Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning
“Much of what we’ve been doing as teachers and students isn’t serving us well, but some comparatively simple changes could make a big difference”. (9)
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
In October 2014, fans of American major league baseball relished the sight of the plucky Kansas City Royals fighting their way to the final game of the World Series. What captured the attention of so many baseball enthusiasts was that the key to the Royals’ success throughout the season had been an old-fashioned approach to the sport called small ball. Rather than relying on muscle-bound sluggers hitting grand slam home runs, the Royals instead utilized the simple, incremental strategies that enable baseball teams to move runners from one base to the next and keep the other team from scoring: bunting, stealing bases, hitting sacrifice fly balls, and playing solid defense. These unglamorous achievements on the field don’t win baseball players the accolades that they might earn from smashing towering, game-winning home runs, but teams who play small ball in concerted and effective ways don’t need those kinds of dramatic heroics. Indeed, some baseball analysts pointed to the success of the Royals, who achieved their victories on a relatively small budget, as evidence of the future of baseball. “The Royals have found a winning formula,” wrote Sean Gregory, the baseball columnist for Time magazine. “These days, if you swing for the fences, you’re more likely than ever to strike out. So just put the ball in play…and take your chances with your legs. Steal bases to eke out those diminishing runs. Small-ball is cheap, and effective. This is where the game is headed” (Gregory 2014b). As the article notes, the really wonderful feature of small ball is that it’s both effective and inexpensive—and hence available to everyone. Even teams that spend money on those glamorous sluggers can still play small ball—as was evidenced in the final game of the World Series, in which the bigger budget San Francisco Giants snatched victory from the Royals by beating them at their own game and scoring two of their three runs on unglamorous sacrifice fly balls (Gregory 2014a).
My own acquaintance with small ball comes from a less dramatic story than the one the Kansas City Royals engineered in fall 2014. I have five children and live in a New England city where love for baseball runs deep. So for the past 15 years I have been sitting on uncomfortable metal benches for 2 months every late spring and watching my children play various levels of softball and baseball in our city leagues. The particular league to which my children belong is a long-standing one; many of the coaches played in the league when they were children. These coaches frequently take the games quite seriously, perhaps in an effort to recapture the glory of their childhood playing days. As a result, they scout and select the best players every year who are coming up from the younger leagues and thus leave newer or inexperienced coaches to draft their teams from a much depleted talent pool. Yet, despite the advantages that these more aggressive coaches gain in recruiting the top players, they don’t always win. In little league as in the major leagues, the coaches who seem to have the greatest success are the ones who focus their attention—and the attention of their players—on mastering all of the small elements of the game. Small-ball coaches will signal their base runners to steal when the fielders are haphazardly tossing the ball around the infield, or they will ensure that someone is always backing up a throw to first base in case the first-base person misses. Since nobody is really bashing home runs out of the park on a softball team of 8-year-olds, small ball really represents the only guaranteed strategy for long-term success.
The idea for this book began to percolate at the end of one of those long softball seasons, as I was preparing for a round of fall visits to other college campuses in support of my previous book. I had been blessed for the past several years with invitations to present workshops for college instructors on teaching and learning in higher education at other institutions, an endeavor I welcomed and enjoyed. When I first began presenting, I relished the chance to speak to my fellow college and university teachers about major transformations they could make to their courses. Unfortunately, I was usually making such visits during the middle of a semester, which meant that workshop participants had to wait until the following semester to implement any of my suggestions. Even instructors with the best of intentions to revitalize their teaching might find it challenging to carry what they had learned about in a 2-hour workshop in October to their course planning in January or August, given all the work that would occupy their minds in the interim. More fundamentally, sudden and dramatic transformation to one’s teaching is hard work and can prove a tough sell to instructors with so many time-consuming responsibilities. As a working instructor myself, I taught courses in literature and writing every semester, so I knew full well the depth of this challenge. As much as I frequently felt the urge to shake up my teaching practices with radical new innovations, I mostly didn’t. Reconceiving your courses from the ground up takes time and energy that most of us have in short supply in the middle of the semester, and that we usually expend on our research during the semester breaks.
My reflections on this dilemma led me to consider whether I should incorporate into my workshops more activities that instructors could turn around and use in their classrooms the next morning or the next week without an extensive overhaul of their teaching—the pedagogical equivalents, in other words, of small ball. With that prospect in mind, I dove into the literature of teaching and learning in higher education with new eyes, seeking small-ball recommendations that were both easy to implement and well supported by the research. Over the course of many months this search led me through the work of cognitive psychologists who study the mechanics of learning, to neuroscientists and biologists who helped me understand some basic aspects of brain science, and to research in learning-related fields such as emotions and motivation. I was pleasantly surprised to find in these fields a manageable number of learning principles that seemed readily translatable into higher education classrooms. Gradually I began searching for practical examples of how these principles could operate in the classroom, and I began recommending some of the strategies I was discovering to participants in my workshops. I could feel the energy and excitement rising in the room whenever participants could see a short road between a late afternoon workshop and a concrete and positive change that they could make in their classes the next morning. But nothing made me more interested and excited than the small successes I experienced when I incorporated some of the strategies I had learned about into my own classroom. Over the course of that fall semester, as I both worked on my own teaching and spoke with other instructors about these ideas, I became convinced of the seemingly paradoxical notion that fundamental pedagogical improvement was possible through incremental change—in the same way that winning the World Series was possible through stealing bases and hitting sacrifice fly balls.
