Teaching Approaches and Learning Styles

Teaching Approaches and Learning Styles
Row of desks in a classroom

This article is based on a presentation coauthored by Ken Boa and Bill Ibsen.

[lead]The greatest teaching methods of all time can be found in Scripture. [/lead] While there are many creative and effective approaches to teaching, here we will consider seven foundational approaches, all used by Jesus in the Gospels.

These methods are valuable to anyone, not only educators, because they are important to strong communication. And being good communicators is critical to life because it is the key to all relationships, both with God and with other people.

These methods are valuable to anyone, not only educators, because they are important to strong communication.

Having a variety of communication methods allows you to adapt the presentation of your message to the format most suited to a given audience and situation. Every teaching method described below is completely effective in the right situation, yet each has its weaknesses. There is no “silver-bullet” teaching method, and a good teacher will resist the temptation to rigidly follow a single approach. Rather, strong teachers and communicators mix and match approaches within a primary approach (adapted to their personal style).

If you’re a preacher, mentor, or teacher of any kind, have fun experimenting with these approaches, keeping in mind that if you enjoy the lesson, those in your audience (students/parishioners/mentees) are more likely to mirror that enthusiasm.

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Watch! This material is presented in Ken Boa’s five-part video series on “Teaching Methods” (presented during his Wednesday Men’s Morning Fellowship, from November 2017 to January 2018). [vector_icon icon=”fas fa-video” color=”#dd9933″]

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Approach #1: Lecture

A lecture can be simply defined as “telling the truth,” that is, for one person to verbalize information to others. It is to engage in a monologue that speaks truth to the audience in the most efficient, logical, organized manner.

A lecture in itself is neither boring nor exciting; the way it’s delivered makes the difference. If you look up the word “lecture” in a thesaurus, you’ll find that the synonyms don’t convey boredom. They simply mean “to communicate.” Dry and boring is a function of style, not method. One way to keep a lecture from getting boring is to plan plenty of attention-getters, as well as a lot of variety in your presentation.

World’s Most Famous Lecture

Matthew 5 begins,

When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them … (verses 1–2).

Thus began the world’s most famous lecture in history, also known as the Sermon on the Mount. In this clear example of a lecture, Jesus’ teaching dominated, with the Master Teacher speaking truth to multitudes. Notice that this sermon was quite long, running for several pages in most Bibles. But you can bet that not a single person sitting through it was bored! Note, too, that lectures can be interrupted for the occasional question, or highlighted by another method at appropriate places.

[toggle title=”More on Lectures”]Benefits of Lectures: Incremental Learning and the “Big Picture”

Lecture provides a means for incremental learning—i.e., learning through bite-sized pieces, repetition, and application. Unlike an unpredictable, meandering discussion, which may be limited by the student’s level of exposure to the subject, with lecture, the teacher can properly lay the foundation or framework and in logical sequence.

Further, lecture has the advantage of allowing the teacher to begin with the big (global) picture, before zooming in on the subject. The communicator of the information has control over the rate and type of information flow to the students.

In a lecture, a clear thesis or premise is necessary to provide the glue that holds the pieces of information together.

Sometimes students need nothing more than a good lecture! As in the process of normal life, there are times when a very direct monologue is required for the fastest, most direct transmission of information. For example, when a child runs out into the street in harm’s way of an approaching car, the situation does not call for regaling the child with a long story about a child who was unwittingly hit by a car, nor is it a time for discussion about the wisdom of the behavior. Controlled, direct, clear information transfer is required (and in this case very brief information!).[/toggle]

[panel style=”default” title=”Lectures, in Summary” text_align=”left”]- Teacher does the talking (but may be interspersed with questions and interaction)
– Direct and efficient
– Not automatically boring; style determines whether a lecture is exciting or dull
– The most common method for curriculum development and presentation[/panel]

Approach #2: Stories

While lectures may be the most efficient means of teaching, stories are often the most effective for people of all ages, in all places. Never underestimate the power of story.

Essentially, stories are a way to find truth in life. Stories are easy to listen to and fun to think about. What’s more, they sink an idea deep into the listener’s heart, often in an easily memorable way. Stories stick.

