Jenny Parnell Willmore lives in Logan, Utah, USA with her husband James. They have four children and one grandchild. She currently serves as Relief Society president and has taught everything from nursery to Gospel Doctrine. She has a Master of Second Language Teaching from Utah State University and taught Spanish at Snow College, the military’s JLTC, and for the past 17 years at USU. Consequently, she has made every teaching mistake in the book. She and her family volunteer every other summer in Colima, Mexico with Project Amigo and she is an interviewer and producer for the LDS Women Project.
It’s been 30 years since I graduated from high school, and I still have vivid nightmares involving sitting down to take a high-stakes test that I had forgotten had been scheduled for that day.
The Beginnings of Anxiety in Classrooms
Today’s standardized tests and the lingering anxiety they produce can be traced back to shortly after World War II and the Army Alpha test which was used to compare potential army officer candidates. A test taker was given a rank based on how many others scored above or below on a standardized test. This model of assessment was founded on two beliefs: first, to increase learning, we had to increase students’ anxiety; and second, lower-achieving students would be motivated if compared with higher achieving students.
As rewards for high standardized test scores grew higher, so did the stakes in classroom assignments and questions.
In 1967, Michael Scriven dubbed this type of assessment “summative.” Summative assessments were designed to check factual comprehension. They were meant to be given at the end of study and came to signal the end of learning and the summary of one’s knowledge. The educator Peter Elbow jokingly referred to high-stakes summative assignments as “autopsies” since they were performed once there was no longer any opportunity for change and growth. https://scholarworks.
In the same article by Scriven, he also coined the term “formative assessment.” This type of assessment was meant to occur while ideas and skills were forming. They were lower in stakes, and helped instructors gather information to modify activities and questions. They created environments where risk-taking and critical thinking were encouraged and where mistakes were seen as just as valuable a source of information on the road to learning as successes.
This wasn’t to say that summative assessments had no place in learning. But finding oneself always in a high-stakes/high-stress environment often led to a lack of learning, or to a focus on a kind of parroting that could mask a lack of understanding. Elbow believed that it was necessary first to participate in low-stakes questions, activities, and assessments to prepare ourselves for their high-stakes counterparts. The educator Robert Stake observed that when the cook tasted the soup, that was a formative evaluation. When the guest tasted the soup, that was a summative evaluation.
Transforming Our Classrooms
Though our church classrooms may differ in many ways from our structured educational experiences, some of the anxieties we experienced in those high-risk situations come with us into our chapels. This is true as students and as instructors.
“Encourage [class members] to help you establish an open, loving, and respectful environment so that everyone feels safe sharing their experiences, questions and testimonies.” Teaching in the Savior’s Way
When instructors lovingly walk alongside their students, questions and evaluations can be valuable and constructive tools for becoming more like the Savior. Catching errors and misunderstandings in a loving and supportive environment helps students become knowledgeable and charitable disciples of Jesus Christ.
President Henry B. Eyring said the following when speaking to religious educators in 1998:
“To ask and answer questions is at the heart of all learning and teaching…Some questions invite inspiration. Great teachers ask those. That may take just a small change of words, an inflection of the voice.”
I believe, as President Eyring suggested, that good questions might be at the heart of conducting a lesson as the Savior might.
“An inspired question is an invitation to learners to discover gospel truths on their own and to evaluate their understanding of and commitment to those truths. Inspired questions can make learning the gospel a more engaging and personally meaningful experience.” Teaching in the Savior’s Way
How the Savior Used Questions
Look at some of the questions that the Savior asked while he was teaching:
- Matthew 16:15- “But whom say ye that I am?”
- Matthew 21:22- “..Why are ye fearful?”
- Luke 10:26- “What is written in the law? how readest thou?”
- 3 Nephi 13:25- “Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?”
- 3 Nephi 14:3- “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
- Doctrine and Covenants 6:23- “Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter?”
These are all questions meant to engage his disciples and encourage them to think more deeply about the truths He was presenting. Because we are seeking to learn more about our students’ knowledge of and dedication to truth, as opposed to fostering anxiety and competition, most of our lesson preparation could be spent coming up with inspired questions to direct the conversation in the classroom.
It’s difficult not to rush to prepare reams of statistics and chase down endless anecdotes when planning our lessons. We have been rewarded over our lifetimes not for asking questions, but for having all the answers, and this deeply ingrained habit will be hard to break.
