10 Ways to Help Youth Participate in Class (or Home) Discussion

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Hank Smith is a popular speaker and has several talks on CDs out for you and your youth to collect.

Hank Smith teaches in the Religious Education Department at BYU and is a favorite speaker for Especially for Youth, Best of Especially for Youth, and BYU Education Week. Hank and his wife, Sara, were both born and raised in St. George, Utah. They are the parents of one daughter and two sons.

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10 Ways to Help Youth Participate in Class Discussion

by Hank Smith

1. Give them fair warning.

I’ve found that my students are more likely to participate when I give them a heads-up that I’d like them to answer a question soon. For example I might say, “I’m going to ask a question and give you one minute to think and then I’ll give you a chance to answer.” You don’t have to fear silence because you planned for it.

2. Let them write first.

Some students feel more prepared to answer a question when they’ve written about it. At Church, this can be difficult because they aren’t in desks. Make sure there are some books or clipboards available for them to put their paper on. Tell them you want them to answer your question in 2-3 sentences and then give them the option of reading their answer. Most students won’t even look at their paper when they answer.

3. Let them call on each other.

I’ve found that my students don’t mind being called on as much if one of their peers calls on them. I’ll often ask a question and then say, “Mark is going to answer this question first and then he gets to call on anyone in the class he wants to answer.” Mark usually smiles at Lily and she knows she is going to be called on. After Lily answers, she calls on someone else. Works like a charm!

4. Start fun and easy.

If you are having trouble getting your class to talk, they may not feel like they know enough about the gospel to offer anything useful. So let them talk to you about subjects they are more confident in. You could ask them about school, seminary, friends, websites, books they’re reading, sports, etc. The Savior often used everyday tasks and objects to teach gospel principles. Find out what subjects they feel confident enough to answer and then gradually move them into the lesson.

5. Add “What do you think…?”

I’ve noticed that I get a lot more participation when I add the phrase “What do you think…” or “Why do you think…” to the beginning of my questions. I think this is because those phrases make it so there is no wrong answer. If I ask, “What did Jesus mean when he said…” the students might feel uncomfortable answering because that question sounds as if there is a right answer and a wrong answer. Instead ask, “What do you think Jesus meant when he said…” and you’ve taken the fear of giving the wrong answer away.

6. Avoid yes/no questions.

You likely won’t get a lot of discussion from yes/no questions such as “Is the temple important?” or “Is the law of chastity a good law to live?”. You can make a yes/no question so much better by changing one or two words. Instead of asking, “Is it important to be kind to our siblings?” you might ask “Why do you think it is smart to be kind to your siblings?”or “Why do you get along with some of your siblings better than others?”

7. Avoid questions that are too easy.

Some questions can be so easy that the students feel awkward answering them. For some of my students, if I were to ask, “Why is it important to read the scriptures?” it would be similar to asking, “Why is it important to breathe?” They would probably look at me like I insulted their intelligence. Instead, I might ask, “What difference has scripture study made in your life?” or “What advice would you give to someone here who doesn’t like reading the scriptures?”

8. Watch your vocabulary.

Don’t assume your students understand all the terms, phrases, and words you use. I remember teaching a lesson on sacrifice and I asked my class, “What do people forsake to go on missions?” The room was silent. Surprised, I turned and asked one of my best students and asked, “What did your brother forsake to go on a mission?” She looked at me, somewhat embarrassed and asked, “Brother Smith, what does forsake mean?” The girl next to her added, “I was just thinking that.”

9. Let them do some asking.

If you want to know what your students are thinking you might try letting them ask the questions. Hand out quarter sheets of paper and let them ask a few questions for the class to answer. You can tell them to keep their questions related to a certain subject or doctrine. Put all the questions in a bowl or hat and start answering them. When the students know they are answering a question for someone in the room they will likely give more authentic answers. If you need some prep time, do this the week before so you can preview the questions.

10. Relax.

It can be scary teaching teens, but you’ve got to relax a little bit. Often the students will respond to your nervousness by shutting down and not saying anything. If you are obviously nervous, it is okay to talk to them about it. They’ll probably be surprised and flattered that you find them so intimidating and it will likely release some of the tension. Say a silent prayer, breathe, and enjoy your students personalities, quirks, and smiles. Get to know them and allow them to get to know you. You’ll find your love for them naturally flowing out of your heart into your lesson.

4 thoughts on “10 Ways to Help Youth Participate in Class (or Home) Discussion

  1. Thank you so much for sharing these tips. I can see how tweaking the way you say something would make a world of difference. I appreciate the insights and practical application. A lot of this seems obvious once I read through it, but it doesn’t necessarily come naturally. I’m grateful for the chance to practice them and hopefully become a little better at teaching!

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