Reading In Action

Tag: Small Teaching (Page 1 of 2)

BCcampus Online Book Club 2019 Fall offering is done: Your Feedback please!

Small Teaching and cup

Hello Everyone,

The 2nd offering of the BCcampus Online Book Club has now finished with great flourish on Friday November 15th.

Many thanks to the eight wonderful facilitators who shared their thoughts on chapters of “Small Teaching” by James M. Lang on our blog and facilitated lively discussions in our weekly online chapter chats and Friday webinars: Laura Mackay, Gina Bennett, Keith Webster, Asif Devji, Sylvia Riessner, Isabeau Iqbal, Lucas Wright and Peter Arthur.

We invite everyone who has been following along the posts and/or discussions to complete the Book Club survey and provide us with feedback.

Of particular interest is how we might make the Book Club more inclusive, accessible, as well as, improve participation. If you have ideas, please share them with us. If you have a book you’d like to suggest for future, let us know.

Thank you.

The BCcampus Book Club – Fall 2019


Chapter 9: Expanding

This post is by Peter Arthur.

Chapter 9 BIG Idea
Expand your view of what student learning may look like in your learning environment: Activity-Based Learning, Service Learning, and Games & Simulations are three big teaching pathways that are logical extensions of the first 8 chapters of the book. Additionally, the author refers to “Big Teaching”, which is giving students the opportunity to make a positive difference in the world, immersing them in real-world problems, activities and forcing them to think creatively and think together about all the logistics of the course and the program itself … creating a powerful learning experience. I see these three types of learning environments a paradigm shift from a learner as a consumer of information to someone who is actively engaged in creating and sharing knowledge.

Models, Principles and Resources

1. Activity-Based Learning

Activity-based learning “involves fieldwork, public service, community-based research and internships in conjunction with in class work”. These activities do not have to take all term i.e. a single class, or a week or two. Another way he conveys this type of learning is an extension from the confines of the classroom to a more public space. Students convey their learning to a more public purpose.

Principle: Ask students to do whatever people do outside of your class in your discipline or with the specific content and skills you are teaching them. The author uses the example of his writing students using placed-based skills to write travel essays for the newspaper or magazines.

Resources Mentioned: gathering place of research, examples, and ideas for pedagogical innovation in higher education.
• Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

2. Service Learning

Service learning is a win/win. A win for an exceptional student learning experience and at the same time contributes to the local, regional and global community. This type of learning provides real-world exposure and engagement with meaningful local and global issues.

Principle: To support your implementation of service learning leverage your higher education’s resources  i.e. service learning office to assist with connecting students with local community organizations. Additionally, seek a colleague who is already leveraging service learning to learn more.

Peter’s experience:  Service learning can be a very transformative experience! I recommend checking first to see if your institution has a service learning office. Additionally, you may want to consult your Centre for Teaching and Learning. To increase the chance of success, I think it is really important to make sure the external organization is well prepared for students.  Often external organizations are not educators and it is important to clarify the role of the organization and your students. Further, it is important that your students are well prepared to be engaging with the public (examples will be shared with the book club) and have been taught how to reflect in order to get the most from their experiential learning.

Resource Mentioned:
• Jacoby, B., & O’Reilly for Higher Education. (2014). Service-learning essentials: Questions, answers, and lessons learned (1;1st; ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

An example of Service Learning at UBC Okanagan: students engaged with communities in India and Haida Gwaii

3. Games and Simulations

The author provides one main example of games and simulations: Reacting to the past is a role-immersion game where students are put into place as historical actors at key moments of crisis or transition in human history and play out their own version of those historical events to some final conclusion.

Principle: A simple way to for an instructor to try out games and simulations is to try a reacting game, as they have been used in higher education classes for a long time. Check the consortium website to see if there is a game already created for your context. Additionally, recommends reading Minds on Fire (see below).

Resource Mentioned:
• Reacting games:
• Carnes, M. C., & Harvard University Press 2014 eBooks (Canadian Institution). (2014). Minds on fire: How role-immersion games transform college. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Note: This section triggered my memory of Professor David Kaufman (SFU) $3 million Simulations and Advanced Gaming Environments for Learning (SAGE) SSHRC grant. This is an area where there are many great examples beyond reacting simulations.

QUICK TIPS: Expanding YOUR Learning

1. Commit to reading at least one new teaching and learning book every year. (For example join BCcampus book club each year!)
2. Subscribe to an email list.
3. Create a personal learning network.
4. Attend a teaching and learning conference. i.e. Festival of Learning May 2020
5. Engage with your Centre for Teaching and Learning events.

Out of all the books the author recommends, I have engaged with and highly recommend:

• Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

• Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

• Ambrose, S. A., & O’Reilly for Higher Education. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Questions to Connect to Your Life

1. How have you used Activity-Based Learning, Service Learning and/or Games/simulations in an educational context? Any advice?

