Mistakes Bible Teachers Make - Ineffective Questions

Teaching the Bible in a relatively small, somewhat informal setting provides unique advantages and blessing for both students and teachers. The spontaneity and interaction can often turn the class into a collaborative effort to edify and encourage one another, and no matter how high his level of expertise, the teacher is often edified as much as anyone else.

But there are many ways to reduce the effectiveness of this teaching format. Well-intentioned teachers can easily discourage participation, focus, and thoughtful engagement—in some cases to the point that everyone is discouraged and frustrated rather than built-up and refueled.

We’ll consider some common mistakes teachers make with this kind of teaching, focusing for now on question-related problems.

Assuming the topic and text(s) are well chosen, the most important ingredient in interactive, discussion-oriented teaching is high quality questions. Scripture provides abundant precedent for using questions as a teaching tool, from as far back as Eden (Gen. 3:9-11), to Jesus’ teaching methods (Matt. 6:27, Matt. 16:9, Matt. 22:20, Luke 24:17, and so many more), to Paul’s letters (Gal. 3:1-2, Rom. 8:31-33, etc.). But not all questions are created equal.

To evaluate the quality of our questions, we need to consider a question: Why do Jesus, Paul, et al. ask a lot of questions?

  • First, questions create mental tension; they make us think, often even when we’d rather not.
  • Second, questions invite interaction, turning the learning process into an experiential and relational phenomenon.

A student who is receiving a lecture is basically downloading information. A student who is answering questions, is experiencing information through a personal connection.

What we teachers want, in this teaching format, is for students to think and talk—in a word, to engage. With those goals in mind, questions commonly fail in five ways.

1. The question is too hard.

It’s especially important early in the lesson, to ask questions that students can respond to with very little personal investment, either in risk of embarrassment or in hard thinking. The harder questions can come a bit later. “Can anyone give me a Scripture verse about usury?” Will not get most classes talking—or thinking either. “How do we know the Mormons are wrong about the deity of Christ?” would be another daunting opener. If you want to invite the crickets to chirp, hit your students with hard question right out of the gate.

Some questions are too difficult for out-loud responses even much later in the lesson, but at least by then, the class has been engaging in the study for a while. They’ll forgive it; but they still won’t talk much.

Confession: I think I still ask overly hard questions fairly often—but if a teacher is going to err, it’s better to ask a too-hard question than to commit the next mistake.

2. The question is too easy (or too boring).

Students also don’t respond well to questions with extremely obvious answers. In the right context, this kind of question can be effective in provoking thought, as in when Jesus asks for a coin and says, “Who’s likeness and inscription is this?” What makes this question work is that it occurs in the context of an intriguing question that preceded it. Jesus has also trained His audiences to expect that He’ll use answers to obvious questions to bring them to surprising (and to those with ears to hear, insightful) conclusions.

Without an interesting context, students are reluctant to speak up in response to questions like these. All they’re likely to be thinking is, “Well, duh.” Maybe they feel a bit insulted and bored as well.

This is where a teacher’s agility becomes so important. No matter how hard we try, questions we thought were well chosen and well crafted will sometimes turn out to be harder than we expected, or easier than we thought. Through practice, teachers can learn to quickly pivot, re-asking the question in an easier, or more challenging, form—or discarding it completely for a different one.

3. The question requires mind-reading.

Some experts categorically reject this kind of question under the heading of “leading questions,” but that’s a bit beside the point. In a well-prepared lesson, all the questions are leading questions, in the sense that there is a direction the teacher wants the class to go with their thinking and their discussion.

The mind-reading question, though, is a real problem. The teacher has a specific point he wants to make and uses a question to try to get a student to make it—but he hasn’t provided enough information, or structured the question in such a way as to make that likely (or, in some cases, even possible). He might say, “What’s important for us to know about faith in the Christian life?” hoping to hear, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” The problem is that there are dozens of good ways to answer a question like that, and the chances of students getting the right one without the embarrassment of several “wrong” answers first are slim.

I’ve occasionally seen a teacher, by his responses to students’ answers, train them to remain silent. This was not the teacher’s intention, but he continually asked vague questions, expecting very specific answers—and courteously, but still clearly, expressed dissatisfaction with “wrong” answers.