The Parables of Jesus

And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow …” (Matthew 13:3)

Nobody knew how to tell a story like Jesus. We recall them as parables—stories Jesus made up to illustrate significant truths. On one occasion, when large crowds of people were gathered to hear Him, He wanted to convey the truths of the kingdom of God. But instead of straight lecture, Jesus used stories to make His points:

Parables were the story form Jesus used most often. The word “parable” is from two Greek words, para and bole, which together mean “to throw alongside.” A parable was a story “thrown alongside” a truth to illustrate it. Parables served at least two primary purposes in Jesus’ teaching ministry:

  1. A story provided a frame of reference for the truth presented.
  2. A story caused thought, separating those who were hungry for truth from those who weren’t.

LikeThis four-letter word is all that is needed to convey the essence of storytelling. It’s the word Jesus used repeatedly in Matthew 13 when trying to communicate truths about his Father’s world: “The kingdom of heaven is like …” he said, over and over. You and I use the word “like” in daily conversation often. You cast one thing alongside another to make something clearer.

[toggle title=”More on Stories”]Stories Stick

Just think of the stories you remember from 10, 20, 30, or more years ago (depending on your age now)—stories stick! Sometimes you think you understand a principle from the Scriptures, but when you hear a good story illustrating it, you understand it better. Stories paint a verbal picture or perhaps a verbal movie that helps students “see” a point. Not only that, but stories help you reflect and ruminate on the meaning since they tend to be so easy to remember compared to a list of raw facts.

Another reason stories are so effective is that people can see themselves in the stories and relate to them. They connect themselves to a story and therefore internalize it.

Stories are also effective because they can be actual, real-life testimonies about your own experience, as opposed to mere theory.

Lastly, if a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a word picture can paint ideas in such a way that literally brings the concepts to life . . . real life. As such, stories can bring hard truths right under the person’s radar and make a direct hit straight into the heart. This was certainly true when the prophet Nathan told King David the story about the wealthy man who had many sheep, yet stole a little ewe lamb from a poor man who had only that dear ewe lamb. David got drawn into the obvious injustice of the matter, so when Nathan gave his four-word indictment, “You are the man!” David unambiguously understood Nathan’s point and that he was without excuse.

Clarence Day said, “Information’s pretty thin stuff unless mixed with experience.” Story brings the realness of life to facts and data, making them thick and clearly visible.[/toggle]

[panel style=”default” title=”Stories, in Summary” text_align=”left”]- Perhaps the most powerful teaching approach for people of all ages, times, and places.
– Carry truth from the library to life and back again; makes an abstract idea concrete, or real, in the heart of the listener (saying, “See, here is what this truth is like …”)
– Enables listeners to connect to a lesson and internalize it either consciously or subconsciously.
– Make truths easily memorable and can fly in “under the radar” while someone’s guard is down
– Often used by Jesus, most notably through His parables[/panel]

Approach #3: Visual Aid

As helpful as stories are for painting word pictures, they may not tell as much as a visual aid can. Whereas lectures tell the truth, and stories find truth in life, visual aids picture the truth.

Visual aids teach in a way that words can’t. A scene of three people escaping a stampede of a herd of zebras is far easier to show than to tell or describe with words.

Perhaps it’s because we’re surrounded by online imagery, and because so many grow up watching hours of television and movies, that visuals work so well; it is the way we’re accustomed to learning. We’ve moved from being an oral culture, to a written culture, to a visual culture.

“Things seen are mightier than things heard,” said the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, about the power of visual aids. Words may not do justice to describe beauty and majesty, the surreal or the eerie, or the thrilling.

Jesus’ Illustrations

Jesus used a lot of illustrations based on agriculture because He lived in a primarily agrarian society. He knew people would relate to it, so that’s how He communicated many of His points. We see Him use this technique in many parables, including the parable of the sower (also called the parable of the soils) in Mark 4:3–20.

Jesus didn’t limit His teaching methods to either visual or auditory. On His final night with His disciples before His crucifixion, He passed through vineyards after leaving the upper room to go to the Mount of Olives. Stopping to use the elements of the vineyard—vines, branches, and fruit—as a visual aid, Jesus showed the disciples that they had to remain in Him if they were to bear spiritual fruit. He said:

I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. … I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. (John 15:1–2, 5)

Several other examples of His teaching by visual aid are:

  • “Observe how the lilies of the field grow …” (Matthew 6:28)
  • “Look at the birds of the air …” (Matthew 6:26)
  • “Show Me the coin use for the poll-tax …” (Matthew 22:19)

[toggle title=”More on Visual Aids”]“It’s Like This …”: Object Lessons

Just as a story is a verbal comparison or illustration of a truth, so a visual object or presentation is a physical comparison or illustration. This is what Jesus was doing in the last example above. Here’s the lesson he went on to make:

Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax. … Whose likeness and inscription is this? … Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22:19–21)

When you show students something visually, you are saying, “It’s like this object you can see …” Rather than try to describe something few people have ever seen, such as the predictable pattern of flares released from a C-17 military aircraft caused by the vortex from the engines, it’s far easier and more efficient to simply show angel’s wings and say that the pattern is like a smoke angel.