2. Do you have any recommended books, email lists, teaching and learning conferences that you recommend to colleagues? How do you grow as an educator?

Join us as we chat about “Chapter 9: Expanding” in  Mattermost this week and for our final live web conference meetup on Friday, November 15th at 11:00am PST. It’s easy to create an account and join in on the discussion. See How to Participate.


Chapter 8: Growing

This post is by Peter Arthur.

Chapter 8 BIG Idea

Similar to intelligence, mindsets are malleable and can be developed. There are many curricular interventions teachers may implement to support students with developing a strong growth mindset towards intelligence and all areas of life.

What is Growth and Fixed Mindset?

Students with a fixed mindset believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that. Many of us have heard a student stating that they are bad at _____, has always been bad at ______, their brother is bad at _____, their sister is bad at _____ and they are bad at _____…they were born that way and there is nothing they can do about it. Conversely, students with a growth mindset understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

Mindset has an impact on a student’s motivation to work in the face of failure and setbacks.  Those students who attribute failure to their own inability i.e. “I’m not Intelligent” become helpless because it is something they can’t control.  However, those who interpret failure as a result of insufficient effort or an ineffective strategy dig deeper and try different approaches.  This is something a student CAN control

Mindset Strategies to Integrate into your Teaching 

1. Reward Growth – Design your assessment strategy to align with rewarding intellectual growth.

  • Weigh later assignments I the same sequence for heavily than earlier ones. i.e 10, 15, 20, 25. This provides students the opportunity to have a setback early, and learn from it.
  • Allow students to revise work or retake exams. For example, provide students the opportunity to revise or retake it.

2. Give Growth-Language Feedback

  • Praise effort rather than talent. Instead of telling a student, “You are a talented mathematician,” say, “You must have worked really hard on your mathematics and it shows!”

3. Growth Talk – Be mindful of the way you communicate with students to reinforce a growth verses fixed mindset.

  • When you communicate with students be careful not to reinforce a fixed mindset i.e. you either know how to write or you don’t. Instead communicate growth talk by reinforcing effort rather than natural talent i.e. share a story of how a student worked hard in your course and learned a lot.
  • Note: it is recommended to check your syllabus and assignments for fixed vs growth talk.

4. Promote Success Strategies

  • Provide specific advice on how to learn and succeed in your course.
  • Communication example, “I think that if you will put in a good effort next semester, you will be absolutely amazed by how much you can learn about financial accounting.”
Strategies I Have Implemented
  1. Directly taught that intelligence is malleable and can be developed with effort.
  2. Reinforced the importance of embracing challenge. Only through challenge will there be growth.  Some students feel they must be “not smart” if they are having difficulty learning a competency, however, they often do not realize the challenge is very important and key to learning growth.  An example of this is Bjork’s “desirable difficulties” to enhance learning.
  3. Failure Mindsets. Support students with viewing setbacks and failure as something that happens to us all and we can view it as either debilitating or as an experience that facilitates learning and growth.
  1. Design for Growth
    • How can you reward students for their effort and provide opportunities to revise and improve their work? i.e. make one assignment per semester open for revision.
  2. Communicate for Growth
    • Communicate with students using a growth mindset language (see strategies above).
  3. Feedback for Growth
    • Provide formative feedback with growth mindset language i.e. “All of this will require effort on your part, but that effort should really pay off on your next ”
Small Teaching Quick Tips
  • Provide early success opportunities through assignment sequencing or assessment design.
  • Provide examples of initial failures or setbacks in your own intellectual journey or in those of famous or recognizable figures in your field to demonstrate that such failures can be overcome. The example I use is Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was actually fired from Apple Computers. When Jobs was fired from Apple, he was quoted to say “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”
  • Give feedback to students in growth language; convey the message that they are capable of improvement, and offer specific instructions on how to achieve the improvement.
  • Include a “Tips for Success in This Course” section on your syllabus, and refer to it throughout the semester.
Questions to Connect to Your Life
  1. In what areas of your life do you have a growth and/or a fixed mindset?
  2. What strategies do you use to mitigate a fixed mindset in your own life?
  3. In what ways have you witnessed either a growth or fixed mindset among students in your educational context?
  4. Reflecting on your teaching practice, in what ways are you developing a student’s growth mindset?
Notable Recent Papers on Mindset

 In my opinion the following two papers are the most significant recent papers on mindset.  The first is a meta-analysis that found the effect size of mindset to be weak, however, studies reinforced that low socioeconomic status and academically at-risk students might benefit from mindset interventions.  The Second article published in Nature, indicated that a short online growth mindset intervention improved grades among lower-achieving students and increased overall enrolment to advanced mathematics courses.

Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mind-sets important to academic achievement? two meta-analyses. Psychological Science, 29(4), 549-571. doi:10.1177/0956797617739704
Found online:

Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Murray, J. S., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., . . . Dweck, C. S. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364-369. doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y Found online:


How do you use strategies such as those discussed in “Chapter 8: Growing”? Share your ideas in the online Chapter discussions in Mattermost during this week and join us for the live web conference meetup Friday, November 8th at 11:00am PST. It’s easy to create an account and join in on the discussion. See How to Participate.

Chapter 6: Self-Explaining

This post is by Isabeau Iqbal.

10/365 Spiral by Clog

I was attracted to facilitating this chapter because, as a learner, I make minimal use of self-explanation and was curious to see how it might “serve” me to do so more often.

I write this as an educational developer who does not teach in the traditional (defined here as teaching undergraduate and graduate students in a post-secondary environment) classroom but spends a significant portion of her time consulting and working with individuals who do.

What is self-explaining and does it work? The nutshell and punchline for those who are pressed for time and/or impatient.

The basic premise of self-explanation is that learners benefit from explaining out loud to themselves or others what they are doing during the completion of a learning task.  The best self-explanation techniques prompt learners to articulate what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Lang concludes this chapter by pointing out that research has yielded mixed results when it comes to the learning benefits of self-explanation; in some cases, learners with minimal knowledge of a subject benefit, whereas in other cases it is those with more knowledge who benefit.

Parallel lines by theilr

How self-explaining works

In previous chapters, Lang underscored that mindful practice and mindful learning during practice foster learning and retention.

Self-explanation is a technique for fostering mindful learning during practice. It can help with that vexing problem of far transfer (or lack thereof)–that ability to carry theories or principles from the initial context to a new context.

Self-explanation can also help improve the learner’s comprehension when it requires individuals to make connections between their knowledge and their skills.

Summarizing research done in this field, Lang writes that the practices below foster learning during self-explaining.


  • tie specific problems to general principles and connect knowing and doing
  • monitor their own comprehension and can admit to being stuck
  • actively seek to fill in the gaps in their understanding when they feel stuck
  • are able to re-state different aspects of the problem in their own words
Self-explanation fosters learning because this approach helps learners:
  1. “Fill gaps and make inferences in learning productive ways” .
  2. “Modify and improve their existing perceptions or knowledge of a subject matter” (p.147)

Does self-explaining that is prompted by instructors foster learning?

One of the questions that especially piqued my curiousity in this chapter is the one that asks “Do self-explanations that are generated by teacher prompts have the same effect as self-explanations that are spontaneously generated by students?” (p.143).

According to the research that Lang reviewed, self-explanations generated by teacher prompts enhance learning and understanding when students receive immediate feedback.

The small teaching strategy that was cited several times in this chapter, as an example of a teacher-generated prompt, was that of asking students to select, from a drop-down menu, what principles are at play. When prompts are inserted into an assignment at key points, students must reflect on how certain principles are being applied in a specific context. This then helps with the issue of transfer because it requires students to make inference rules.

Citing Chi, Bassok, Lewis, Reiman, and Glaser (p. 178, 1989) Lang writes “Inference rules ‘spell out more clearly the specific conditions or situations in which a specific action is to be taken.’”

Ways to use self-explaining in your teaching

“When using self-explaining, create opportunities that require students to select or articulate principles as they are making choices, searching for solutions, or revising their work” (p.156).


  • Ask students some variation of “Why are you doing that?” as you walk around the class while students are working on their own. (I think this would need to be carefully set up so it doesn’t terrify the students).  (similar to “think aloud” below).
  • Model self-explanation by using the “think-aloud” method as you read a passage or work through a problem. Alternatively, ask students to think out loud as they make decisions (p.154-155 or see Teaching Strategies: Think Alouds [geared to K-12, but useful]).
  • Use a drop-down menu at multiple points during an assignment to prompt students to reflect on the underlying principle at play. Doing so will, ideally, guide their next step.
  • Find ways to provide immediate feedback to students when they are engaging in self-explanation.
  • Scaffold this approach so it does not “over-tax” the students’ brains.
  • Use a “backward fading” approach in which students first observe a problem being worked out, next work out 1-2 steps on their own, and then complete the problem entirely on their own (see p.148 or Teaching with Worked Examples – Save learner time and effort while increasing performance!). (p.148)
  • Ask students to select X (e.g., 3 slides, or one particular section of an assignment) and write a short explanation of their choice. (p.152)
  • Incorporate self-explanation into peer instruction (p.152-153).

1.  I have bolded select because it was found that selecting, rather than generating, fostered learning. When students had to generate the principles, it added to their cognitive load in a way that was unproductive (see p.149 for more).


How do you use “Self-Explaining” as an approach for learning? Share your ideas in the online Chapter discussions in Mattermost or join us for the  live web conference meetup for Chapter Six on Friday, October 25th at 11:00am PST.  It’s easy to create an account and join in on the discussion  See How to Participate.

Chapter 5: Practicing

Can you recall…and predict?

