Reinforcing People’s Memories in Preaching

Background:  For many years now, I’ve been an avid follower of the ongoing research into how the brain works, and how our memory works.  As a teacher, minister and software developer, I’m interested in how our students and listeners can best learn and remember our content. 

(I even designed a piece of software called Name Badger that helps churches provide nametags on-demand to walk-up users so that we could help people REMEMBER names at church. And a lot of our software is great for reviewing previously taught content. My money is where my mouth is.)

Several months ago I read the book “BRAIN RULES” …a summary of the latest research and it’s implications for teachers. I summarized that book and its implications for Sunday School teachers over at  Read it!

Continuing on the subject….  I recently wrote the following short article about the IMPORTANCE of REVIEWING  PREVIOUSLY TAUGHT LESSONS in Sunday School. That article appeared in my Sunday Software Email Newsletter  ( and has a lot of LESSON EXAMPLES for how to review over the short-term and long-term in the classroom. Those examples are listed below, and I’ve preserved that article below as well.

This version of that email news article has expanded comments for preachers.

 The expanded “preachers” content is in PURPLE.

February 2010

5.  ARTICLE:  The Tremendous Importance of Reviewing Previously Taught Content

“Teachers who don’t review previously taught content with their students -might as well toss their lessons out the window.” 

It’s that simple and that important.

Preaching is Teaching. Thus the corollary: “Preachers who don’t review previously preached content….might as well not preach.”

The latest brain research into memory formation, -and the continuing classroom experience, makes it abundantly clear:

In order to build strong LONG TERM memories, we must:If you aren’t doing these three things, you are not teaching. You’re just taking up time.

Same goes for preachers.
You spend a lot of time crafting your sermons, so craft them for maximum impact on your listener’s memories.

Most people can tell you the TASTE a sermon leaves in their mouth (mind), rather than remember a lot of the specific content. They’ll tell you “it was good” but if you press them for details, they will have trouble telling you details, -except for the story you told, or the dramatic way you did something, or your ending. And yet, most preachers believe their DETAILS are important. 


 The Brain Research tells us how we can get our content remembered:

a. teach content in an impressive and concise way
b. follow up with review in the short-term
c. come back to that same content over the long-term

Impressive = memorable, concise, interactive, multimedia rich, multiple learning styles informed, and emotionally engaging.
The brain is wired to impress content into memory in a variety of ways.
Talking is one of the least impressive modes of teaching/learning (followed closely by reading!)

Preaching is largely a “talking” medium, so it has a hurdle to clear. 


Tell stories, rather than pontificate. Stories are multimedia gems. The brain loves them.

Be aware that they’ll mostly remember the LAST part of your sermon more than the first. Yet many preachers start strong but finish weak. 

Craft your language.  The ear and memory loves to hear content that’s poetic, alliterative, and pithy. This is one of the reasons many of us enjoy listening to “how” black preachers preacher (if not their content). It has a beat and cadence that’s appealing, and their words are often dramatically crafted for maximum EAR APPEAL.  Speech writers call this “punching up” the speech.

When I write a sermon, I will typically GO BACK after it’s written, and punch-up the language, while paring-down the actual number of words and sentences.

Move!  The eye is built to track whatever moves. Moving focuses the mind on what’s moving. It makes us better listeners.

Get over it and start using Visuals.  Stories are visuals. Words can be visual, but PICTURES are also visuals. Even writing and drawing on a board helps. (Time Magazine recently highlighted Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels preaching style of writing key ideas on whiteboards during the sermon. This is a smart visual aid that reinforces memory.)

Add Emotional Content.  The brain LOVES emotional content and stores it more deeply. Poignancy is crucial, as is YOUR emotional tenor during your delivery. A flat delivery will create flat memories. This is why poignant and personal stories are effective.


Short-term Review = at the end of the lesson, before the day is out, and at the beginning of the following week’s lesson. Teachers who don’t summarize at the end of their lessons because they have too much left to do, are doing less than they think!.

Other important short-term opportunities: Take-home content, parents asking about lessons, a pastor referencing content in their childrens sermons and liturgy, referencing of content at mid-week program.

Review during your sermon!   Many preachers preach in a stream of consciousness style… getting to a destination or point. But the brain research says that we need to GO BACK to previously preached/taught content to stimulate longer-term memory. Thus, each part of your sermon should reference its previous parts, and at the end of the sermon it would be wise to reiterate the previous parts/stories/points of your sermon. This will trigger the brain to move those memories into longer-term storage.

Review parts of your sermon in other places in the liturgy. Reference ideas in the responses, in the prayers (don’t re-preach! …rather, “impress.”) This will trigger the brain’s memory process to store the content in longer-term storage. 

Shorten and “RESET” your sermons. 25 minutes is too long. The research says that most brains “fatigue” after 10 minutes, and need “reset.” Thus, you should create sermons that have distinct movements or units. 

A brain “reset” is a cognitive, visual, and auditory BREAK.  It’s an intermission. It allows the brain to compartementalize content. It could be as simple as walking out of the pulpit to tell a new story, or switch to a new point.  The author of Brain Rules books is a teaching professor. He says that you have to RESET the listener’s brain about every 8 to 10 minutes. If you don’t, they wander, and your content gets fuzzy.