This newfound conviction ultimately gave rise to the notion of small teaching, an approach that seeks to spark positive change in higher education through small but powerful modifications to our course design and teaching practices. Small teaching as a fully developed strategy draws from the deep well of research on learning and higher education to create a deliberate, structured, and incremental approach to changing our courses for the better. The past several decades have brought us a growing body of research on how human beings learn, and a new generation of scholars in those fields has begun to translate findings from the laboratories of memory and cognition researchers to the higher education classrooms of today. Their findings increasingly suggest the potency of small shifts in how we design our courses, conduct our classrooms, and communicate with our students. Some of the findings may also suggest pathways to change that arise from dramatic transformation to our courses, and I will point toward a few of these in this book’s final chapter. But if we are seeking to boost our students’ learning of course content, to improve their basic intellectual skills—such as writing, speaking, and critical thinking—and to prepare them for success in their careers, then I believe we can find in small teaching an approach to our shared work of educating students that is effective for our students and accessible to the largest number of working college and university teachers.
Widespread accessibility to working teachers matters a great deal, especially if we consider the incredibly diverse range of contexts in which higher education operates these days. Teaching innovations that have the potential to spur broad changes must be as accessible to underpaid and overworked adjuncts as they are to tenured faculty at research universities. They must find a home on the campus of a small liberal arts college as easily as they do on the commuter campuses of regional comprehensives. They must offer something to traditional lecturers in big rooms and to discussion leaders in small seminars. The activities outlined in this book, taken as a whole, fulfill these directives: with a little bit of creative thinking, they can translate into every conceivable type of teaching environment in higher education, from lectures in cavernous classrooms to discussions in small seminar rooms, from fully face-to-face to fully online courses and every blended shade between. They stem from very basic principles of how human beings learn and hence cross both discipline and content type—whether you are teaching students to memorize facts or formulae, to develop their speaking skills, or to solve complex problems. Not every instructor in every discipline in every teaching context will find a space for all of the small teaching activities outlined here, but every reader should find opportunities to use at least some of them. You can implement them tomorrow morning, next week on Friday, in the design of your next quiz or test, and even—as we shall see in the final part of the book—in the next e-mail you send to your students.
To ensure that these techniques lent themselves to this kind of universal accessibility, and thus merit space beneath the umbrella of small teaching, the principles outlined in this book had to meet three basic criteria. First, they had to have some foundation in the learning sciences. Fortunately, over the past decade or two a cohort of learning scientists has begun to present findings from those disciplines in forms that are accessible to nonspecialists like me. Books like Daniel Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory; Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School; or Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel’s Make It Stick present the results of research in neuroscience and cognitive theory in ways that spell out their implications clearly for teachers and learners. Second, these learning principles had to have a positive impact in real-world educational environments—higher education whenever possible. This test proved the most challenging one to meet; some strategies that seemed plausible to me, or that stemmed from fascinating laboratory experiments, did not ultimately make it into the book since they could not clear this essential hurdle. Finally, I had to observe the principles directly myself somehow, either from my own experiences as a teacher or learner or from direct observation of other teaching and learning environments. Call me overly cautious, but I needed these principles to pass this final smell test for me to be absolutely certain that I could recommend them to working instructors. Most of the chapters that follow begin with an example of how I have sniffed out these principles in some learning experience from my own life or from the lives of my students or even my children, and I hope these personal examples might help you identify moments in which you have seen them at work in your own learning histories as well.
Assuming a teaching and learning activity met all three of these criteria, it still had to be capable of implementation in ways that fell under the umbrella of small teaching. As you will find in the pages that follow, a small teaching approach or activity may take one of three forms:
- Brief (5–10-minute) classroom or online learning activities. I love the idea of small interventions in a learning session that can capture (or recapture) the attention of students, provide quick opportunities for student engagement, and introduce or seal up new learning. Even when you have an otherwise busy class session planned, you can find time for a 5-minute activity that will provide a substantive boost to the learning of your students.
- One-time interventions in a course. As in the case of the Minute Thesis exercise in Chapter 4, the meaning of small will occasionally shift from “a small portion of a class” to “a small portion of the course.” In other words, some small teaching activities could occupy an entire class period but need to do so only a single time in the semester.
- Small modifications in course design or communication with your students. These recommendations might not translate directly into 10-minute or one-time activities, but they also do not require radical rethinking of your courses. They might inspire tweaks or small changes in the way you organize the daily schedule of your course, write your course description or assignment sheets, or respond to the writing of your students. The strategies in Part III especially will fit under this category of small teaching approaches.