4. The questions are all the same.

Humans need variety. Since God has designed our brains to respond to extreme danger, extreme delight, and everything in between, the desire for variety in what we receive from teachers isn’t “unspiritual”—it’s evidence we’re alive and functioning as intended.

Our students’ innate need for variety means that we teachers are not indulging our students when we plan lessons with intentional variety in them. To be sure, there are trade-offs. Lessons can be the spiritual and mental equivalent of s’mores by the campfire—lots of flavor and energy but no substance … what the FDA used to call “low nutrient per calorie density food”!

But our lessons can also be the spiritual and mental equivalent of unsalted, unbuttered, boiled spinach cooled to room temperature. Sure, it’s good for you, but can we really blame anyone for their lack of appetite for it?

Questions can be varied in many ways:

  • Open-ended vs. closed/focused (“Tell us a bit about Abraham, Sarai, and Hagar” vs. “Who’s idea was it for Abraham to father a child with Hagar?”)
  • Long answer vs. short answer vs. physical response (“How would you sum up the story of Jonah in a couple of sentences?” vs. “What did Jonah do when he got to Nineveh?” vs. “How many of you have known the story of Jonah since you were a small child?” (show of hands))
  • Subjective/opinion vs. factual (“Why do think David was so angry at Nabal?” vs. “What are some things Scripture tells us God hates?”)
  • Fill in the blank (“You probably know the old saying: ‘Haste makes … ‘” Note: This kind of question will almost always get an audible response from half or more of the class … if they’re awake.)
  • Multiple choice (“Did God say Job was right, his friends were right, or none of the above?”)
  • Brainstorming (“Who are some people in the Bible who have surprise encounters with God?” (Multiple short answers, best listed using some visual medium)
  • True or false (“OK class, true or false: Jonah was full of compassion for the lost.” Note: This is one way to get away with asking a question that would normally be too easy, and still get good participation. People expect T/F questions to be easy.)
  • “Trick” questions (“Did Job suffer because he sinned or because Satan wanted him to suffer?” Note: This sort of question is rarely a good idea but under the right conditions, it’s just the thing.)

The “pooled ignorance question” is intentionally omitted here (“What does this verse mean to you?”). This question not only invites wild speculation but also validates the idea that we can read whatever meaning we like into the text! Better: “How do you see this verse applying to you?” or, “What are some ways this verse has challenged or encouraged you?”

5. The question is poorly executed.

A good question is poorly executed when it’s unclear, badly timed, or overly verbose. But it’s also poorly executed if we, as teachers, respond ineffectively to our students’ answers. Here’s a few examples:

  • Treating answers to subjective questions as though they were fact questions. “Why do you think … ?” and “What do you think …?” questions cannot have wrong answers.
  • Treating a good answer like a bad one because it wasn’t the answer you were looking for (See “mind-reading questions” above.)
  • Treating an incorrect answer to factual question as though it had no merit at all. Smoothly redirecting these is an art form. Volumes could be written! Often there is something correct mixed in with the incorrect, and the teacher can focus on that. Sometimes it works fine to say something like, “That seems reasonable, doesn’t it? But can it fit with verse 5?”
  • Slow-motion brainstorming. Stopping to lecture at length on each response to a brainstorming question takes all the momentum out of the exercise. Brainstorming works best with almost no comment at all between answers, though an occasional followup question (“Tell me more about what you’re thinking on that”) can be helpful.

Questions are powerful teaching tools, even in less interactive environments. But in the small, informal, conversational setting, well-prepared and well-executed questions aren’t merely golden; they’re enriched uranium.

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There are 14 Comments

Larry Nelson's picture

 

The setting: Small IFB church.  I'm in my teens.  Guest preacher.  He's from the South.

-------------------------

I don't remember the Bible passage or the context, but the point he was trying to make (I think) was that most people would prefer to not be poor.  Looking around the room, he decided to test that theory:

"You (pointing at me), would you rather be the son of a rich man, or a black man?" (Verbatim.)

I more-or-less grimaced.  I remember exactly what I said: "Is the black man rich?"

Awkward pause.  He glared at me, but moved on.

Inherent in his question were:

  • "rich man" = white man
  • "black man" = poor man 

I've since wondered if he'd preached that same sermon elsewhere, and gotten any response(s) to his liking.