Long-term Review = Quarterly and Annual “reviews”. The brain is wired to store memories more vibrantly into long-term storage IF the memories are refreshed and reinvigorated. A “talking head” review isn’t an invigorating review as far as the memory is concerned.

“Forcing” recall, –causing students to search their memories, rather than spoon feeding them the information, helps the long-term storage process. Thus, season ending “gameshows” and computer quizzes are a great idea.

Use other venues and time slots to go back over previously taught content, such as, mid-week Fellowship groups, childrens sermons, childrens worship –all of which can be used to schedule the reinforcement of key content. Also… repetition of key stories/content in the curriculum. For example, the Exodus story deserves to be taught more than once every 5 or 6 years.

REFERENCE PREVIOUS SERMONS. When you say, “last week I told the story of the boy who…” — you are forcing their recall —which triggers the brain to put those memories into deeper storage. 

This is also why “sermons excerpts” should be printed in newsletters (and not necessarily the whole sermon everytime).

Why do many lesson plans and curriculums IGNORE the importance of review and quizzing?
In part because curriculum publishers want us to chew through lessons. In part because there is a lack of understanding of how memories are formed. And in part because “review” often consists of a talking head asking boring questions which students don’t want to respond to.

Quizzing & review was one of the very first things I realized the computer was great at when I first started teaching with software back in the early 90’s .

This insight continues to influence my software design. It’s why programs like Elijah & Jonah CD, and Jesus in Space, and Awesome Bible Stories are FULL of little mini-quizzes and quiz-like games.

It’s also why I continue to like 3-D style games like Exodus and Joseph… because kids will GLADLY play them again and again and again.

[Aside: Now you know why I’m a huge advocate of the Rotation model for Sunday School, —teaching the same story several weeks in a row through different media each week.]


Take Note!   The “Extra” Content in our software is there for a reason.
Sometimes teachers will say to me, “I don’t have time to get through everything on your CD.” And I tell them, “well, that’s kind of the point!” We have put quizzes and game-like quizzes in there for teachers to getBACK TO at a LATER time.

It’s really one of the secrets of understanding most of our “Sunday Software-made” programs. I’ve put in more than you can use in one setting, not merely to give you choices, but to give you ‘extra’ to use at a later time. And I’ve given you activities and games with “sneaky content” which they are MORE than willing to “play again.”

For example:  the Sumo Wrestling Game in Awesome Bible Stories’ Jacob & Esau story. The kids would play that every week if you let them, but they can’t advance without correctly answering questions about the story.

For example: the mini-arcade games in Elijah’s CD.

For example: The Whammo Labs Seder Plate game in Jesus in Space CD.

For example: The matching quizzes built into the “Professor’s bookshelf” in Life of Christ CD.

Seven Lesson Examples for Reviewing Previously Taught Content Example #1:

One week after playing the Jonah story in our Elijah & Jonah CD, start next week’s lesson by saying, “Before we start today’s lesson, I want you to take the FIRST 5 minutes of classtime and play the Jonah “Story Order” game.

Then, about 8 weeks out, make your computer lab lesson a QUIZ DAY. Write about 35 multiple choice questions about Jonah and all your other lessons you have recently taught, and type them into the Fall of Jerich CD Question Editor. First one to Jericho gets to see the walls knocked down!

Example #2
One week after studying the parable of the Good Samaritan in our Good Sam CD, have them take the quiz “Who Wants to Be a Samaritan” again that’s found on the CD, –even if you did it last week Tell them “let’s see how much your remember!” They’ll gladly play along About 6 weeks out, in the last 10 minutes of any lesson, turn on Crosswords CD on your computer and have your students complete your “Good Sam crossword puzzle” that you created for them.

Example #3
Four weeks after teaching a unit about Joseph, after you’ve already moved on to other stories, ROLL IN to class with your laptop and a copy of Joseph’s Story CD. The game plays them through the entire story IN SEQUENCE. And with THAT story, remembering the parts of that huge story is critical to understanding its meaning.

Example #4
Every 10 to 12 weeks, hold a “Game Show Event” for your grades. Come up with 50 questions about all your lessons and put them in a Jeopardy format, or edit them together as a question set in Bible Grand Slam CD or Fall of Jericho CD (these are quiz programs in the disguise of games)

Example #5
Edit together a collection of “memorable scripture verses” from your last 6 or 7 lessons and put them into Cal & Marty’s Scripture Memory Game CD for review. Put a chart on the wall and have kids work through the verses in the game to get their name listed on the “Wall of Honor.”

Example #6
Have your Junior or Senior High class CREATE crossword puzzles and wordsearches for the younger grades using our Bible Crosswords CD, and print them out for younger kids as take-home puzzles

Have each student “sign” the puzzle and include an encouraging note. Have the youth write on the puzzle, “bring this back to me next Sunday and I’ve got a prize for you!” Not only will the younger kids respond, but the older kids will learn the content too! …and gain a sense of leadership.

Example #7
Use OTHER VENUES, such as, children’s sermons, to reinforce previously taught content. If your ch sermons follow up on what you’ve been teaching, your congregation will be impressed with what the kids know.

Hope you find this email newsletter helpful!
<>< Neil MacQueen

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