Big Learning

James Lang, the author of four books and a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, has just published a remarkable new book on teaching and learning, called Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

Lang, professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, takes his inspiration from baseball, specifically the term “small ball,” which emphasizes doing all of the little things well, rather than swinging for the fences. His approach is in large part a recognition that faculty, especially part-time faculty, are busy and often not in a place to make large-scale changes to their course design. It is far better to make incremental improvements and have your teaching evolve, than attempt something massive or, worse yet, avoid making changes at all because of the time cost.

Although the book is informed by the latest psychological and pedagogical research, it’s highly engaging and accessible. In the span of one page, Lang references the latest academic research, Aristotle, and ordering tea from his local barista.

Here’s a distillation of Lang’s suggestions, which correspond to its chapters: 

1.     Give students frequent opportunities to retrieve what they have learned.

2.     Ask students to make predictions prior to learning will increase their ability to process that material.

3.     Space out learning and mix up the practice of skills (“interleaving”).

4.     Use prior knowledge to help students make connections and expand their networks of

5.     Break down what you want your students to do into small and specific tasks and give them feedback on those tasks.

6.     Have students explain what they are doing and why they are doing it, especially at the mid- and advanced stages of development.

7.     Appeal to your students’ willingness to help other people and make a contribution to their community and the world (“self-transcendence”).

8.     Communicate with your students in a way that praises effort over natural ability to foster a growth mindset.

9.     When you’re ready for some big teaching, consider more activity-based learning, such as service learning, games, and simulations. 

As part of his emphasis on the fundamentals, Lang offers a powerful corrective for two common practices (and errors) in higher ed. For one thing, he worries that we are too taken with Bloom’s taxonomy, specifically the notion that we should be spending as much time as possible on higher order skills such as evaluation and synthesis at the expense of more basic and essential skills like remembering and understanding. Regrettably, I am guilty of this. This is the premise behind Lang’s first principle: maximizing the “retrieval effect” will mean students have more knowledge to apply, when they get to that point.

Lang is also concerned how flipping courses—that is, having students’ first exposure to material occur before class meetings and saving class time for more difficult work—has not been matched with making good use of class time, an issue that the tips from Lang’s book will certainly help with.

If there is one essential lesson of the book, it relates to how we start and end our classes, which Lang discussed in two recent articles for The Chronicle. The open of a class should have students reflect on prior learning and prepare them for what’s to come, just as the last few minutes of a meeting should be used for reflection and to seal what has just been covered.

Also noteworthy is the extent to which Lang seamlessly interweaves lessons for onground and online teaching. He firmly recognizes how commonplace online and blended courses have become for teachers and does not treat them as an afterthought, as we find in many other treatments of the subject.

The great virtue of the book is that it speaks equally to novice and seasoned teachers. Even if it’s just getting in the habit of showing up to class 5-10 minutes early to make connections with the more reserved students, it’s impossible to read Small Teaching and not come away with something that can help your teaching tomorrow.

Lang’s hope is that small teaching can lead to some big learning.