Film Clips Bring Lessons to Life

I often teach using film clips as a visual aid. For example, I have used The Shawshank Redemption to illustrate the abstract concept of hope and City Slickers to teach on the trauma of a mid-life crisis. I always set up the clip by giving a brief background on the film for those who haven’t seen it, or for those who have seen it but may not remember the details. These kinds of teaching aids can leverage humor to (appropriately) lighten the mood in addition to making a point.[/toggle]

[panel style=”default” title=”Visual Aids, in Summary” text_align=”left”]- Picture the truth, without words, through illustrations from people’s lives and experiences
– Help students see your point and remember it
– Can be two-dimensional (e.g., a film clip or a picture) or three-dimensional (e.g., an object)
– Jesus frequently taught this way, often using agricultural illustrations (familiar to His listeners)[/panel]

Approach #4: Question & Answer

As helpful as visual aids are for showing truth, they are no substitute for stimulating students to think for themselves. In addition, none of the methods so far assure a teacher that students are indeed learning, since students have not had the chance to verbalize their thoughts. This is where the fourth teaching approach comes into play.

Whereas visual aids help students picture the truth, question and answer (Q&A) helps students clarify the truth. This approach is also known as the Socratic method, since Socrates taught his students in large part through his leading questions.

I frequently use the Q&A approach in my group Bible studies. I’ll ask a question to make the students think—and defend what they believe—sometimes playing “devil’s advocate.”

Jesus’ Constant Questions

Jesus used questions constantly, especially in interacting with those who opposed Him. On one occasion, He answered a question intended to trap Him with another question. Here’s the exchange:

The chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?” (Matthew 21:23–25a)

In this situation, as in so many others when He used questions, Jesus’ questions forced people to think.

[toggle title=”More on Q&A”]Self-Discovery

Instead of spoon-feeding people by giving the immediate answer, Jesus often asked the right questions to help people come up with the answers themselves. In this way, He demonstrated the “self-discovery” benefit of a Q&A teaching method. It’s often far more meaningful and memorable to discover something on our own, as opposed to having someone tell us that same fact. For some of us, self-discovery is the way we learn best, although it can also be a “hard” way to learn. That’s why an old farmer told his son, “Boy, if you ain’t smart, you better be tough.”

Asking Good Questions

Questions often arise out of the moment. An important part of teaching with style is developing a “feel” for asking the right questions spontaneously, meeting the needs of the moment.

The simplest but most profound rule for creating questions is to avoid asking questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Use the five W’s and H—who, what, why, when, where, and how—to transform simple questions into thought-provokers requiring longer answers.[/toggle]

[panel style=”default” title=”Q&A, in Summary” text_align=”left”]- Clarifies truth and beliefs through interactive questioning
– Also known as the Socratic method, stimulates thought and self-discovery
– Can be spontaneously interwoven with lecture and other approaches
– Good questions ask who, what, why, when, where, and how
– Jesus often used Q&A to teach, especially with His enemies[/panel]

Approach #5: Discussion

As effective as Q&A is for stimulating thought and self-discovery, it’s no substitute for pooling the experience, intellect, and resources of others. This is where discussion comes in. In this approach, the goal is to find the truth together. Discussion leverages the brainpower and insight of a group of people, instead of just one.

Discussions, even structured debates, have been one of the best teaching methods for me as long as I moderate, insist on courtesy and fairness, help clarify meanings, and act as a referee when things get a little too “exciting.”

“While They Were Talking and Discussing”

Jesus taught by discussion. After He had risen from the dead, two of His followers were discussing the astonishing events surrounding His crucifixion. Jesus joined them on the road to Emmaus, hiding His identity at first:

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them. … And He said to them, “What are these words that you are exchanging with one another as you are walking?” And they stood still, looking sad. … Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. (Luke 24:15, 17, 27)

In this setting, two discussions took place. First, the disciples on the road discussed events they didn’t understand; namely, the crucifixion of Christ. Second, when Christ joined them, He inquired about their discussion and joined in. Instead of starting a lecture, He ate supper with them and continued the talk, clarifying what they didn’t understand.

