It’s late on a Wednesday night. Your day was chaotic and now your Bible study leader is talking through the historical context of the Babylonian exile. Your brain struggles to take it in and your mind wanders….
Bible study can be hard work, yet is a context where significant learning takes place due to the collaborative learning opportunities it offers. It is often where the heart meets the head.
What leads me to this view?
‘Collaborative learning’ is one of the latest buzzwords in higher education. While you could argue that it has been around a long time, the pushback against the traditional lecture has gained ground with the rise of online learning. The increased use of these platforms has meant that students will only come to campus for activities that are worth their while and cannot be done easily at home. In addition, employers are constantly telling higher education providers that students need excellent communication skills and to be able to work with others. Collaborative learning, which requires participants to be in the same room, forces students to interact with different views and opinions. It increases the understanding of the group overall, and students are less likely to ‘zone out’ because they have to be active participants. It also helps students gauge their progress against others.
I run a peer-led study program at the University of Technology, Sydney, aimed primarily at first years (U:PASS). Student leaders, chosen for their excellent interpersonal skills and empathy, design learning activities for their less-experienced peers. Over the past 11 years I’ve hired, trained, mentored, supported, observed and graduated over 700 leaders in the program. Students often comment that working collaboratively helped them realise they weren’t the only ones struggling with a particular issue. The sessions also facilitate the formation of friendship and learning communities that often continue throughout the duration of the students’ degrees.
If collaborative learning is so effective, why do Bible studies sometimes turn into mini-sermons? There are a number of reasons this can happen. Leaders may simply need to be trained in how to use collaborative techniques.
One factor is preparation. Sometimes student leaders design a worksheet that requires individual work, then wonder why no one talks. Tasks need to be designed to promote interaction. The collaborative learning techniques of think/pair/share (involving peer-to-peer explaining) or jigsaw learning (individuals work on separate parts of a problem then pool their results) are great here. Leaders also need the skills to adapt if they have a group where people talk too much, or where no one talks.
Leader selection is also important. We choose U:PASS leaders for empathy and communication skills, and are careful to only get high achieving students. It’s also important to choose Bible Study leaders wisely. In addition to having the personality and skills to run a group well, they must show evidence of a personal relationship with Jesus, and a solid understanding of the Bible and theology.
Being aware of hindrances to collaborative learning is also useful. In U:PASS sessions, leaders often don’t realise they’re talking too much. Once they’re made aware of it, change can occur. Ego can also be an issue. It’s very pleasant to have people listen to you, but the collaborative process requires leaders to fight their pride, and be a servant in the space instead. It’s very easy to slip into direct instruction, and I’d love Bible study leaders to regularly ask themselves: ‘Who is talking more? Me, or the people in my group?’
Collaborative learning is not new, and is promoted by many Bible study manuals. But given the relational nature of group Bible study, and the many benefits of using collaborative techniques, I would encourage leaders to consider how they can take advantage of the insights and tools offered by this field.
Of course, collaborative learning is not the only learning that matters. Direct instruction is also important, be it by a lecturer, or in the church context, a pastor, whose expertise and training is well beyond that of the average student or congregation member. But collaborative learning, in a Bible study or any group, has distinct and significant benefits. Doing it well requires insight, forethought, emotional intelligence and specific skills, but is well worth the effort.
Georgina Barratt-See is a specialist in student collaborative learning and has been managing a peer learning program for the past 11 years.
 See for example B. Oliver & T. de St Jorre, ‘Graduate attributes for 2020 and beyond: recommendations for
Australian higher education providers’. Higher Education Research & Development Vol. 37 (4), 2018.
 See https://www.edutopia.org/video/3-ways-maximize-peer-peer-learning .
 A good example is Leading Better Bible Studies (Anglican Press Australia, 1997) by adult learning specialists Karen and Rod Morris.
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