Advice on How to Study by Distance Learning


This introduction is meant to help you cope with some of the initial challenges you may experience as you start to follow the British Bible School Distance Learning Programme.

In traditional Western Higher Education, of which some of you may have had experience, four key study activities have been developed to help students learn and develop their understanding. They are:

  • Essay writing
  • Classes and seminars
  • Individual tutorials
  • Lectures

These methods have proved to be relatively effective in helping students to learn and to adapt materials for their own use.

Obviously, you have embarked on a distance learning course which alters the balance between these different methods, and which makes it imperative for you to make the most of the materials, opportunities, and literature which are most suitable for this type of learning.

Some of you may have academic qualifications and thus a familiarity with the demands of academic study but for some of you this experience may have been gained many years ago and thus you may find yourself in need of a refresher course to help you to get back up to speed. Other students may come to the British Bible School Distance Learning Programme with a lifetime’s spiritual growth behind them. Praise the Lord! If you have academic skills or spiritual experience bring what you have with you and use it to the full.

Whatever your background we assume that your interest in this programme indicates that you have the necessary self-discipline and determination to keep on keeping on.

What are we able to offer?

We offer:

  • Study material
  • Recorded lectures
  • Access to Study Days / Weekends and other Study Events
  • The setting and detailed assessment of essays and other forms of coursework.

Let us look at some of these factors in a little more detail:

The secret ingredient

Before going any further it is good to remind ourselves that we are not on our own. We have a Heavenly Father who wants us to know Him better and is willing to help us achieve this goal. Read and reflect upon James 1: 5 before going any further.

If you don’t know what you are doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. 1

Study material

Do not treat the study material as “museum pieces”. Each page has wide margins to enable you to make your own notes in which you can enter into critical debate (positive as well as negative) with the authors. This is an excellent way of learning. It is also worthwhile preparing a synopsis of each article, together with a summary of your own response. Where you agree, say so and say why. And where you disagree do the same: say why you disagree and how you think this disagreement could be resolved. And always give your reasons.

As you proceed through the Units, it is advisable to build and retain a snap-shot picture of each section, so that when issues re-emerge you are in a position to return to earlier material and consolidate, revise, or develop your position. Indeed, when returning to something that you previously found difficult you will often end up wondering what the problem was. Again, as you go back over earlier material you will become more sensitive to the interconnections between the Units. Indeed, this increasing sensitivity can be taken as a clear indication of progress.

The study material, together with the recorded presentations, should provide you with sufficient data to complete the course, although we hope that you will choose to read more widely.

Recorded lectures

You will be given recordings throughout your studies. Some will be audio-visual and others just audio. Most will be recordings of the regular teachers at the British Bible School but these will be supplemented by visiting teachers well-known to us.

Most of these lectures have been recorded especially for the Distance Learning Programme or our Access Learning Programme in studio conditions.

These recordings should be treated as you would any conventional lecture.

In the traditional residential programme at the British Bible School, the main method of teaching is the lecture often followed by a time of discussion. In a context where teacher and students are meeting face-to-face every week it is possible to be more flexible in terms of content so, if a good question is asked, the teacher may decide to cut some of his prepared material and spend extra time addressing the new issue. In a Distance Learning Programme student-teacher interaction cannot occur during the lecture but is entirely appropriate at other points, particularly in your written work and our response to it.

The recorded lectures provided in this course cannot function in quite the same way as a classroom lecture although they are nevertheless an important part of the course. One of the main problems of the traditional lecture is that it involves the one-way flow of information from teacher to class. Lectures do not permit much interaction between class and teacher apart, perhaps, from the opportunity – if time permits – for a few brief questions and comments at the end.

Another problem with conventional lectures is that it is often difficult to follow the argument presented while at the same time taking useful or worthwhile notes. Unless such notes are taken, however, the gain to the student may be very slight. In fact D. A. Bligh, in his book revealingly entitled What’s the Use of Lectures? while recognising that different empirical studies disagree about the effectiveness of lectures for learning, points out that students only concentrate for about twenty minutes of the normal lecture. 2

This is why we believe that our recorded lectures are a great improvement over traditional methods of imparting information.

Students are not only able to take notes from the recordings and to think about and reflect upon what is said just as you would with a traditional class, but they have the advantage of being complete and permanent records which allow you to listen at your own speed, digest arguments and to replay at your convenience any controversial or difficult points.