[toggle title=”More on Discussion”]Benefits of Discussion

Discussion clarifies the material and increases the participants’ ownership. Often when we talk about ideas and issues with others, our own thoughts begin to jell, becoming beliefs, even convictions. At best, discussions promote inquiry, learning, and tolerance for opposing views. At worst, they can quickly deteriorate into arguments.

Discussion causes nuggets to surface in the mind, as with the devious penguin Kowalski in the Madagascar film, where he discusses and plans an escape from the Central Park Zoo with one of his monochromatic friends. Verbalizing our thoughts to others in real time often spurs on more thought and creativity—e.g., for Kowalski, a plan of escape from a New York zoo in order to return to Antarctica.

Rules of Engagement

Here are some rules you can set forth when teaching by discussion:

  • Assign a topic and prepare to discuss different points of view.
  • Allow dissent, disagreement, and dialogue, but not insults, emotional outcries, or personal attacks.
  • Clarify at the end: What was learned? What was accomplished? The issue doesn’t have to be completely settled, but there should be enough closure to move ahead with as few loose ends as possible.[/toggle]

[panel style=”default” title=”Discussion, in Summary” text_align=”left”]- Pools intellect and creativity to find the truth (or develop new ideas) together as a group
– Spurs creativity and insight that wouldn’t arise with only one person
– Can deteriorate into arguments if not moderated or guided via rules of engagement
– It’s important to bring clarity and closure at the end
– The road to Emmaus account at the end of Luke is a prime example of Jesus teaching by discussion[/panel]

Approach #6: Drama

For some, having to sit in rows and listen to even the most articulate, creative teaching hardly approaches an engaging level for them. These students learn best by doing (kinesthetic learning). And in this doing, they teach themselves, even willingly memorize, key bits of information. That’s part of the power of drama.

Drama is acting out the truth. Drama can tap into some students’ strong desire to perform and be noticed, while alleviating perhaps their strongest insecurity—the insecurity about who they are.

By using all sorts of dramas—spontaneous, role-play, and scripted—some students really get into the lesson. The outgoing ones will act on the spot. Those less comfortable with this approach can still do well, so long as they’re given a script to rely on.

Placing Students in the Truth

Acting out the truth can give people a whole new perspective. It’s as if drama places learners in the truth instead of on the outside of truth looking on. Drama may be the most neglected teaching method of all.

At key moments in His ministry, Jesus used dramatic means to teach important truths. One such moment was His triumphal entry into Jerusalem:

Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” (Matthew 21:1–3)

When it was time for Christ to enter Jerusalem in preparation for His crucifixion, He chose a very dramatic way that highlighted Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. It drew attention to His entry, got many people involved, and caused people to think about His identity.

[toggle title=”More on Drama”]Implementing Drama

With careful planning, any aged person can participate in drama via simple role-plays. The greatest misconception about the use of drama is that it must be scripted, with costumes, three acts, and a curtain call! Not at all. Instead, watch for an issue which surfaces in your own experience. If it raises an issue worth considering, craft a simple way for several students to use it as a spontaneous drama. Sometimes non-scripted role-plays and dramas produce the most surprising learning experiences.[/toggle]

[panel style=”default” title=”Drama, in Summary” text_align=”left”]- Students act out the truth, and are, in a sense, placed in that truth (rather than on the outside looking on)
– One of the most neglected teaching methods
– Especially effective with kinesthetic learners (those who learn best by doing); can be painful and uncomfortable for some students
– Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a prime example of His teaching by drama
– Doesn’t require a script or props; includes role-plays and may be spontaneous[/panel]

Approach #7: Projects

Projects, or experiential learning, can be one of the most engaging, effective, and memorable forms of learning. A project is simply “projecting” truth from one situation (the classroom) to another (life!). Projects move students from the conceptual to the concrete; from ideas to tangible models; from inaction (and merely thinking) to action. This teaching method addresses the learner’s will.

For groups where the members rarely see each other outside the teaching sessions, it’s challenging to keep the students involved in the content of the teaching without the accountability with other group members outside of class. This challenge can be overcome by giving them projects based on the latest teaching.

Jesus’ Projects

Jesus created team projects by sending the disciples to preach after they’d been with Him. In fact, He was modeling the blending of multiple teaching methods in this case: first He taught the disciples by lecture (as well as stories, etc.); then He discussed the teaching with them; and then He sent them out to go and do, and then return and report … and then repeat the process all over again.

