8 Ways to Prevent Awkward Silences When You Teach

If you follow these eight tips, there's no need to fear. As a seminary teacher, these are my go-to methods that work for me when teaching the gospel. My experience is in teaching youth and adults, but most of the techniques can be adapted to teach primary classes and will work in more structured settings like Institute and seminary or in regular Sunday meetings.

As a disclaimer, I make no claim to be a superior teacher or to have mastered the techniques of teaching the gospel I am about to list. I still have plenty of questions that “flop,” but the “floppers” flop because they were lazily written. I know that when I work hard to write effective questions, the harvest is great. And writing good questions is the most challenging and most time-consuming part of lesson preparation for many a teacher.

When teaching the gospel, I know of no special “tricks” besides this one: Help your students feel comfortable communicating to the class what the Holy Ghost is communicating to them. Now, shall we?

1. Repeat the question. A lot of your students will just tune out if you have been talking too long. This is normal. I do it and you do it. You will be sitting in a class, thinking about your crock pot meal that’s bubbling away, when the class falls silent and the teacher is looking around. You realize the teacher is waiting to get a response to her question, and you are totally willing to participate, but you have no idea what she said. If she repeated the question at that moment, you, along with half of the rest of the class, would be able to engage. So repeat yourself. Also, when you are the person who has been tuning out, don’t be afraid to ask for the question to be repeated. You can even say, “Can you repeat the question, sorry, I zoned out for a second.” You'll help out the teacher and a whole lot of other classmates, too.

2. Wait. Okay, so I lied. There is no getting around the silence if you are expecting to have a meaningful classroom experience. I usually wait until it would feel awkward for somebody else (I’ve made up my mind to not feel uncomfortable), and then wait for about 15 more seconds. A lot of our students have been trained to think that if they sit there and say nothing, the teacher will answer the question for them and move on. This attitude needs to be be broken, in both youth and adults. It takes nerves of steel to push through the silence sometimes, but that silence is only awkward if you make it awkward. Also, people often just need time to think about what they are going to say. Don’t rush them by getting antsy after 3 seconds.

3. Ask them to be ready to share. Ask them a question, ask them to be ready to share after a certain time frame, and give them time to think about it or write about it. I usually give about 30 seconds to think and/or 1-2 minutes to write. Afterwards, you can either ask for volunteers or you can call on class members by name.

4. Have them share with a neighbor. This works well if you have a unified class. Have them formulate an answer to a question, and then have them share with one or a few other students. Then you can either ask them to share what they said with the whole class, or you can ask them about something another person said (ex: Who learned something new? Who had a different perspective than your partner?).

5. Have them make a choice and explain themselves. This is the one technique on this list that I can honestly say has yielded thoughtful, original responses every single time I have used it. I have them choose from a list of options and explain themselves. For example, I might list the words “elated,” “free,” “thankful,” “fearful,” and “confused” on the board and then ask, “How do you think the children of Israel most felt when they were freed from Egyptian bondage? Why?” Any of the listed items would work fine in answering the question, but it’s in explaining their answers that the students really have to engage and think critically about gospel doctrines and truths. I also usually add “or something else?” at the very end, which typically yields very powerful and well thought-out spiritual comments.

6. First, give your own answer to the question. The younger the students, the more helpful it can be. This method can be very useful when asking your class to share personal experiences. Sometimes it is hard to communicate exactly what you’re looking for, and providing your own example of an answer to the question can get the wheels turning. For example, “How has the choice of one of your ancestors been a blessing for your life?” This might be a little abstract for a group of deacons and beehives, but if you share the story about how your great-great-grandmother chose to join the church even though her parents threatened to disown her, your little ones will likely begin to make connections to stories about their own families.

7. Don’t make them play guessing games. Questions either need to be 100% factual (ex: Who remembers what method was used to arrange the Pauline epistles?) or 100% open to personal opinion (ex: What is your favorite Pauline epistle? What do you like about it?) I beg you, from the bottom of my heart, don’t make your students guess what is in your head. For example, “Which Pauline epistle contains the most relevant teachings for our day?” 1 Corinthians 15 teaches about the degrees of glory, proxy baptisms, and the resurrection of the dead--three important Latter-day doctrines. The rest of 1 Corinthians is littered with relevant teachings of love, faith, obedience, and other oft-talked about gospel principles. It may seem obvious to you that this is the most relevant, but similar arguments could be made for several other epistles. It will be awkward to handle when a student suggests Romans, with it’s messages of love and divine potential, as the answer, and you have to tell them that they’ve answered the question wrong (even though they are perfectly right; their scriptural understanding just isn’t identical to yours).

8. Allow them to choose a question to answer. This is what I like to refer to as a “money” teaching technique because the Spirit just starts pouring. I have only ever done it by first asking them to write down their answer. If you teach seminary or institute, your students might already have journals. If you teach another class, they probably don’t. It is worth bringing pencils and scratch paper to class so they have something to write on. They might not keep what they write, but it will help them ponder, develop their perspective, and engage with the Holy Ghost. For example, I might write the questions on the board: “What did you most enjoy about Church yesterday?” “What Sunday activity do you feel strengthens your relationship with Jesus Christ?” “What general rule do you use to decide if an activity should be done on Sunday or if it would be better saved for a different day?” I then allow them to choose one of the questions to answer. There is no need for all of the questions to be addressed. All three invite testimony of the Sabbath day, and inviting them to choose what to share expands their ability to deepen their understanding of relevant things happening in their lives.

Now you’re set! When you’re teaching the gospel, just Just follow these tips and you will never have a question go unanswered again! . . . Not.

Sometimes, your questions still won’t get answered. This is fine, really. Take it as a cue that your class is ready to move on, and do just that. We don’t all have a good response to every question, and it might just work out that nobody happens to have a good response to one of your questions. This does not mean that it was a bad question or that your class isn’t engaged. In this case, I usually just say something like, “Don’t hesitate to raise your hand if something comes to mind; let’s look at verse 12 now.” If they’re not answering, they’re just saying that they don’t know, and that’s okay--they know a lot of other stuff.

I am happy to help give suggestions for questions for any lesson you might be using (email me at juliet.c.s.miller@gmail.com). I hope that learning and teaching the gospel will be as much of a blessing for you as it has been for me.

What strategies work for you when teaching gospel classes? What have you learned promotes the most engagement and meaningful spiritual discussions? Let us know in the comments below.