Imagine walking into your parents’ attics after years of living away. You hope to find the box full of your childhood toys so you can share with your own children. You approach a shelf full of cardboard boxes. Some are old, beat up, and most are dusty. Each box is labeled with a piece of tape describing in a few words the contents of the box: Christmas, Grandma’s China, Winter Clothes. Finally, you find the box labeled Children’s Toys. You take the box off the shelf and peel back the old packaging seal. As the dusty air of the box escapes you are immediately reminded of memories of happier times. You’re grateful for such memories and are excited to share them with your own children.
As individuals leave Gospel Doctrine, Relief Society, or Priesthood meeting on Sunday the affects of the lesson rarely get put into a mental attic of retention. One of the many responsibilities of the class instructor is to frame and teach the lesson in a way that will help the students retain the principles. The learner should be able to revisit the topic and feel the same strong feelings of the spirit as they felt while in the class.
Many times we attend a class and find it extremely insightful and full of the Spirit. Unfortunately, a week later we have difficulty recalling the specific principles taught. The lack of retention causes us to forget the feelings of the meeting. As an instructor, there are many ways to frame a lesson in order to create retention and engagement. This article is meant to share with you one method I have found effective in helping class members retain principles taught in a class. Using the analogy of the attic and how items are stored using the BOX, the TAPE, and the SPIRIT.
The Box—Framing the Lesson
In Sunday School the teacher may overwhelm the class with quotes, scriptures, and other content as the brain attempts to compartmentalize them. In other words, the brain is trying to figure out what “box” to put the information in. It’s paramount that the teacher (metaphorically) pass out boxes to the class to give them something to “hold on to” during the lesson. Or in other words, frame the lesson in a way that will create boundaries.
One of the best ways to give context or frame the lesson is through stories. An example of someone who has mastered this technique is Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (one of the most effective speakers). It’s hard to think of a talk he has given that hasn’t included a well told story that frames his entire discourse. In 2012 October General Conference he did this amazingly well by telling the story of the disciples at the sea of Tiberias. He stated some verses verbatim then took personal liberties with the story in order to more effectively engage the audience. Something remarkable happened when he framed his talk in this manner. At the end of his biblical retell every last person listening was 100% engaged. All seemed to hold an empty “box” ready to receive the core principles he was about to tell in the remainder of his speech.
Telling a story is not only about gaining their attention by making it interesting or funny. It should create engagement AND create a reference point for each principle taught in the lesson. When Elder Holland used the biblical story it didn’t end after the first couple paragraphs. It changed from a story to a theme and gave the listener reference throughout the talk. Elder Holland would teach a principles, relate it to the story, and then the listener was able to relate it to their life.
Framing the lesson or creating a reference point for the lesson isn’t only done through stories. Elder Bednar is a masterful teacher that does this with specific scriptural phrases. You will often hear him discuss things to act and things to be acted upon (2 Nephi 2:13–14). This is a consistent reference point he uses that helps the learner stay within the boundaries of his lesson.
The Tape—Creating Focus
After the Sunday lesson concludes, imagine if there was a professional surveyor standing outside the classroom asking one simple question, “What was the lesson topic?” Before preparing a lesson the instructor needs to answer that question. If you start with a specific premise in mind it will end with the same premise in the mind of the student. This is represented by the “tape” or “label” that goes on the box so that class members can know what we are putting in the box.
It’s easy to get caught up in general topics as one teaches, and the more general the instructor is, the more difficulty the students will have in relating to the topic and retaining the topic. The “tape” of the lesson should be specific, clear, and NEVER general. By avoiding the generalities of the topic it allows the student to be more engaged and to more easily apply the lesson.
Here are a few examples of topics that are too general and how they can be more specific:
Too General: “Fasting”
More Specific: “Beginning my fast with prayer sanctifies my purpose”
Too General: “Missionary Work”
More Specific: “Sharing the gospel begins with building friendships”
Too General: “Adversity Can Help Us Grow”
More Specific: “Counsel from friends and priesthood leaders can help overcome adversity”
Avoid teaching the class on a general level. Being specific will increase engagement and retention.
Now the class is metaphorically holding a “box” that has been clearly labeled by the “tape.” They are ready to receive the Spirit as it is brought unto their hearts. This happens as you encourage discussion, independent thought, and participation. As the Spirit fills the room they now have something to put in the box to preserve the feelings and inspirations. As they leave the class their retention is at its peak. They will all return home and place their labeled box on the shelf of memories in their mind.
One day as they are in the midst of a trial they will take the time to ponder on the principles of the gospel. They will hopefully do this through prayer and personal scripture study. They will enter their mental attic and view the many lessons they have learned in Gospel Doctrine, Relief Society, or Priesthood meeting. They will see the box you supplied them and will take it off the shelf. The “tape” will identify the box and remind them of the focus of the lesson. They will then open the box and feel the same spirit they felt before in the classroom. Their testimony will be confirmed and their courage to face the trial will grow.