Humility and Spiritual Growth
Pay careful attention to the comments and questions of those you teach; the Spirit may prompt you to spend more time on a certain principle than you had planned or to address a concern that is not part of your lesson plan. Remember that the spiritual growth of the individuals you are teaching is more important that presenting everything you have planned…The more diligently you have studied in advance, the more prepared you will be to adapt to and support the needs of the individual. Teaching in the Savior’s Way
Let’s stay curious a little longer. Inspired questions keep us in learning mode instead of judgment mode. They remind us that our students’ answers will help us to become better teachers and better disciples of Christ.
“Humility is key to learning, but it is also key to teaching. Without a recognition of our reliance on the Lord, on others and also the limits of our knowledge we would stagnate. We would not be open to learning and the teaching experience for all involved would be limited. If the purpose of the learning process is to enable all people to progress and flourish it is only possible for people to do so if all parties are open to do so. The plan of salvation is a plan of progression, and one of those areas in which we are always progressing is in our knowledge. Humility is the key to unlock that progress.”
Part of the beauty of the gospel, as Brother Holt mentions, is the idea that we are focusing on our progression. Creating an open, loving, and respectful environment can help students and instructors alike feel comfortable learning and growing together. Just as our mortal life is meant to be a time of learning, repenting, and growing, so should our church classroom reflect a formative environment in which our brothers and sisters can learn, repent and grow in the gospel.
Creating An Opportunity to Learn and Grow
Here are a few suggestions on ways to make your classroom questions, activities, and assessments formative:
- Think/Pair/Share– In this activity, students are given a moment to review in their minds what’s been learned. This could be a concept, a definition, or a story. They then pair up with a classmate. They take turns sharing what they learned. Encourage your students to “translate” terminology into their own words. Peter Elbow says, “Students don’t really know the content material until they can write and talk about the concepts in their own informal and personal language.”
- Visualize– Read a story without showing the class the illustrations. Ask them to illustrate what they visualized as the story was told. This allows them freedom of thought and expression and gives us a window into which elements of the story held meaning for them. 3. Assess by Having Them Teach- This rating scale is a good way to introduce the idea that teaching someone else is a better way to gauge our understanding than taking an exam. Students can let the instructor know (confidentially if needed) where they are on this scale. 1- I’ve never heard of this before 2- I’ve heard of this and know about it 3- I know about this and can teach others. You can use this scale alone, or let your class know that for the last few minutes of class they will teach a one-minute version of the lesson to someone you find in the hall. I did this every week with my Primary children and the parents with babies walking the hall and the ward clerks in their office loved it! Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself!”
- Questions– The best kinds of questions for a formative classroom are ones that are open, non-threatening and honest. Avoid questions that have one correct answer, or that can be looked up online- “how” and “why” questions work best. Avoid questions that may hurt feelings or lead to foreseeable friction. And avoid questions that you don’t really care about the answer to. “Church classes and meetings provide Latter-day Saints with opportunities to strengthen each other by sharing thoughts, experiences, and testimonies. The environment you create in a classroom can help to encourage these kinds of interactions.” Teaching in the Savior’s Way
Here are some examples on questions you could consider using:
- What surprised you about this story/talk/scripture?
- How difficult was the story/talk/scripture to understand?
- If you’ve heard this story/talk/scripture before, what did you notice about it this time?
- Whom did you relate to in the story/talk/scripture?
- What did this story/talk/scripture remind you of in your own life?
- If this story took place today, what would it look like?
- What would you do if this story happened to you?
- What are some of the important relationships/friendships in this story?
- What was your favorite line or sentence or verse and why?
- What was the most surprising part of the story/talk/scripture for you?
- If you were to paint a version of this story/talk/scripture, who or what would be in the center?
- If you were to write a song based on this story/talk/scripture, what instrument would it be played on?
- What kind of clothes did you imagine the people in the story/talk/scripture wearing?
- Think about the setting of the story/talk/scripture- what would the landscape look like if you were there?
- If you could be any person in this book/book of scripture/scripture story, who would you be?
- If you could rewrite the title of this story/talk/scripture, what would it be?
- What does this story/talk/scripture motivate you to do?
- What am I not asking you about this story/talk/scripture that I should?
The Evolution of Our Classroom
As we evolve our classroom to be one of safety, discovery, and growth, we give our students the opportunity to collaborate, grow and progress in a love and understanding of the restored Gospel. Additionally, as discussion leaders, we give ourselves the opportunity to be taught by the Spirit and tuned in to what Heavenly Father wants us to learn as well.