by Ana Casado
James Lang, the author who brought us On Course and Cheating Lessons, has written another helpful book, just published last year, titled Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. In it, Lang provides accessible tips that can be immediately put into practice without changing much about a course or grading structure. Lang proposes that small tweaks to your teaching can yield big results in student learning. With this approach, instructors don’t necessarily need to redesign an entire course to make proactive changes that will benefit students. The text is organized by elements of learning theory, such as information retrieval, making connections between concepts, and motivation.
I was excited to try some of Lang’s suggestions in my own Introduction to Biological Anthropology course this semester. The techniques that stuck out most to me as things I could implement immediately in my course were practice, retrieval, and connection. Below I describe how I approached these small teaching methods.
Lang states, “Whatever cognitive skills you are seeking to instill in your students, and that you will be assessing for a grade, the students should have time to practice in class.” After all, Lang argues, we would never lecture at a group of students about soccer for 6 weeks and then expect them to get on the field and play flawlessly. Practice – even using what many instructors consider to be precious class time – makes perfect. To combat the risk of overlearning, or excessive practicing to the point of rote memorization, instructors might allow students in-class practice time paired with constructive feedback from the instructor. The feedback, combined with reminders to consider new information, can keep students more actively engaged in practicing the material. For the same reason you want soccer players to practice, your students need practice time with the material so they don’t flop on the proverbial field. And that practice time should come during class time, so you’re available to guide them in different directions and provide formative feedback.
To help my students practice concepts in class, I created a series of active learning assignments that did not take much time to grade and did not change the structure of my syllabus (I made them part of students’ participation points). Instead of relying primarily on lecture, I split the class sessions into lecture and activities. Students got to work with the material in class, usually in groups, so I could give immediate constructive feedback. Some examples of activities I implemented include: group quizzes, wherein students work together using course materials to answer questions; a ‘generate your own test questions’ activity, in which students design test questions to reinforce metacognition as a learning tool; and embedded labs on topics like Mendelian genetics and human evolution.
Lang broadly describes retrieval as ‘pulling out’ information rather than ‘putting in’ information. Many students report that their primary study strategy is to “look over” their notes (Lang, 2016; McGuire, 2015). This passive method of re-reading material or notes does not help them recall information, analyze themes, or apply concepts. So, to help my students practice retrieving information in class, I created a Jeopardy game using a PowerPoint template I found online. I divided the class into two groups and each group was allowed to confer with one another before raising hands to answer the question (or, because it was Jeopardy, provide the question to the answer). On midterm feedback, students overwhelmingly agreed that the retrieval work in class helped them learn material for their exam.
Lang describes the importance of making connections between course concepts by summarizing how our neurons make new connections in our brains every time we have a new experience. The connections are then strengthened every time we use that information. We can ask our students to strengthen neuronal connections as well as connections among terms and concepts so that they leave our classrooms with a large network of understanding of the topic. It’s great to stress the big picture to our students, but it’s even better to facilitate some of that understanding of the bigger picture. To do this, Lang suggests activities like having students create concept maps, giving students pre-quizzes to gauge prior knowledge, or asking students to complete a “minute thesis” at the beginning or end of class. At UCAT we typically call these “minute papers,” but the principle is the same. Students pull out a piece of paper and take about a minute to respond to a question. This can come at the beginning of class, as a reflection on homework or the last class period, or it can come at the end of class, as a reflection on that day’s class material. Questions can be specific (“What do Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel have in common?”) or they can be broad (“What was the main point of today’s activity?” or “What was the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned today?”). I really enjoy the use of minute papers, and my students have told me they do, too. Of course, they appreciate having the opportunity to earn a few extra points, but this semester a few of them said it helped the material sink in to have a minute at the end of class to think about it. When most students are thinking ahead to their next class, what they’re going to have for lunch, or personal matters, the minute paper asks them to quietly reflect with the material before leaving for the day. In turn, this strengthens connections between topics and helps them visualize a big picture.
We are now nearing the end of the semester and I feel pretty good about how my small changes affected my class. I don’t have much quantitative data to support that (yet!), but I do have more informal data that I’ve intuited as I’ve observed the class. After including small, low-stakes activities, opportunities for reflection on the material, and practice sessions, I noticed the following things: a few students who had previously been skipping class started attending regularly; students asked more questions during lecture and in-class activities; students who sat in the back of the classroom started sitting closer to the front; and an increase in participation and student engagement in general. I really do believe these small teaching techniques made an impact on my class this semester. I encourage you to try some out for yourself!
Lang, James. 2016. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass.
McGuire, Saundra. 2015. Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. Stylus Publications, Sterling, VA.
Ana Casado is a Graduate Consultant at UCAT and a PhD Candidate in Ohio State’s Department of Anthropology.