Teaching Tips from Dr. Gary Hoag
Called to Teach
God has gifted some of us to teach, but that does not make it easy! It gets complicated when we have to address controversial topics, when our audiences have a wide range of knowledge and varied expectations, or when God leads us into new teaching settings that take us far outside our comfort zone.
As my teaching opportunities have increased in recent years, I have had to read books and seek advice to grow as a teacher. In this post I want to share some of what I have learned. Whether you teach Sunday school, lecture at a seminary, or instruct in different Christian ministry settings, I hope these seven tips will aid you in your teaching.
Start with Prayer
Always begin both your preparation and your instruction with prayer. Ask God first what you should teach. I find the fresh ideas that God gives me become just what my students say they needed! Also ask the Holy Spirit to instruct the hearts of your students and help them learn what He wants them to know (cf. John 14:26).
Stand and Read Scripture Aloud
Don’t talk about the Bible, read it together aloud. Additionally, to teach your listeners to respect the authority of Scripture, have them stand while reading. The people stood when Ezra read God’s Word, and Jesus followed this pattern too (cf. Nehemiah 8:5; Luke 4:16). I’ve started doing this more recently.
Use Contrasts Concisely
In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus did this repeatedly (cf. Matthew 5:17-48). He overturned prevailing viewpoints using a consistent pattern (“You have heard it said…but I say to you”). This helped listeners exchange widely-held traditional perspectives for counterintuitive heavenly truth propositions. When I put this into practice, I often set forth what the world says alongside what the Word teaches. This format is not original with me. The Apostle Paul employed it so that his instruction aimed at producing disciples with wisdom and discernment. Do this to target transformation and to help students renew their minds (cf. Romans 12:1-2).
Make Students Do Research
Professor C.S. Lewis keenly made this point in his writings (God in the Dock, 200), “It has been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” If we aim to indoctrinate students, then we will exhaust ourselves and them as our efforts will consist of trying to make disciples of ourselves by imparting second-hand knowledge. Alternatively, when we make students do research, they experience the joy of discovering first-hand knowledge, and we learn together as fellow disciples.
Get Them Talking and Doing
My mentor, Dr. Wesley K. Willmer, taught me to teach in 20 minute blocks. After each one, he advised me to have students pair up, take turns answering one or more questions, and then have them do an activity. It works, and matches research that shows that people learn best by hearing, talking, and doing!
Engage Multiple Senses with a Variety of Tools
I have found that the more senses I engage, the more actively my students listen and learn. For example, if I teach with PowerPoint, often my students can zone out. I mix things up by adding short videos and/or by having them fill in blanks on a handout to hold their attention. My wife, Jenni, likes to add a craft to solidify the learning and give them something to take home as a reminder of the lesson.
Jesus did this masterfully! He used parables to bridge between things His audience knew and what He wanted them to grasp, saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” (cf. Matthew 13:24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 52; 18:23; 20:1; 22:2; 25:14). Students latch on to what we teach when we tell a story that illustrates each point.
Recently, one of my students from Torch Trinity Graduate University in Seoul, South Korea, said, “Dr. Hoag, you were my favorite professor in seminary.” I replied, “Thanks! What made my teaching stand out for you?” He said, “You taught with precision, told great stories, and you let us talk a lot too. Now, when I teach, I get people talking and quote you saying, ‘When more people talk, more people learn.’ Also, I am grateful you stretched us to read so many Scriptures on stewardship. It prepared me to sow them into the lives of those I serve.” Then he concluded, saying, “My favorite memory was the time you had us all get up in the middle of the afternoon session of class and walk to the local coffee shop. You surprised us by buying each of us an iced coffee to teach us that generosity is giving people what they need, don’t deserve, and would never expect. I’ll never forget it!”
After sharing this coffee story, I suppose an eighth tip might be to surprise your students with a blessing. When Jesus fed hungry 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, I’m sure they learned the lesson that God provides! I hope these seven tips aid you in your teaching. Your students will appreciate it, and they may even imitate you too!
Gary Hoag, Ph.D., (New Testament, Trinity College, Bristol, UK), serves as a visiting professor at six seminaries, on part-time basis as ECFA International Liaison, and is known widely as “the Generosity Monk” as he has dedicated his life to encouraging Christian generosity. Subscribe to his Daily Meditations .
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