Jonathan Charles's picture

Good advice. Good, planned questions produce good discussion.  The problem I've experienced is when class members think "We do discussion in this class," so they tend to ask questions that have nothing to do with the text under consideration.  I've yet to find a way to say that nicely, I just try to answer such questions quickly and get back on track. 

Bert Perry's picture

It can easily fall into the category of a question that is too hard, but one thing that really works well, IMO, is to specifically ask the unexpected question--the little nuance in the text that most people will just blow by.  In teaching at a nursing home last weekend, for example, I noted regarding Matthew 5:13-16 that when Jesus refers to God the Father as His Father, and the Father of His hearers, He's doing something that the Old Testament really doesn't do often--I could only find parallels in Isaiah and Malachi.  It says a lot about the character of God, I think. 

M. Osborne's picture

If you can execute well (e.g., put the options on a white board), this kind of question can generate good discussion.

Which of these sentences best summarizes Genesis 22 (sacrifice of Isaac), and why?

  1. Obey, no matter how irrational the command.
  2. Obey your parents.
  3. God will provide.
  4. Is your all on the altar?

It forces the class to find reasons in the text, but sets some boundaries so they don't have to generate a summary on their own.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Aaron Blumer's picture

The problem of answers/comments that are off topic... I've found that this often happens because something about my question was a bit unclear. So sometimes, the off topic answer reflects what multiple people are thinking. Either way, I usually try to

  • Find something to sincerely appreciate in the student's answer, then repeat the question for some more responses.
  • Another tac is to find something in the answer that I can relate to the topic/original question and use that to segue back
  • Depending on who it is, sometimes I go with it and stray from the topic. The "who" factor is a clue as to whether this is probably something a lot of people are thinking but not saying... So if there is strong interest in something a little tangential, why not use that? Would be bad to wander far afield every class, but sometimes it a great teaching opportunity to leverage strong interest that's already there.
    (But I've had a few classes where there was one individual who was always thinking in a nonlinear way... and something kind of "out there" was guaranteed. The class appreciated a quick response, then moving back to the subject at hand.)
     
Aaron Blumer's picture

Larry Nelson wrote:

"You (pointing at me), would you rather be the son of a rich man, or a black man?" (Verbatim.)

Terrible indeed. A couple of things on that, aside from the negative stereotyping.

First, I personally almost never single out an individual then fire a question at them. I don't like it when teachers do that to me, so I don't do it myself either. But it's not just that. I also don't do it well. In a school classroom setting (six years of that), I do it more, but even there it always seems kind of awkward for me. I've seen it done well, but I haven't figured out what I'm doing wrong yet. Smile

Second, some folks don't know how to look at anything from another person's point of view... or don't care to. This is a skill of the imagination and goes hand in hand w/basic empathy. Speakers who connect well w/audiences have their POV imagination in high gear through the whole thing, picking up on audience queues and adapting. ... and they wouldn't dream of asking a question they know will only offend for no good reason.

Bert Perry's picture

I've found that one can "single out" a young person as long as it's clear you're not out to embarrass him.  In fact, it can be extremely helpful in keeping the whole class "in tune" with the lesson.  Practicing this with one's family during Bible time can be really helpful, too.  People have, I believe, a high tolerance for being wrong if they know it's "safe" to be wrong.

One other thought is that it can be incredibly helpful to ask the question in an unexpected way, as it can get around the "framework" that we often use for theology; the pastor learned it this way in Bible college, we memorize his Biblical theology notes and call it a day.  If it's done well, it is of course sound theology, but what's missing is the process by which the students arrive at that theology.  Asking the question a different way shakes up that process.

(comment inspired by some doctrinal statements by pastoral candidates that seem to be cut & pasted from their notes from Biblical theology class)

Aaron Blumer's picture

I'm generally more interested in building frameworks than in tearing them down, but agree that the interpretive process is important. "Teach a man how to fish."

My favorite question for that objective....  "Why?"

But there's a tradeoff there for all of us: nobody has time to personally re-examine all of their beliefs at once. And many are not equipped with the skills to really do that. The truth is that we all take a significant amount of what we believe from leaders we trust. In the maturing process, this is where we all start, then learn more direct self-feeding, so to speak, later.