1.  Think about the principles related to retrieval practice introduced in Chapter 1. Which principles might you expect to transfer to Chapter 5 – Practicing?

2.  Can you recall the differences between massed and spaced practice (Chapter 3, Interleaving)? Which type of practice might you expect to see emphasized in Chapter 5 – Practicing?

BIG IDEA(s): Identify the cognitive skills that are integral to the learning activities you assess for grades and make sure to allow time for students to practice them, in class. Encourage students to “…engage in active, mindful practice of important intellectual skills” throughout the course.

Lang begins his discussion of practicing with a cringe-worthy example drawn from a 2007 course in contemporary British literature.  Despite his preparation (sharing tips on effective presentation techniques, exhorting students to practice, and helping some students with the structure and organization of their material), he was astounded by how poorly the students performed. His assumptions about their recognition of the importance of rehearsal and their basic presentation skills were proven painfully wrong.


After reflection, Lang hypothesized that small, facilitated practice of cognitive communication skills (that were part of his graded activities) would help students perform successfully. He recognized that he needed to revisit his assessments to clearly identify the skills that he had assumed that students would know or could “figure out” to complete graded assignments.

His small teaching strategy (the first Big Idea) involves the recognition and analysis of the cognitive skills that are required to successfully demonstrate learning in our graded assignments / activities. We need to be explicit about the cognitive skills we value (review the skills listed for “Understand” in Blooms updated Taxonomy), and to plan ways to offer structured, manageable opportunities to enable students to practice BEFORE we ask them to completed assessed, graded demonstrations of their learning.

In Theory

Lang introduces the value of guided practice in his example of improving his skiing skills with the observation and feedback of a more knowledgeable skier.  He emphasizes the importance of rehearsal and practice of skills in academic learning – the practice should ideally take place in class, with the observation and feedback of a knowledgeable instructor.  To help us understand the role of consistent practice in improving students’ cognitive skills, he reviews the potential bottleneck that our limited short-term (or working) memory imposes as we struggle to combine new information from our immediate environments while trying to access deeper, longer-term memories.

A model of memory

Lang also cites Daniel Willingham’s perspective on the value of extensive practice to develop “cognitive proficiency.” By providing opportunities for students to practice and be able to use some lower level cognitive skills automatically, they can integrate higher level cognitive skills as needed.

Providing instructor-guided, in-class practice is, at least partly, to avoid the risk of students practicing without thinking, or practicing incorrectly. An additional risk, according to Ellen Langer, is that students may practice it to the point of “overlearning”, which she believes will prevent them from getting better at thinking mindfully. Langer identifies the three main characteristics of mindful learning as:

  • Flexibility – ability to create new categories or shift strategies during learning
  • Openness – to new approaches that may benefit understanding or application of skills
  • Multiple perspectives – ability to recognize the potential value of alternative perspectives

With the availability of timely feedback and support from an instructor, there is greater likelihood that students can master the supporting skills required to allow them to observe their own practice, to be open to new ways of doing things and to think deeply – to think “mindfully.” This is Lang’s second Big Idea.

I’ve suggested this as a 2nd Big Idea because it seems to embody thinking that involves the affective domain as well as the cognitive domain. To scaffold student learning of these broader, deeper skills may require a more significant re-appraisal of our teaching and course design and delivery than we might first understand from Lang’s examples.


  1. Unpack Your Assessments

Take time to analyze your individual assignments (especially those that contribute to the grading) and your overall assessment strategy. Does your distribution of marks and types of assignments indicate that you value some cognitive skills more than others? Do you currently provide practice opportunities and explicit feedback to develop these skills in your students?

Do you provide rubrics or marking outlines to make cognitive skills explicit for students?

  1. Parcel Them Out and Practice Them

Break down (parcel out) the cognitive skills required for important assignments. Find opportunities for “stepped” practice so that students can take on manageable chunks of new skills and develop them over the time of the course.

By looking ahead in the syllabus, you can schedule practice opportunities at strategic times that support the required demonstration of learning (and use of important cognitive skills) on a specific date.

Lang suggests that the last 10-15 minutes of class are the best times to provide practice opportunities. These opportunities could include a brief (5 min) teacher-led review of the important elements of the cognitive skills you want them to develop, with the remaining 10 minutes used by the students  to practice those skills.

  1. Provide Feedback

Lang suggests we combine individual and group feedback while students are engaged in practice activities in class. Be clear about how you will provide feedback to prevent students from feeling singled out. Take time to develop methods that will ensure you balance your observations, attention and feedback so that students receive equitable access to your expertise.


