top of page

Teaching that forges faith habits

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

by Muriel and Duane Elmer, authors of The Learning Cycle. Insights for Faithful Teaching from Neuroscience and the Social Sciences, IVP, 2020.

What does it mean when we say we have learned something? Why do we forget so much of the information we are taught in church? Why do we see so little evidence of our beliefs in our daily practice? Could it be that how teachers teach, is not necessarily how adult learners learn?

The Learning Cycle explains how to teach with the brain in mind, so learners are more likely to ground their behavior in biblical truth. We offer teaching strategies that respect recent scientific findings on learning, contribute to sustaining faith habits which strengthen character and build Christlikeness. These strategies help teachers teach for deep learning that transforms minds, emotions and lifestyles.

Recent neuroscience findings illuminate what happens in the brain during learning. The fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) allows researchers to determine which parts of the brain are active (or inactive) when confronted with information. For example, once it was believed that feelings were contained only in one part of the brain. But, when a young man is shown a picture of his girlfriend, the fMRI tended to register activity in 12 parts of the brain! Since then, we’ve discovered that positive emotions are a necessary component of all learning.

What does this mean for you when you teach or lead a Bible study?

The learning cycle: the five levels of learning

We have taught the five levels of learning to groups in many global contexts. About 10 years ago, neuroscience yielded important scientific support for each level of this model, prompting us to write this book for the benefit of the church. Consistent faith habits will grow character, integrity, wisdom and ultimately Christlikeness. Please note that every level of the learning cycle is grounded in recall, remembering the truth.

Level I recall – I remember the truth

Researchers describe three memory stages: short-term-memory, working-memory and long-term-memory. Most of what occurs in the classroom or sermon generally enters the short-term-memory — a good beginning but doesn’t yield long-term results. So how do we ensure long-term results? By prompting information (scripture, sermons) to enter working-memory. And how does that happen? We will see. But our ultimate goal is not even working-memory, it is long-term-memory. Why is long-term-memory so important? Because only what settles in long-term-memory will produce stable beliefs, sustainable behaviors and character development — Christlikeness.

Bible teachers tend to emphasize knowing the truth. It’s done as a claim to excellence. Being able to recall and explain a biblical passage is important. But scripture always defines excellence differently; faithfulness to God and service to church and humanity. “It is required of a steward that he be found faithful...” (I Cor. 4:2) Thus, being able to recall and explain God’s word is the means to an end, not the end. Faithfulness is.

If a truth is to be retained by listeners, it must do two things. It must make sense and it must have meaning. Making sense suggests that listeners understand and can faithfully repeat in their own words what was said. Want to test this idea? Call some people on Monday and ask them to summarize the Sunday sermon in one or two sentences. It can be discouraging. Here are two ideas that might help: before the benediction, have the listeners write on their bulletins (or speak to their neighbor) a one-sentence summary of the sermon. This brief activity engages their brains. It also moves information from short-term-memory into early stages of working-memory. Or you might suggest everyone share their thought around the dinner table. Activities like this stimulate the brain and grow the neural pathway. Working-memory is now more robust. The more often the thought is rehearsed, the stronger the neural pathway becomes. Rehearsing the thought helps people reflect on what God was saying and increases the probability of that truth entering their long-term-memory where it affects beliefs, behaviors and character.

Meaning refers to a connection the sermon makes with the present or past experiences of the listeners. Information is meaningful when it raises memories stored in other parts of the brain. Typically, our brains don’t register information not connected to our reality. So, making references to the worlds of your listeners will help to engage their brains. But there is more. When you make that meaningful connection, the Holy Spirit can use that connection to convict, encourage or prompt toward action.

There are more ways to make material memorable and life-changing. Research on retention, what we remember, reveals several facts. First, the brain is most alert at the start of the sermon/class. Therefore, don’t waste time. Jump in with some interesting material. Second, fMRIs also reveal that listeners’ focus gradually decreases and by the16-18 minute mark they tend to “drop out.” The brain is processing little or nothing. That lull lasts approximately 8-10 minutes before they re-engage.

What does an alert teacher do? To stop the decline in retention, ask a question, even a rhetorical one, to re-capture attention. Experts tell us that questions hijack the brain so our brains immediately begin searching for an answer. An illustration does the same. A story engages more parts of the brain than virtually any other approach. A simple technique at the right time “resets” our brains and attention returns for another 15 or so minutes.

Level II recall with appreciation – I value the truth

Most of us have had favorite subjects and favorite teachers. Emotions are the gatekeeper to learning. Negative feelings hinder, even stop learning. fMRIs show that when learners feel positive toward the teacher and environment, the rational, thinking part of their brain is receptive and active. When learners feel fear, anxiety or boredom in the classroom, rational activity virtually disappears.

It’s simple. A positive attitude advances better learning. If one teacher is a favorite, analyze why. Is it the teacher? The subject? Something else? More importantly, how does the emotional state of your learners affect your teaching? Or your Bible study? How people feel either opens or closes the learning gate. You are the key. The quality of the relationships you nurture will make the difference.

When teaching, strive for two kinds of credibility: competence and safety. Careful preparation equips you for the first — competency. But safety is just as important. Do people feel safe with you? Do they trust you? That includes respect, concern, encouragement. Does the Imago Dei drive your relationships? Honoring each as a bearer of God’s own image and affirming their dignity builds safety and credibility.

Level III recall with speculation – I ponder how to use the truth

How can we foster Christlikeness? To speculate means pondering what I should do as a result of some truth. When God uses a sermon or Bible study to impress something on me, the next question should not be, “How nice to know this,” but, “So what? What difference should this truth make?” Too often we teachers simply do not raise the “So what?” question to prompt further thought.