Bible Study that Sticks

Bible Study that Sticks

New research in cognitive psychology shows us how to help people remember what they read.

Smart phones may be smart, but they seem to be making us all dumb—distracted and forgetful. Dr. Aimee Callender, assistant professor of psychology at Auburn University, explains how small-group leaders today can help people understand the Bible better and remember what they read. It’s common in worship services for pastors to say, “Let’s open our Bibles, so pull out your phones.” What happens when people read the Bible on a phone compared to on paper?

Aimee Callender: If the text is relatively short—a few verses, or at most a chapter—there probably won’t be large differences in someone’s abilities to read the verse. But there are several disadvantages to reading a passage on a phone or tablet as opposed to in the physical Bible. To name a few, first you lose context. When you read a physical Bible you can immediately answer: Is it in the New Testament or Old Testament? What are the surrounding books? What are the surrounding chapters? When Scripture is presented on a phone, it can lose that context.

Second, you increase opportunities for distraction. Phones provide texts, e-mails, and alerts from games. Using phones, we open ourselves to distractions. As a professor, I ask my students to put their phones away. Many students view this as a punishment, but my intent is to help them focus on one thing at a time—the lecture.

We know from 50 years of research in cognitive psychology that humans are terrible at multi-tasking. The original research on “dichotic listening”—listening to two messages at once—conducted by Cherry in 1953 showed that people cannot repeat two different messages that are heard at one time. More recently, Carrier, et al. (2015) reviewed the effects of multitasking on everyday activities like learning in the classroom. Although studies differ in the effects of multitasking on memory, the consensus is that we cannot do two things at once and do either as well as if we did one thing at a time.

What goes on inside the head of someone reading the Bible?

We psychologists say that as someone reads, he or she builds “a mental representation” of what’s being read.

Let’s say we’re reading a novel about a person visiting Paris. We create in our mind a mental representation: what Paris looks like, where the person went, how long it took them to travel to different places, and a timeline of what happened. According to researchers like Walter Kintsch (1998), this initial representation can be made based solely on what is written in the text.

Consider, though, a reader who spent a lot of time in Paris—her mental representation will be richer. She may know all of the locations and their sights, sounds, and smells.

We have the same issue when reading the Bible. There is a lot of information written in the text, but there is also a lot of information that is assumed and not explicitly stated. Because many people lack the knowledge about the physical and historical context, it is often difficult for them to understand the passage.

Can you give an example of how someone’s lack of prior knowledge can lead to misunderstanding?

Take Philippians 4:13, for example. In some translations (e.g., NIV), the verse states, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” What does “this” refer to? Who does the word “him” refer to? Some people might think, Of course the “him” in this verse refers to Christ. But for someone who may have less knowledge about the Bible, this may need to be explicitly stated.

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