To promote mindful learning in our classes, Lang suggests the following:

Make Time for In-Class (Scaffolded?) Practice

Lang is focused on the importance of direct teacher observation and timely feedback to prevent “overlearning” or the development of poor habits during practice. I’d suggest the use of a term like “scaffolding” to recognize that in-class observation and feedback isn’t always possible nor is it always the best way to prevent these problems. There are various ways to provide individualized observation and feedback beyond practice sessions in large groups facilitated by the instructor. Integrating specific practice opportunities that involve the use of technologies to record and share student(s) practice sessions with the instructor and/or other members of their class might provide additional value and equity in learning.

Space It Out

The importance of layering and spacing out the types and times of cognitive skills practice opportunities is emphasized throughout this chapter and builds on the previous research shared on the value of interleaving and spaced practice.

Practice Mindfully

Lang began this chapter with examples of the value of practicing easily recognizable cognitive and psychomotor skills. He introduced the deeper, broader learning inherent in Langer’s concept of mindful learning and the importance of ensuring that all practice opportunities we provide students also encourage flexible, intelligent thinking beyond the immediate demonstration of skills.

Small teaching ideas

  • Before the course begins, develop a list of cognitive skills you believe students “need to succeed” (in your course or in the program they are enrolled in).
  • Set priorities – which skills do student need to develop immediately? Which skills can only be developed after foundational skills are learned?
  • Review the course schedule and determine where to make space for small practice sessions. For practice sessions of key skills prior to an assessment, mark the dates on a shared calendar or schedule.
  • Stick to your plan. Make sure that students have multiple opportunities to practice the skills they need to do well in your course.
A few questions:
  1.  Lang is very concerned that guided practice take place in the presence of an instructor to avoid “overlearning” or other bad habits. Do you believe this is necessary for all types of students, subjects, types of courses?
    If yes, think of ways you could re-arrange your teaching practice to enable this? How many small practice sessions could you foresee in your next course?
    If no, suggest ways you would adjust your provision of practice with timely feedback to develop cognitive skills in your classes.
  2. In Chapter 5, Lang shares stories of providing presentation skills practice in-class, with feedback from the instructor. Other educational institutions, like UBC or Vancouver Island University, provide web pages with videos and other resources or non-credit short courses, to help students build their own skills. What do you think of the potential value of these alternatives to in-class practice?
  3. Do you currently recognize and explicitly communicate cognitive learning skills in your classes? How?
  4. Are you able to assign marks for different levels of accomplishment in demonstration of cognitive skills that are valued in your assignments for grades?


Langer, E. (1997?) (2007?). The Power of Mindful Learning. Cambridge, MA: DaCapo

Miller, M. (2014).  Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Willingham, D. (2014).  Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

More to read

Young, S.H. (2014, August).  Seven Principles of Learning Better From Cognitive Science, Retrieved from


Chapter 4: Connecting

This post is by Asif Devji.

BIG IDEA:The goal of instructors should be to help learners “forge rich, interconnected networks of knowledge – ones that enable each existing piece of information in our content area to connect with lots of other information, concepts and ideas.


With Chapter 4 we move into Part II of Small Teaching, which shifts the focus from helping learners acquire knowledge to helping them develop a deeper understanding of their knowledge base by building on complex cognitive skills.

Photo by Alexander Pogorelsky on Unsplash

In his introduction to Part II: Understanding, Lang refers to the flipped classroom model to make the point that such active learning approaches aimed at strengthening learner comprehension need to be undertaken “deliberately, with eyes wide open, and with the help of the literature on human learning” if they are to be effective.

Chapter 4: Connecting begins with an image of ‘small disconnected islets’ – bits of knowledge representing the “disparate sets of concepts or skills” that learners acquire as they “absorb the knowledge from each lecture in a course without connecting the information to other lectures or recognizing themes that cut across the course.”

These scattered bits of knowledge aren’t very meaningful; learners “lack comprehension…because they lack connections.” The goal of instructors should be to help learners “forge rich, interconnected networks of knowledge – ones that enable each existing piece of information in our content area to connect with lots of other information, concepts and ideas.”


The “link between making connections and building comprehension” is biological. In our brains “neurons form new connections with other neurons with every new experience we have,” and learning generates “the continual formation of connections between our neurons.”

When sets of connected neurons repeatedly “fire together” they carve out distinct pathways that connect to form networks. “The knowledge in our minds consists of neuronal networks in our brains.” Deep reflection on a piece of acquired knowledge connects it to other neuronal networks, “until it eventually sits at the heart of a dense weave of connections – what we normally think about as understanding or comprehension.”

The task of instructors is to “create an environment that facilitates the formation of those connections” and to help “expand those connections into networks that enable students to see the bigger picture, make meaning, apply what they have learned into novel contexts.”

If we are successful, learners can move from being novices towards being experts in our content areas. When an expert “encounter[s] a new piece of information or a new idea in their field of expertise, they immediately slot it into a fully developed network that enables them to see connections between it and dozens of other things they know.”


Lang offers four strategies “to help students modify and enhance their connections.” These can be applied “at any point during the semester or during any class period” to help learners “forge connections within a semester’s worth of material.”

