From Action to Understanding

Small Teaching: From Action to Understanding

In the book entitled “Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning” James M Lang cites literature that requires us as professors to do more than discuss and use group work to assist students in developing problem-solving skills and comprehension skills. What small deliberate change needs to be present in our lesson plans?

Three design principles for framing your lesson makes for a high impact learning experience where students are “exploring and testing methods” based on meaningful prior knowledge and reflection. Lang’s (p. 89) three major concepts: connecting, practicing, and self-explaining provides the next tier in building active learning opportunities to create links to subject matter, apply what they know, and explain why.


What do you already know?

Have students reveal their prior knowledge about the subject matter.

At the start of the semester ask students prior to class to take a prequiz or respond to two or three questions about assessing their prior knowledge about the subject matter. The following class discuss and question the results in groups or as a whole class to learn about the current state of understanding.

What do you know now?

Throughout the semester consider a three step approach to deep learning.

Step 1: List and align major assessments with cognitive skills that students need to succeed. Develop a learning rubric or plan to identify prior learning, content knowledge, skills, and common learning misconceptions.

Step 2: plan for practice activities either in class or online.
Prior to major assessments plan small practice sessions during class or online. Strategically schedule 10-15 minutes before close of specific classes to ask students to complete a reflective practice activity either individually on paper or through small group discussion.

Step 3: provide feedback about their practice efforts during the semester
Aim for five 10 minutes feedback sessions per semester.
Try to interact with as many students as possible during class or offer an online opportunity.
Divide students into small groups and circulate among them to offer individual feedback on their work. General remarks can be made to the whole class based on your observations and emerging patterns of understanding.

Why are you doing that?

It is important to schedule activities for student to reflect and explain their approach, methods, and principles about specific subject matter throughout the semester.
For large classes, clickers are used effectively to identify gaps in understanding and explore why.
For smaller classes a technique called Think Aloud allows students to speak out their understanding to a procedure or process to the whole class.
Office hours offer an informal setting to question and explore student reasoning while knitting it to the subject matter assessment.

For more ideas, take a closer look at Lang’s Part Two: Understanding (p.85-159) to learn about the educational theories behind connecting, practicing, and self-explaining.

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning (First edition.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.