Jesus was a Jewish teacher and followed the patterns of the rabbis in Israel. Wherever a rabbi went, his students went. What the rabbi did, the students learned to do. Therefore, at the right time, Jesus sent His own students out to put into practice the very things He had been teaching them by word and by deed:

And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing. … Departing, they began going throughout the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. (Luke 9:1–2, 6)

If you keep reading, you’ll see that it was not just the project that was important. When they returned, Jesus talked with the apostles about what they had learned:

When the apostles returned, they gave an account to Him of all that they had done. Taking them with Him, He withdrew by Himself to a city called Bethsaida. (Luke 9:10)

[toggle title=”More on Projects”]Benefits of Projects

There are excellent reasons for assigning projects to students: accountability for application of content, learning to work in teams, self-discovery, opportunities not available in the classroom, and the chance to appreciate success—and failure!

But that’s not all. By assigning specific projects, varying levels of creativity, self-discipline, self-motivation, and insecurity, as well as a healthy degree of tension over the “fear of the unknown,” will surface in students.

Projects, in terms of life change, may be the most effective tool at a teacher’s disposal. In terms of implementation, they may be the most underused.[/toggle]

[panel style=”default” title=”Projects, in Summary” text_align=”left”]- Also known as experiential learning, moves students from the conceptual to the concrete, from thinking to action
– Should include “sending out” as well as “reporting back” components
– Benefits include accountability for application, teamwork skills building, and unique opportunities for discovery
– Like drama, an underutilized teaching approach, but also one of the most effective
– Jesus used this method when He sent out the Twelve (in Luke 9) to do as He’d taught them[/panel]

[panel style=”primary” title=”The 7 Teaching/Learning Approaches” text_align=”center”]Lectures — Tell the truth
Stories — Find the truth in life
Visual aids — Picture the truth
Q&A — Clarify the truth
Discussion — Find the truth together
Drama — Act out the truth
Projects — Project the truth (from a classroom setting to life)[/panel]

Conclusion: Be Unpredictable

You now have seven tools in your teaching toolbox. No more excuses for dry and stale teaching! Mix it up a little—or a lot. Most importantly, have some fun with your subject, especially if you have to repeatedly teach the same material.

Humans are constantly changing. We are both emotional and intellectual creatures. And we love variety (at least most of us do). Who likes to eat the exact same food, in the same proportion, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack time?

As teachers, we need to be tuned in to our audiences, and to communicate with them in meaningful and appropriate ways.

In fact, we need to be unpredictable.

Think about Grandpa’s stories—or Dad’s jokes—the ones he tells (or told) over and over. Sure, they were interesting the first time, and maybe even the second time; but as soon as we hear the same opening line the third, fourth, or more times, we just roll our eyes, groan (“Ugh, not that one again!”), and tune out. It’s lost its punch, its impact. The same thing happens when a parent gives a child the exact same lecture, in the same exact manner, for the fifth time.

A one-trick pony has trouble holding an audience’s attention for long.

Our audience tunes out and resists our teaching when we become totally predictable. A one-trick pony has trouble holding an audience’s attention for very long. This, and the fact that people vary so widely in how they learn best, is why it’s so important to mix and match our teaching and communication approaches. Unpredictability increases the impact of our teaching, and makes it more interesting. Which professor would you rather hear: the one who gives a monotone lecture every single day, or the one of whom you come to class each day wondering, “What’s he/she going to do or say today?”

Keep it fresh. Change it up—in subtle or obvious ways (even if it’s noticeable only to you; you’ve got to keep the delivery interesting to yourself, too!). Engage your audience in fun and meaningful ways, and make a point to stamp your teaching or communication with your own personality and passions.

This is not to say that a teacher’s job is entertainment; it isn’t.

We can take a cue from Jesus. He used plenty of visuals and object lessons (sure, the miracles helped hold interest, too!), and His intention was education, not entertainment. He struck the perfect balance between the two. He didn’t always use the Socratic method (Q&A), nor did He always use discussion. In fact, sometimes, He chose to be completely silent before His audience, when they did not deserve answers to their questions. But when Jesus spoke and taught, He used variety in His presentation method, and He was absolutely unpredictable in His teaching. Even when He explicitly laid out for His disciples exactly what was about to happen (that the Son of Man would be delivered up), they didn’t recognize the events as they unfolded. But they got the point afterwards.

Jesus was truly the Master Teacher. Be like Him.

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