1/ What do You Already Know (and What do You Want to Know?)

“Prior knowledge plays a critical role in learning.” Newly learned material will connect with what a learner already knows (or thinks they know) about a subject. Instructors should have students make “individual and collective knowledge dumps, telling you everything they know” about your subject. This will allow the instructor not only to “recognize and correct mistaken perceptions” but also to “activate whatever knowledge they currently have that you want to build on or reinforce.”

2/ Provide the Framework

Providing learners with an “organizing framework” of the material to be covered in a course and then having them fill in the details helps them to “build accurate connections” that will improve their conceptual understanding of the content. The framework should be a “skeletal outline” – just headings and titles of concepts – with students fleshing out the document themselves. Learners will “connect most deeply” if provided with a “frame of a knowledge network” rather than an already completed network or if left to “devise the organizational principles of the material on their own”

3/ Concept Maps

A concept map is a “visual representation of a knowledge domain” and concept mapping activities can be used to help students “visualize the organization of key ideas in your course.” Learners can be asked to construct a concept map of the course material, with “key concepts” in the center and lines branching off to “subsidiary elements.” The branching lines can then be labeled to define the relationships between the elements. Having learners make multiple maps integrating the same concepts based on different organizing principles can give them practice in “organizing their knowledge according to alternative schemata or hierarchies” and thereby build “more robust and flexible knowledge organizations.”

4/ Minute Thesis

The Minute Thesis is an activity that helps learners “solidify existing connections” and “envision new ones.” Students are asked to “set up columns or categories of essential course concepts or texts, connect them in new and creative ways,” and then develop an impromptu thesis to describe “how or why those connections make sense.” The activity provides a familiar “scaffolding through the columns or categories” but then asks learners to make a leap and “forge connections between things that have not been connected before.” These “creative connections” help them to generate new and original thinking around the course content.


The strategies above are meant to “provide a bridge between your expert comprehension of your subject matter and the novice understanding of your students.” Facilitating the building of their connections will help your learners move towards your “big-picture view” of the material.

Provide the Framework: You should be transparent about your expertly networked knowledge by “making the framework as visible as possible, pointing back to it frequently, and helping them recognize where new material fits into the frame.”

Facilitate Connections: You should also “open the space” for learners to form their own unique connections and “see unexpected juxtapositions, chart new pathways…or invent their own knowledge networks.” Your presence as an expert to “provide feedback on their discoveries and help nudge them in productive new directions” can support them in developing their expertise.

Leverage Peer Learning Power: Because your students “all share the position of being novice learners in your field,” you should encourage them to help each other to co-create connections. By facilitating collaborative activities in which learners can “consider the connections made by their peers” you can spark their “energy and curiosity” without the weight of expert expectations.


Does any of the above raise any questions for you in terms of application in a real-world classroom?

Please discuss in this week’s forum: Chp. 4: Connecting and join us for the live web conference meetup on Friday, October 4th at 11:00am.
See How to Participate.


Chapter 3: Interleaving

This post is by Gina Bennett.

FIRST, a short retrieval quiz:

  1. In Chapter One, Lang describes 3 different studies to demonstrate how effectively regular quizzing improves retrieval. Can you name any 2 of the subject areas involved?

  2. Also in Chapter One, Lang suggests that the frequency of quizzing is critical to the success of this technique. How often (as a minimum) does he recommend that quizzes be given?

(answers at the end of this post)
Big Idea:   Long term mastery of a series of related topics is fostered by spacing out the learning activities over time, introducing new topics before the previous topic has been mastered and intermixing new skills with previously developed skills.

I picture this as the “2 steps forward, 1 step back” approach.

Theories, Principles, Models, and Tips

Lang begins his discussion of the theory behind interleaving with a study that illustrates the difference between massed and spaced practice. Massed practice is defined as time focused entirely on learning one skill or topic until it is mastered, while spaced practice is pretty much the way it sounds: the learning related to that particular skill or topic is spread out and interspersed with time spent doing other things. Interestingly, some of those “other things” include forgetting what’s just been learned. This sounded counter intuitive to me, but as Lang points out, forgetting forces us to really work at the process of retrieval and more strongly embeds the learning in long term memory. Allowing time between learning sessions like this not only forces us into a cycle of forgetting and retrieval, it also gives our brains time to consolidate the new material. This process leads to what’s referred to as “durable learning” — another great term I picked up from this chapter.

Several of the models for incorporating interleaving sound pretty similar to suggestions for improving retrieval (e.g. frequent quizzing), except that here we see a more pronounced emphasis on the inclusion of quiz questions from material learned in the past. A very nice small teaching tip is to end a lesson by asking students to create a test question based on what they learned that day — & instead of waiting for the final or midterm, ask a couple of those questions a few weeks later. And I like Lang’s suggestions for coaxing students to apply previously acquired skills or knowledge to new contexts — transfer of learning is always an issue and I can certainly appreciate how interleaving will help make that happen.