This play-back facility makes the recorded lectures particularly appropriate for distance learning in that they may be tailored to fit in with the different external demands and varying attention spans likely to characterise our students.

Extra reading

We expect you to have and to use a Bible and there will be many points at which you are asked to read and also take notes from the Bible. We prefer you to use an English Bible but realise that those whose English is less than confident may need to read in their own language as well. Please read what you are asked to read, even if it is a passage with which you are familiar. It may not be as familiar as you think! There will also be opportunities for you to read around your subject but much will depend on your personal circumstances. The vast majority of British students will have a local lending library in their vicinity and perhaps other sources for borrowing or buying books as well but some of our overseas students may not be so well placed. We will be making suggestions about how to find books, particularly on the Internet, later in this module but, for now, try to read as much as you can and please do not neglect your regular and prayerful devotional reading of the Bible.

Essay writing

Your first assignments will not be essays so you have time to settle into a routine and, no doubt, get some marks on your record-sheet before you have to tackle your first essay. However, it will not hurt to start thinking about how essays are constructed well in advance.

Tackling the essay

Your introduction to your essay should state the nature of the problem. If you think that it is necessary, discuss any ambiguities in the question. If the question is a broad one, state the specific way in which you intend to tackle it. Here is it not sufficient merely to list the steps that you intend to take, you also need to demonstrate the rationale for this approach and how it connects up with and illuminates your central problem. If your introduction is systematic and cogent, these qualities are likely to be carried into the main body of your essay.

Always try to present arguments on a level and in terms that you understand. Do not simply lift arguments from the material we have given you or any other sources. (See notes on plagiarism below.)

Always try to put yourself in the place of your reader. This ability acts as a safeguard against taking things for granted. For example, there is a common tendency for students to jump from one point to the next without adequate explanation. This can often be rectified by simply adding a connecting sentence, although this tendency to jump from point to point in an unsignalled way may be indicative of an underlying confusion.

When writing you may take the liberty of assuming your teacher is an “intelligent idiot”. In other words, we can read but everything needs to be explained for us. Remember the acronym “KISS” and “Keep It Simple, Stupid!”

Avoid over-generalization and assertion. Support your arguments with relevant evidence and / or logical reasoning. This is not to say there is no place for speculation. Rather, it is to suggest that when you do speculate you should make it clear that you aware that you are doing so.

Try to exercise some control over your biases and opinions. Remember your aim should be to try to understand God’s word more adequately, not merely to find evidence that reinforces your predetermined position. If all you want to do is to defend your existing preconceptions you will find that there are cheaper and less time-consuming ways of achieving this end than enrolling in the British Bible School Distance Learning Programme.

Take care over your use of what is sometimes labelled “sexist” language. Try to cultivate a gender-inclusive style which does not involve you in excluding half the population from your discussion unless you mean to. Use “man” when referring to males (as in “the man has the responsibility of leading God’s people in worship”) and use human or people or some other appropriate term when referring to both men and women (so, for example, “all people who follow Jesus should expect to carry a cross”).


There is an old saying to the effect that copying from one book is plagiarism but copying form several is research. These is an element of truth in this but, like many such sayings, it is not strictly true. Plagiarism occurs when you fail to acknowledge sources and is not dependent on the number you use. And of course there is also a moral issue involved here as plagiarism is, to all intents and purposes, the theft of another person’s work. So don’t do it and if you do and you get caught you can expect severe sanctions.

There are a number of practical reasons why you should always give full references when using other people’s work. They include the following:

By acknowledging your sources you are able to distance yourself from the views expressed in them – you are not committed to the point of view expressed by your source – and hence are in a much better position to criticize, amend, or agree with the viewpoints expressed.

By putting the ideas of others into your owns words – perhaps by using the conventional “Bloggs argues that . . .” you not only have a better chance of demonstrating that you understand the point made, but are also able to eliminate words and expressions that do not fit with your own style, and which might prevent your essay from “flowing” and reading like your own work. Experienced teachers can usually detect the joins when students have tried to “cut and paste”.

Stating your sources also invites readers to consult the sources themselves so as to ascertain whether they agree with the interpretation you have put on the author’s argument, perhaps also introducing them to an interesting, previously unknown, source.

