of lesson time and 1 – 3 year old attentions. There is a lesson, there are songs, and there are coloring activities. I’d also try to show video clips whenever relevant. This is a form of multi-modal teaching – different ways to teach the same point with each child hopefully responding to one or more of the methods. If a child doesn’t like singing, maybe she will like the video clip or coloring. What this type of teaching does is improve the possibility that learning will occur. To supplement this, I would also ask at random throughout the time after the lesson what the lesson was about. This allows the children to try to recall the information at random times and variable spans of time, which increases learning. This is a type of variable interval reinforcement.
Yesterday I substituted teaching my daughter’s primary class. We had a nice Sacrament Meeting with the mission president and his wife speaking along with our stake president. The topic was – no surprise – missionary work. When I asked the children in class (right after Sacrament Meeting) what the talks were about, the children could not remember. This was expected because one of the children had slept through part of Sacrament Meeting and others were busy doing what little children do – coloring or playing with small toys. I wanted them to remember or learn something from Sacrament Meeting so we took 10-15 minutes to do a reinforcement activity – the ever popular (and not politically correct) Hang Man. It took a while for the kids to guess the words because of their ages but the activity was worth it because after that they remembered that Sacrament Meeting was about missionary work. I asked them a few more times after that in order to boost their memory (because they would have to retrieve the memory after a variable interval). We also sang a couple songs (or at least I did), watched a couple video clips, looked at pictures, colored pictures, and talked. Again, this is multi-modal learning and really benefits learning as long as all activities are directly related in theme. Stories also help a lot, particularly if they come from class members.
As for our lesson in class, I had them boil the lesson down to one word – love. Pulling out a key concept is important to help memory. For little children it needs to be short – love or missionary work or happiness or family. Older children, teenagers, and adults might be able to remember more but consolidation of lesson material into 3-7 words as a summary benefits memory. This means that if you have a lesson on kings of Israel or Abraham or Alma, whatever you as teacher want the class to remember about the lesson should be able to be stated in 3-7 words (and probably less than 5 realistically). So, for example: “Abrahamic Covenant” or “Wickedness never was unhappiness” or “The righteous still suffer” and so forth. This could be written on the board or on a handout and stated repeatedly (but at random intervals). Teachers can also ask the class members to summarize what the lesson is about in their own words with the encouragement that it be under 7 words. This requires thought and consolidation.
I’ll have more to write about gospel teaching and learning, particularly as the church moves forward in redoing more lesson manuals (to follow the pattern of the relatively new pattern of instructing the youth, “Come, Follow Me.”). For now, I think we could boost retention of lesson materials (particularly with children) by making sure we consolidate what our lessons are about into no more than a few words.