Adult Learning Styles: What Do They Mean For Bible Study Leadership?
How do you learn best? By listening to others speak? By reading and writing? Through a hands-on activity? Each of us has a preferred method of learning (notice that it’s a preferred method and not the correct method) and that can create a paradox for us as Bible study leaders. You see, the way that is most comfortable and most effective for you as a learner is probably the way that you tend to teach. But not everyone learns that way. When you lead a Bible study, you may need to step outside of your comfort zone and deliberately look for ways to engage and reach those who learn differently than you do.
Think about how Jesus taught. He lectured in the Sermon on the Mount, first using conceptual ideas in the Beatitudes and then following that with some practical application. He told parables or stories that allowed others to find themselves in the story. He asked questions; He answered questions. He took people aside and explained things to them. He used teachable moments and familiar objects. Jesus definitely used a variety of teaching strategies! Not all good teachers use the same strategies and techniques, but good teachers – and Jesus was the perfect teacher – will always find a way to include a variety of teaching strategies.
There are several ways of categorizing learning styles, one of which recognizes four learning styles: Verbal, Auditory, Visual, and Kinesthetic. Let’s think briefly about each one.
THE VERBAL LEARNER
The verbal learner is one who prefers reading, writing, and speaking. Asking good questions is one way to appeal to these learners. By ‘good’ I mean questions that are not necessarily yes/no questions or fill-in-the-blank questions. Ask questions that allow the learner to interpret or apply or discuss or share. For example, Jonah’s eventual sermon to Nineveh consisted of 5 Hebrew words. If you were asked to give a 5-8 word sermon, what would it be? Discussing a question in a small group can also engage the auditory learner as he listens to the discussion. Another strategy is to review the meaning of words used in the Bible and then look for how those words are used in a passage. There are three terms used to refer to God, for example, and each has a slightly different meaning. The book of Jonah uses all three terms so looking for when a different term is used can say something about the passage.
THE AUDITORY LEARNER
Another learning style is auditory – learning by hearing or by sound. Having something read aloud is good for this type of learner. Also, auditory learners tend to like to have things repeated so find a way to stress important points in a study in different ways. Another strategy is to have people tell the story or a section of Scripture to a partner in their own words. While this gets at auditory learning, it has another effect in helping people feel comfortable sharing the Bible in their own words. Music is another powerful strategy for some auditory learners – use music to set the mood, sing a song related to the study, ask someone to write a song. For a study of the book of Jonah, I found a Jonah song on the web with a seafarer kind of lilt that I played at the beginning of one class and by the end of the song, most of the class was singing along on the chorus and having a good time.
THE VISUAL LEARNER
Clearly the visual learner needs to be able to see something – a map, a picture, a chart, etc. I like to use photos I find on the web, especially when it gives the class an opportunity to point out how the photo is inconsistent with the Bible story itself. Another way to reach the visual learner is to ask the class to close their eyes and picture the story or setting in their minds. Visual learners also tend to like to draw as they are learning so you could ask them to draw something about the lesson. In teaching Jonah, I asked the class to use a Venn diagram (two circles that partially overlap) to describe how the sailors and Jonah differed (the two non-overlapping parts of the circles) and how they were alike (the overlapping part). In another class, I asked the class to work in small groups and design a banner that depicted Jesus as healer.
THE KINESTHETIC LEARNER
The last type is the kinesthetic learner or physical learner. These are the ones who learn through experience or by doing things. They tend to learn best by role playing or playing games or touching and feeling objects. In fact, statistics tell us that we learn 15% of what we hear, 35% of what we read, 50% of what we see, and 90% of what we do. You can include objects related to the lesson that allow the students to do something – touch, smell, taste. Be aware, though, that objects lessons can be overused so less is more. You might find that some adults might feel a little silly with object lessons, depending on what you ask them to do or if they are new to the group. So you might want to wait until you sense the group is comfortable before you include an object. If there is a word or symbol that will capture the teaching point, you could have the class make something, even if it’s with clay or a pipe cleaner. Another example is if the lesson is about casting stones, like the story of the woman caught in adultery. Ask each person to hold a stone while the story is read.
Remember that not everyone learns the way you do. Follow Jesus’ example–take the risk—and use a variety of teaching strategies to reach the greatest number of students so they can apply the text to their lives. God will bless your efforts!
Karen Soeken is a wife, mother of two, and grandmother of 6. She retired in 2008 after a career teaching research and statistics courses at the University of Maryland School of Nursing and is now Professor Emeritus. In her congregation, she teaches adult Bible study classes. Karen is also involved in LWML, having served as District President and Planner at the national level. Currently she serves on the Lutheran Hour Ministries Foundation Board and the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia Board of Directors. In her spare time, Karen enjoys working on her family history.
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