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Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (book review)

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Lang synthesizes numerous studies with his own experiences, practices, and reflections to share useful and easily applicable small adjustments instructors can make to improve student learning.


The posting below is a review by Daniel Guberman, an Instructional Developer in the Center for Instructional Excellence at Purdue University, of the book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, by James M. Lang, Jossey-Bass. 2016. The review is from Currents in Teaching and Learning, Vol.11, No.1, August, 2019. Currents in Teaching and Learning [] is a peer-reviewed electronic journal that fosters exchanges among reflective teacher-scholars across the disciplines. It is a publication of the Center for Teaching and Learning of Worcester State University, Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.A. Copyright © 2019 WSU, 486 Chandler Street, Worcester, MA 01602.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis


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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (book review)

We are in the midst of a vast expansion of literature on effective and student-centered teaching practices. The breadth and interdisciplinarity of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) as a field means that we can easily be overwhelmed by new advice, proposed “best practices,” and vestigial folk wisdom. James Lang, in his book Small Teaching, recognizes the gap between scientific knowledge and practice in efforts to confront the challenge of improving student learning and motivation. Lang synthesizes numerous studies with his own experiences, practices, and reflections to share useful and easily-applicable small adjustments instructors can make to improve student learning. Ultimately, he proposes that these small changes are not in fact that small, and through engaging with them, readers will develop all of the tools and ideas needed to fully redesign a course. 

I read the book as facilitator for a faculty learning community with thirty-five members from numerous disciplines. Participants were divided into three groups, and each small group met four times during the semester. In this context, Lang’s success in writing for a large multidisciplinary audience was evident. In synthesizing this vast body of scholarship, he manages to avoid many writers’ compulsion to delve too deep “into the weeds” of research methodology and statistical minutiae. In each chapter, Lang tends to rely on a single approach, theory, and/or author in great detail for his explanation and examples, rather than presenting competing schools of thought. This might be disappointing to readers who seek a critical evaluation of competing approaches or want every assertion linked to detailed studies. However, this is not what Lang promises, and none of the faculty members in our community saw this as a flaw. 

The structure of the book as a whole and each individual chapter supports reading from beginning to end and/or using the book as a continuing reference source. 

The book divides into three large sections: “Knowledge,” “Understanding,” and “Inspiring.” These sections progress from strategies for sharing and retaining information to applying and using that information, and ultimately thinking about preparing learners for life beyond our classroom. Each of these three sections also divides into three chapters, which follow a consistent organizational strategy. Each chapter begins with a short introduction, often centered on an engaging story from Lang’s life and experience. This leads into a short theoretical section, including an engaging overview of scientific studies. Most of our discussions focused on the “models” sections, as they provide specific ways to apply a particular concept or idea. This is where Lang delves into more detail, using real-world examples (from his own and others’ teaching experiences) to help readers understand how to integrate theory and practice. The final sections of each chapter provide short highlights and key concepts, often empowering instructors to reflect on strategies they have developed, and to recognize concepts that may support their own teaching practices. For many in the reading groups, this confirmed that some of their existing teaching prac- tices were theoretically grounded, while also encouraging further refinement. Having provided an overview of the book and its structure, I will now discuss ideas from individual sections and chapters. 

In the “Knowledge” section of the book, Lang’s three chapters each focus on principles that have been shown to help students retain information: retrieving, predicting, and interleaving. The “Retrieving” chapter emphasizes the importance of frequent low-stakes assessments and provides concrete strategies for incorporating these assessments unobtrusively at the beginning and ending of class sessions. The “Predicting” chapter demonstrates a transition from memorization to more complex cognitive tasks, and tools for using prediction at the start or end of a class session. Here, Lang suggests adopting a prediction-exposure-feedback structure for course material, with examples of how it can be used in a variety of disciplinary contexts, such as design and literature. The “Interleaving” chapter addresses broader course organization strategies, encouraging teachers to frequently return to earlier concepts and skills, highlighting mixed rather than mass practice. The chapter on interleaving, in particular, highlights the multiple functions of the book by providing a specific strategy in designing a course, while also very explicitly connecting to the previous chapters through returning to short activities at the start and end of a class meeting. 