In most venues I've been in over the last couple of decades, there was a great need for systematic teaching of both doctrine and sound interpretation. But lacking the time to do both, I've generally focused on the former in hopes that my interpretive process is transparent enough that those ready for it can also pick up much of the latter along the way.

(I've done a couple of series on "How to Study the Bible" and "Garage Hermeneutics." But these require at least 8 weeks and it's been a while since I had big of a chunk of time. Kind of itching to do it again though.)

Ed Vasicek's picture

After 38 years of ministry, I realize my teaching is in a rut when it comes to questions.  This is a great reminder!

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture

Questions are hard. This is how I do Sunday School. I always struggle to create questions and drive discussion in a profitable direction, while trying desperately to cover the material I have for the week, lest we get bogged down and forget what's happening in the context. Very hard to do Q&A well. I'm not sure I do a very good job.

People are very different. Some will never respond or participate, others aren't interested in deep thought and will sit there bored, and others always want to talk about deep things.

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Aaron Blumer's picture

What you've described is pretty consistent with my experience as well-- that is, there are some common audience-member profiles:

  • The ready contributor: pretty consistently has something to say, and it's usually something helpful
  • The windbag: always something to say, seldom something helpful
  • The attentive lurker: never speaks up, but is always keenly interested in every bit of what's happening
  • The mystery seat warmer: gives every evidence of not caring about any of it... the mystery is why they are there. Smile
  • The gold nuggets contributor: rarely speaks up but when she/he does, I'm thinking, "That's pretty much a whole SS lesson worth right there. Let's quit while we're ahead"
  • The high velocity ricochet contributor: Speaks up somewhat regularly, usually with a lot of energy, usually in a seemingly completely random direction.
  • The push-back contributor: Speaks up somewhat regularly, but usually only to disagree in some way. (It's been a long time since I had one of these. Looking back, they were always pretty puzzling. There was not much consistency to their views on things other than disagreeing.)
  • The wild card: seems to take on all the roles above at different times; always a surprise.

I don't try to involve everybody, just those who are willing. But I want to feed everybody who's interested and attentive. Those who aren't can go ahead and warm a chair or sleep. Doesn't matter to me much.It's their choice.

(In a school setting, I work more at engaging the reluctant, but not a whole lot more. At the high school level, if they choose to waste the opportunity, it's their loss--as long as they don't interfere with those who want to learn.)

Aaron Blumer's picture

I have to credit a couple of guys for what skills I do have with questioning... and still aspire to:

  • John Barnett was my student teaching supervisory teacher (or whatever the term was) at Bob Jones Academy back in college days. He was all about Q & A in those days and pushed me a good bit to get out of the comfort zone of straight lecturing (and convinced me as well of the practical benefits: bored students are discipline/classroom-control problems; engaged students are multipliers of your teaching impact.)
  • Howard Hendricks -- Barnett had me listen to a series of recordings of H. Hendricks (of Dallas Theo. Sem.) to see if I'd catch the passion to communicate/the knack. It was was a highly influential exercise. I'd already caught the bug, but H.H. was a master and an inspiration.
  • Youth pastors/volunteers -- Sat under several of these as a teen, and some of them were very good at Q at A.
  • A fair number of skilled school teachers I've had the opportunity to observe -- Much of this translates well to the adult church class setting.
  • Seminary profs - several of them were good at QA also. Oddly enough, the best might have been the one I disagreed with the most. I might have been the "push back contributor" in that class!

Much appreciate how all of these and others have helped me get better at the art.

Greg Long's picture

Great stuff, Aaron. The hardest thing for me when asking questions is to not be afraid of silence. We often forget that it takes a few seconds for people to process the question and formulate an answer. Well, it takes some people more than a few seconds...and then there are the people who think silence is bad so they jump right in and start talking even though they haven't really thought it through yet...

Anyway, we teachers must be careful not to answer our own questions if we don't get an answer or the right answer right away.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Aaron Blumer's picture

Yes, moving on too fast is another way to botch the execution. Silence feels so unnatural, though.
Sometimes, if it looks like people are mulling it over, I just repeat or rephrase the question to fill the silence but still give it more time.

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