Concerns, questions, musings

I am so tempted to try to sell an interleaving approach a little harder in my ABE math class because the most profound research results mentioned by Lang (and others) are based on students studying middle school math. However, the [adult] students I know who are working at that level usually do not welcome (or need) more frustration in their lives. That concern about feeling discouraged due to lack of a sense of mastery — that’s a major concern. And the students working in a more advanced ABE math course know full well that this course is “terminal;” consequently they are not keen to struggle more than they need to at something that they will “never use again.” I would be very interested to hear what others familiar with the ABE learner audience think about that.

Not a concern but a confusion: I am a bit mystified by Lang’s description of how to employ interleaving in an online learning environment. I suspect his concept or experience of online courses is different from a lot of the ones we offer here. He refers to the “distribution of deadlines” but in my experience most online courses do this anyway. It seems that many of Lang’s examples so far are largely based on “traditional” students: full-time young people who attend on-campus classes in a semester-based format

FINALLY, an exercise in prediction:

In this chapter, Lang describes how interleaving improves the embedding and retrieval of knowledge. Can you think of some ways in which interleaving might also improve understanding?

Links, other interesting things

  • Nice website from the University of Arizona with lots of supplementary material (e.g. blog posts, explanations, PPT slide deck) about interleaving

  • Learning how to Learn is a free MOOC offered on a regular basis by Coursera. If you are interested in learning science and would appreciate an entertaining and accessible approach, you’ll like this course.

  • Have any of you come across the Pimsleur method of language learning? Dr. Pimsleur was a big fan of spaced practice and he developed a schedule of optimal spacing, a system he called “graduated interval recall.” His scheduling sounds like Lang’s spacing recommendation on steroids.

Answers to the retrieval quiz:

  1. The 3 studies Lang refers to to demonstrate the efficacy of retrieval practice involved students learning Social Studies, Art History, & Chemistry.

  2. Lang states (under subheading “Principles”) quizzes should be given at least once a week (preferably in every class).

Image: “interleaving sign” is CC0 – I drew it myself -gb


What strategies are you using? Share your ideas in the online Chapter discussions in Mattermost or join us for the live web conference meetup for Chapter 3 on Friday, September 27th at 11:00am.
See How to Participate.


Chapter 2: Predicting

Big Idea: Activities where students make predictions about upcoming content improve their ability to remember and comprehend.

Hmm, Chapter 2: Predicting, in James Lang’s Small Teaching is going to explain how the desire to be right in my guess about an upcoming topic reinforces that content. (Reader thinks to self, turns page…)

The second chapter within the Lang’s section on the acquisition of knowledge takes what might seem like a throw-away moment in a lesson and shows the powerful tool it can become.

The authors explore several studies establishing the effectiveness of prediction or prediction-like activities. Following along on this journey is illustrative of the first argument for prediction activities. Each case awakens long dormant linkages in the minds of we readers, having studied memory theory so long ago.

The current research establishes results for both recall and comprehension. The connected nature of knowledge, as we tuck it away and then drag it out to meet a new nugget, is behind the effect that prediction can have on learning. Making predictions lets us have a mental play-date with a fact before seeing how it interacts with the new kids.

In addition to this support for accepted cognitive process, it’s also argued that prediction activities offer a window into the assessment model of a topic. Not just in a way that offers hints for drill and practice, but that reveals the scope and depth of material selected as important by experts.

Another benefit is the revelation of gaps in the student’s own knowledge. Prediction activities can dispel misplaced confidence in the student’s abilities.

Models for prediction activities

  • Pretesting: provide quick, low/no stakes tests about the material to come. Let the format mirror the eventual assessment.
  • Clicker predictions: (or don’t use clickers – there are many free apps that do it just as well). At key junctions in a lesson, present questions requiring students to use conceptual knowledge.
  • Prediction-exposure-feedback: absent technical support, ask students for responses about material to come, based on their prior or potentially related knowledge. Progress through the lesson and take opportunities to elicit feedback about their original predictions, why were they accurate or off the mark?
  • Closing predictions: end a lesson with a call for predictions about material to be learned in the assigned readings. Take up the predictions at the beginning of each class.

Principles for prediction activities

  • Stay conceptual: let students apply their knowledge about how the world works to your question. Learning can come from the exercise, regardless of the accuracy.
  • Provide fast feedback: don’t let the wrong answer bake for too long. Ideally, provide feedback within the lesson, or at least by the beginning of the next session.
  • Induce reflection: every prediction is an opportunity to explore the assumptions and prior knowledge that supported it. The why of a right or wrong answer can have more use than the answer itself.

Some questions

  1. How might prediction activities be experienced by students without a working model/metaphor for a discipline (a philosophy student starting a chemistry class)?
  2. How might we deal with student perceptions of failure (or fears of exposure) in a lesson where prediction activities are used?
  3. If a student arrives at the correct prediction, but based on a completely erroneous paradigm, how might an educator resolve this?