The second large section, “Understanding,” may seem misleading to those who regularly work with Bloom’s taxonomy. Lang does not use understanding as a lower-order cognitive function. Instead, he uses it as many faculty members do, to represent an ability to apply, analyze, and synthesize knowledge, information, and skills. The “Connecting” chapter details ways to integrate new concepts with already existing ones, and emphasizes the role of instructors in facilitating these connections. The chapter on “Practicing” lays out a strategy for scaffolding work through breaking down big projects into smaller pieces. This encourages mastery of complex tasks through spaced repetition. The final chapter of this section, “Self-Explaining,” provides theoretical approaches and practical strategies for promoting meta-cognitive skills in our students. Lang makes an effort to bring self-explanation strategies beyond the STEM classroom, where they have traditionally been studied. For example, after having students practice part of an assignment, he suggests asking them to reflect on why they made the decisions that they made. He also ties this concept to peer instruction and think-aloud activities, with examples from classwork, online work, and meetings with students during office hours. 

While the first two large sections deal with fairly traditional types of class activities, the third and final section, “Inspiration,” takes a slightly different approach, focusing on how we can take advantage of emotions and attitudes to help students learn. For many instructors who had already adapted a variety of practices described in the earlier chapters, the inspiration section was especially powerful, opening new paths for discussion and experimentation. The “Motivation” chapter highlights multiple strategies for engaging students before the class begins. For example, Lang recommends sharing some- thing for students to begin thinking about related to the class as students enter the room. Alternately, he describes the benefit of using pre-class time to speak with and get to know all of the students (including those in the back). Other strategies ask the reader to carefully consider how we will enhance the relevance of our teaching through telling stories, sharing enthusiasm and compassion, and invoking the broader purpose of our work. 

The second chapter of the “Inspiring” section, “Growing,” focuses on developing growth mindsets for ourselves and our students. What makes Lang’s approach to mindsets valuable is the type of practical applications and tools he offers for developing students’ mindsets. He divides these into three broad ideas: first, design a course with growth as an aim through giving opportunities to grow and rewarding successful growth. Second, communicate growth mindsets both formally and informally (recognizing that currently a great deal of positive feed- back is framed through fixed-mindsets). Finally, focus on formative feedback, rather than summative feedback, and emphasize the need for students to work hard to improve. The final chapter, “Expanding,” offers more of a new beginning than a conclusion. Most readers of the book will find some small ideas that they will attach to immediately, but the book’s real power is in changing how we think about and approach a wide range of course elements. “Expanding” highlights this idea by directly pointing readers to broader course design strategies that can have a high impact on student learning, including activity-based learning, service learning, and games and simulations. While each of these are much broader topics, Lang effectively introduces the reader to them through examples of how they may be incorporated into a class while providing a one-paragraph summary of the principles that underlie these teaching strategies. The end of the chapter serves as a short path to further development, highlighting some of Lang’s favorite books, websites, and Twitter users. 

In a time when numerous books on college teaching appear each year, Lang’s stands out for its ability to genuinely engage a wide audience of readers. Whether new teachers or experienced award-winners, readers from any field will find valuable insights in Lang’s work. I regularly return to particular chapters and sections (I have re-read the predicting chapter countless times). While I heartily recommend reading the book cover to cover, where many through-lines can be found, every chapter is indeed self-contained. And within those chapters, the structure allows us to return to key summaries and methods with ease. Writers on teaching who find a balance between research, narratives, and guidance are rare, and this is precisely what makes Lang’s contribution so unique. It is hard to imagine anyone whose teaching would not be changed in small and large ways after reading the book.