Advice & News

January 22, 2024

Small Teaching for Big Impact


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Do you feel overwhelmed by pressure to update syllabi, refine course materials, and experiment with new teaching approaches, all while trying to adapt to a shifting higher education landscape? Perhaps you are keen to make some changes to your courses but don't know where to start or worry that one change might create a domino effect of tedious rejigging. Enter the concept of "small teaching," coined by James Lang in 2016 and taken up by numerous educators in recent years.

Small teaching is about implementing minor changes that can have a big impact on student success. Using short activities, targeted one-time interventions, and slight tweaks to course materials, small teaching gives even the most overworked instructor some simple, low-prep strategies to invigorate a stale classroom. Sound helpful? Read on for a few examples of small teaching that you can try out in your next class session!

The Power of Predictions

Lang's conceptualization of small teaching draws on cognitive science in order to recommend strategies that are proven to be effective for most learners. For instance, Lang cites psychological studies to show the effectiveness of prediction-based activities in the classroom. It turns out that asking students to make predictions about course material -- even if those predictions are wrong -- increases students' ability to learn and retrieve the correct information later. The act of predicting primes the brain to situate knowledge within the learner's existing mental framework, creating, as Lang puts it, a "foundation for a richer, more connected knowing."

One way to incorporate predictions into your course design is through "closing predictions" -- asking students at the end of a class session what they might expect to learn in the upcoming homework or assigned reading. Then, in the next session, you can revisit the question and ask students to reflect on the accuracy of their predictions. In addition to sparking interest in the upcoming material, closing predictions provide an opportunity to create stronger links between class sessions and encourage students to think about the material outside of the classroom.

Practice Makes Perfect

Grading can be stressful, and when students aren't doing well on assignments, it can become downright frustrating. One way to make grading a more enjoyable part of your job is to ensure that students are equipped with the specific skills necessary to complete the assignments for your course. Often, instructors assume a baseline operational literacy when it comes to assignments, when in fact students need more guidance. Lang recommends really breaking down your assessments to make sure that your students -- and you! -- know all of the steps that are necessary to succeed.

Take a look at the major assignments in your course. Identify the one or two discrete skills that are most important to achieve success on those assignments. Spend a class session, or a few class segments throughout the semester, speaking to those skills and giving the students a chance to practice them in a hands-on, interactive way. It could be a thesis workshop, bibliography share, mini-presentation, test prep exercise, etc. These activities should be ungraded in order to keep them framed as practice (and keep students focused on the skills themselves). As Lang notes from personal experience, the more time you are able to dedicate to targeted skill practice, the higher the payoff you'll see through improved quality of student work.

Motivation Matters

Studies have long shown that intrinsic motivation is much stronger than extrinsic when it comes to learning. In other words, students need to be driven by something more than grades -- they learn best when they feel a sense of purpose. One way to activate students' intrinsic motivation is to create opportunities for emotional engagement with the subject matter. This emotional connection to the material helps "infuse our student learning with purpose," as Lang puts it, creating the conditions for strong intrinsic motivation.

The first few minutes of class are a great time to build emotional connections. Consider starting a session by presenting students with an evocative image, graph, or statistic related to the course material. Project it onto a large screen if possible or write it on the chalkboard. Ask them to sit with this piece of information for a moment, perhaps writing a few reflective sentences in their notes. Then invite a short discussion, allowing students' the opportunity to articulate any emotional responses -- you will see that strong emotions are contagious and energizing. Even negative emotions can be strong motivators for learning, but it's important to handle these moments with care and give students the opportunity to process the complex emotions tied to political or social issues.

Conclusion: Change is Good

Sure, change is scary. But it's also exciting and potentially revealing: you never know what unexpected insights -- about the course, your students, or your teaching style -- might arise from these small experiments. Change also adds up: incremental shifts in how we approach one lecture, assignment, or discussion can eventually transform major aspects of our teaching philosophy.

Small teaching is an important reminder that meaningful change doesn't have to come in the form of big, systemic course revisions. You don't have to rebuild your pedagogy from the ground up in order to improve your experience in the classroom and your overall course delivery. Minor changes can have a big impact, if you're willing to take some small (teaching) steps!

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