Chapter 1: Retrieving

Big Idea:  Small frequent low stakes testing improves retrieval and learning


Part 1 of Small Teaching focuses on how learners acquire knowledge – how they retrieve understand, and predict information that is foundational to higher order critical thinking skills. As educators, we often focus on the application and synthesis of information without giving attention to how we support learners in building foundational knowledge.

This first chapter takes a closer look at the retrieval process and the importance of actively practicing retrieval through testing or quizzing to improve learning. This is known as the retrieval effect or testing effect.  Answering questions about the learning content results in better retrieval than just re-studying the material. This retrieval practice is where learning happens.

CCO photo by Burak K from

Think about learning to drive. Reading about driving isn’t sufficient to master driving; much of the learning happens when you practice driving.

The same principle applies to learners. For example, students spend much of their studying time by reading but little time testing their knowledge. This quizzing can be a powerful tool to enhance learning. Lang suggests that if we want to support students’ ability to retrieve information and optimize learning then we have to help students practice retrieval.  Three key principles guide retrieval practice.


  1. Frequency Matters
    1. Regular quizzing results in greater improvement than sporadic testing
  2. Align Practice and Assessment
    1. Learners need to practice what they are going to retrieve
  3. Retrieval process requires thinking to be effective
    1. More complex questions helps improve retrieval

Retrieval is easy; Encoding is difficult

Much of the chapter concerns getting information out (retrieval) as opposed to getting information in (encoding).  I diverge slightly from the book’s emphasis on retrieval as a barrier to learning.  Retrieval is easy if information has been encoded in the first place.  

CCO photo by Rachel Hall

I often use the following example with my students based on the work of Richardson (1993). Without looking, draw the opposite side of this Canadian nickel.

Many people can recall that a nickel has an image of a beaver and the words 5 Cents. But what else? Does it have other images or dates? Take a look and see how well you did.  Interestingly, very few people can successfully draw a nickel from memory. Why is that? People encode what they pay attention to and what is important to them. In this case, the fact that a nickel  is worth 5 cents is what is important.  Even though most people have seen the image hundreds if not thousands of times, the image isn’t what is relevant to them and therefore isn’t encoded. You cannot retrieve information that was never there in the first place. This is called encoding failure (see Kellogg, 2016).

The same example applies to learning. Students who do poorly at retrieving information have often never encoded the information. For example, they have read their texts and notes and generalized information but not encoded the types of specific details that are required in higher education. The retrieval practice process suggested by Lang is what helps students to encode the information.  However, students don’t necessary know how to learn which is where the strategies in Small Teaching come into play. The strategies are short and focus on the first and last few minutes of class. Several are adapted from Angelo and Cross’ Classroom Assessment Techniques (1993). These strategies focus on assessment as learning versus assessment of learning. Five to ten minutes of class time can make a significant difference to student learning.

Quick Small Teaching Ideas:

  • Give frequent low stakes quizzes
  • Open classes by asking learners to remind you what was last covered
  • Close classes by asking learners to write down the most important concept or one question they still have
  • Close class with a short quiz or problem
  • Use your syllabus to redirect learners to past content and ask them to recall important points from that topic

Links you may be interested in: Retrieval Practice has teaching strategies, evidence-based tips and practice guides. The Learning Scientists is a website by cognitive psychologist with the aim to make learning more accessible to students and educators. Has some downloadable resources. practice: The most powerful learning strategy you’re not using


What strategies are you using? Share your ideas in the online Chapter discussions in Mattermost or join us for the  live web conference meetup for Chapter One on Friday, September 13th at 11:00am.
See How to Participate.



Angelo, T.A. and Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Technologies (Second Edition). Classroom Assessment Techniques 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Kellogg, R. T. (2016). Fundamentals of cognitive psychology, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Richardson, J. (1993). The curious case of coins: Remembering the appearance of familiar objects. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 6, 360-366.


Introduction: Small Teaching

What does the title of the book ‘Small Teaching’ make you wonder about? 

Small Teaching is “an approach that seeks to spark positive change in higher education through small but powerful modifications to our course design and teaching strategies”

The book Small Teaching describes little changes to learning environments that result in big shifts in learning.  Author James Lang examines strategies derived from research on learning and higher education, that are applicable to the educational environments, and that he himself has observed or experienced.  These activities take one of three forms:

  •   Brief 5-10 learning activity
  •   One time intervention
  •   Small modifications in the course design or communication

Each chapter introduces a concept from learning science with examples of how it can be applied  in a variety of disciplines, and then guides instructors in creating their own small teaching strategies.

Come and join us in our discussions of this book over the next few weeks! Learn and share what small teaching would look like to you.  #BookClubBC @BCcBookclub

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