An essential shared quality of all three of these forms of small teaching is that they require minimal preparation and grading. Although we are all busy, this feature of small teaching strikes me as especially important for adjunct instructors, who may be teaching multiple courses on different campuses or working additional jobs to make ends meet. An adjunct instructor who can walk into class every day with a variety of small teaching exercises can actually reduce overall preparation time by seeding these powerful learning activities throughout her teaching. One-time activities like the Minute Thesis or a mindful practice session, which likewise require minimal preparation or grading, can also serve as a back pocket technique that an instructor could use on a day when a sick child or medical emergency or mental health day has reduced or eliminated normal preparation time.
Yet such activities, which may first find their way into your classroom as a means of filling an empty 10 minutes at the end of class or an unplanned course session, have the power to produce as much or more learning than your anxiously overprepared lecture. For me, this represents the real power and promise of small teaching. I hope the chapters that follow will demonstrate to you that small teaching is not a realist’s compromise, an inferior choice we have to make because we don’t have the time or energy to make the big changes that would really make a difference to our students. We have excellent evidence of the learning power of small teaching activities—in study after study, as you will see in the chapters that follow, small teaching activities have been proven to raise student performance on learning tasks by the equivalent of a full letter grade or higher. That’s powerful evidence—as powerful as anything I have seen in the learning research, including in studies devoted to grand slam approaches that grab the headlines of the Chronicle of Higher Education or other publications of our profession.
In further service to the argument that small and incremental approaches can have great power (and to the fact that we are all busy), you will find a variety of levels at which you can understand the small teaching strategies recommended in each chapter. You will have the richest understanding of any given small teaching approach by reading the chapter in its entirety, of course, but you can also drop into the practical application sections in the latter half of the chapters if you are looking for fast and immediate help. The structure of each chapter includes the following elements:
- Introduction: You will usually find here examples of how the particular learning phenomenon described in that chapter might appear in everyday life.
- In Theory: This section delves into the research that supports the recommendations of the chapter and includes descriptions of experiments from laboratories and classrooms as well as brief descriptions of key findings or principles from the cognitive sciences.
- Models: Four or five detailed models are described in each chapter—fully fleshed-out examples of how instructors could incorporate a small teaching approach into their course design, classroom or online practice, or communication with students.
- Principles: I hope and expect that instructors will not simply follow the models but also will take the overall strategy and develop their own new models. The principles provide guidance for creating your own small teaching strategies.
- Quick Small Teaching: One-sentence reminders of the simplest means of putting the small teaching strategy of that chapter into practice; flip through or return to these when you have 15 minutes before class and need a quick tip for an engaged learning activity.
- Conclusion: A final reflection on the main theory or strategy of the chapter.
I hope that your first reading of each chapter will help you see immediately how to make changes to your teaching that will benefit your students. But I hope as well that you can continue to rely on the book long after your first reading. Keep it handy and flip through it every now and again or whenever you feel the need to try something new and different in your classroom. Use the book to spark new or newly invigorated conversations on your campus about how we can best help our students learn and about how we can best promote positive change in higher education. Finally, when you are ready to explore further the literature on teaching and learning in higher education, and move beyond these specific recommendations, page through the Works Cited list for more reading ideas. I have attempted to keep that list as small as possible, in order not to overwhelm new readers to this field, and to focus on some key texts and seminal studies that are easily accessible to most readers. (Know that the field of research for every chapter topic in this book extends far beyond my spare citations.)
The small teaching models and principles that you will find in the chapters ahead can be taken singly, as one-time spurs to innovation in a specific course session or unit plan, but they could also be combined to create an entirely new approach to your teaching. If you are reading this book over a break, while you are not teaching, see if you can draw systematically from each of the three major parts of the book as you plan your next course, creating a comprehensive strategy for boosting student learning in your classroom. But if you are reading it during the middle of the semester, shift your focus from the forest to the trees. Select one activity or course modification, and commit to it for the rest of the semester. Make sure you give new activities time to flower; nothing works exactly as we might hope it would on the first attempt, so it might take several iterations before activities like opening or closing prediction exercises really begin to pay dividends. And as I will argue in the conclusion, search for ways to evaluate the effects of your small teaching changes, and determine whether they belong in your permanent teaching repertoire. Enlist the help of the teaching and learning center on your campus, if you have one, to help you better understand how to measure the impact of specific changes to your teaching on student learning. Students are not the only ones who will benefit from new learning as the result of small teaching, in other words; you can use these activities to take a more systematic approach to your own teaching, thinking deliberately about implementing, measuring, and modifying a range of possible teaching strategies in ways that will keep you learning and growing as a teacher throughout your career.
But we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves, and worry yet about your whole career. I will assume that you have class tomorrow, or next Monday, or at least within the next month or two, and you’re looking for ideas.
Let’s begin small.
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