Quoting sources also allows one to support ones own argument by reference to an eminent authority. It is always pleasurable to discover how great minds think alike!

You may remember where you found your material at the time but when you return to your essay in years to come you will probably have forgotten where it came from. If your sources are correctly documented you can return to them quickly and easily.

General advice

It is seldom sufficient to use a direct quote and to leave that quote to stand on its own. It is usually necessary to “explain” the quote or at least to point out how it supports or complements a point that you have been making.

Bible references should be checked, particularly if you are taking them from another source. Does the reference really say what the commentators say it says?

Likewise “facts” and “statistics” should be carefully referenced. Other people reading your work may wish to challenge the “fact” or be able to demonstrate that your fact has been so taken out of context that it no longer means anything. Remember what Benjamin Disraeli is reported to have said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

So, always endeavour to quote accurately and give the appropriate reference. Anybody who has written a long essay will testify to the annoyance caused and the time wasted searching for references that were not noted down when first encountered.

Finally, at the end of your essay, always give a list of the books and articles you have used. You can then always refer back to them later when needed. Do not, though, list sources that you have not used, simply to give your work a spurious impression of scholarship. You won’t fool anybody!


A reference should enable your reader to identify exactly where you found your information. There are different ways of displaying this information but all show the same things even if how they are shown differs. References should be listed at the end of your essay as a bibliography in the alphabetical order of the author or editor’s surname. If one author has provided more than one book then list them in date order. Other information to include: the title of the publication, and place and year of publication.

If you are using an article from a magazine or journal give the exact page numbers and, in the case of books, place of publication and name of publisher. Use quotation marks for the “title” of the article and italics for the name of the book or journal. For a reference to an article from the Internet state the exact web address needed to find the same information along with the date you accessed it (for websites, unlike printed material, can be changed so that they no longer say what they used to say).

Examples (taken from a random selection):


Kitchen, K. A., On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003).

Journal article

Moberly, R. B., “New Testament Chronology”, Theology (May / June 1994), 170-178.

Article in a book

Calvert, N. L., “Abraham” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels ed. Joel B. Green, 3-7, (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1992).


“Religion”, BBC Schools [Website] <> (11 November 2008).

Further examples will be given later in this module and students should consult the Distance Learning Programme Student Handbook.

What use can I make of my own ideas in essays?

It would be a pity if you were not able to make use of the wealth of experience we know you bring to this course. However, you must always be wary of reducing what ought to be a carefully argued and constructed piece of academic writing to a string of personal anecdotes. How then to use your own ideas effectively?

In writing essays for this course we want you to use your own ideas while at the same time not loosing touch with what the Bible is saying. You will be introduced to many eminent authorities on the Bible who deserve your respect but who must never be considered infallible. Often you will find yourself in agreement with what has been written in a book, in which case say why. And when you disagree you will need to back up your arguments with logical evidence.


Many students may interpret this to mean they have to come up with earth-shatteringly novel “pearls of wisdom”. The reality is much more mundane. As we have pointed out, all you will be expected to do is demonstrate your own thinking about the Word of God with reference to the thoughts of those who have approached these questions before us. Any “originality” will come in the ways in which you compare the views of others, throwing light upon the similarities and contrasts between them. You are not expected to make things up and re-writing the Bible is definitely not encouraged.

But just how legitimate is it to use your own experience? Not all such experience is relevant, of course. But it can be. The thing to bear in mind is that such experience should only be used to illustrate or exemplify broader points that you wish to make or which have been made by others.

Using your experiences in this way can not only make your essay more vivid for yourself and your readers, but can make all the difference between an ordinary essay and a much more stimulating one. However, care must be taken when anecdotal material is used that the main point is not obscured or lost sight of altogether. Care must also be taken using anecdotes to ensure that you are illustrating a Biblical point not buttressing a personal prejudice.

We shall attempt to give guidance here both in our marking and in a more detailed discussion of essay writing later in this module. There are some academic conventions that need to be followed but you should still be able to produce lively, interesting prose which is also informative and disciplined.


This material is based upon “Advice On How To Study By Distance Learning” from The University of Leicester, 1992.


  1.  Peterson, The Message, James 1:5 [Website] 
  2.  Bligh, What’s the Use of Lectures? 1970