Bible Study that Sticks

Bible Study that Sticks

New research in cognitive psychology shows us how to help people remember what they read.
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If Bible study depends so much on prior knowledge about context, we’re in trouble. These days, even in the Bible Belt, people are often biblically illiterate. What can small-group leaders do?

Part of biblical illiteracy is a lack of exposure to the Bible. Encouraging people (not condemning them) to read it can help. Giving people a guidebook to the Bible can help as well. I think a lot of people are intimidated and unsure where to start with the Bible.

Leaders should also provide context. People have read or heard isolated passages but don’t understand what they have to do with each other. For example, I’ve seen daily Bible reading schedules that give an Old Testament verse, a Psalm, and a New Testament verse, but the connection between them is not obvious or even there. It’s best to show the narrative of the Bible and how the isolated passage fits within the larger narrative. We intuitively understand narratives—we know how stories unfold—so if a small-group leader can put the Scripture within the larger narrative, that helps.

When we read narratives, we naturally extract the relational aspects of the text—we are able to understand how it all fits together (McDaniel, Hines & Guynn, 2002). Think about the last novel you read: you probably didn’t have to exert much effort to follow the story line. If you were to read that same novel by reading one paragraph at a time from different chapters, however, it would be difficult to understand the narrative.

So how can small-group leaders find out what mental representation is in the mind of a group member?

The only way is to ask the person. You might say, “Describe your understanding of the passage.”

One problem I’ve seen in Bible studies is no one says anything when the leader asks a question. This could be due to a number of reasons, but, most likely, people are worrying more about what others think about them than about the question.

How do we overcome that reluctance to speak?

One simple technique I use with students is think-pair-share. First, I ask them to write something down (think), discuss it with the person next to them (pair), and then share it with the group or class. The technique works because writing allows someone to think through the question without the fear of venturing an answer in front of other people. Also, sharing the answer with one person is a lot less intimidating than sharing it with the group, even if the group is only six or eight people.

Will adults in Bible studies remember the content more if they take notes?

Anything that forces people to articulate their thoughts is going to be better than just thinking about it. For example, recent research by Mueller and Oppenhiemer (2014) showed that writing notes by hand (as opposed to typing) improved performance on conceptual questions. Why? Typing is automatic; we can do it more quickly than writing by hand, and almost without thinking. Forcing a person to slow down and write can help him or her process more of what he or she is thinking.

—Dr. Aimee Callender an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Auburn University. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Washington University in St. Louis. Her research interests are centered on using what cognitive psychologists have learned in the laboratory and applying those principles to improve educational practice.

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