The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

One Small Thing…

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headshotErin Rentschler, Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University

If you could make one small change to your teaching repertoire and create the potential for significant impact on student learning, would you try it?

Over the past year or so, several colleagues at Duquesne University have been exploring just this notion of small teaching, a concept presented by James Lang in Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.  Lang argues, that You can create powerful learning for your students through the small, everyday decisions you make in designing your courses, engaging in classroom practice, communicating with your students, and addressing any challenges that arise.”

small ballComparing the notion of small teaching to baseball’s small ball (that idea that ball games are won through “simple, incremental strategies” that get players from base to base), Lang writes that it’s unrealistic to think that instructors have time for “sudden and dramatic transformation” of their teaching when they have so many responsibilities. The result? His book of small teaching strategies that can be implemented with minor, if any disruption, to your course design.

This notion aligns with CTE’s SCALE initiative (Small Changes Advancing Learning).  Our Fall 2017 SCALE UP micro workshops highlighted Lang’s strategies for helping students retrieve knowledge, connect information for greater understanding, and foster a growth mindset. At each 30 minute workshop, CTE staff highlighted key points from the respective sections of Small Teaching, and provided faculty and graduate student participants with opportunities to design a strategy for a small change that they could implement later in the semester, the week – or even later that day!

Here are some examples of the small changes faculty at Duquesne envision.

b and white group

Faculty statements of the “one small thing” they might try to increase student learning

Spending just a few minutes of class time to focus on the process of learning can have a significant impact on student learning because it fosters a growth mindset.  Carol Dweck describes growth mindset as a state of mind that helps students take risks, challenge themselves, and persist in their learning, because they believe that intelligence is not a fixed trait, but one that can increase with practice and hard work.process-of-learning-resized1.jpg

Another method is to provide feedback that fosters growth. Think: “This topic is challenging, but by continuing to work with it, you’ll grow your brain and have a better understanding” rather than “Perhaps you should change your topic.” Yet another method for fostering growth? Promote success strategies by having experienced students write tips for succeeding in the course and sharing them with new students. These strategies reinforce that learning is a process that develops over time.

Likewise, giving “quizlets” in class provides students with low stakes opportunities to practice retrieving knowledge. This is important because, as Lang writes, “the more times any of us practice remembering something we are trying to learn, the more firmly we lodge it in our memories for the long term.”  Quizzes and tests not only measure learning; they are valuable tools that “help students exercise their memory muscles to improve and solidify their knowledge base.” Reconceiving of quizzes and tests as “retrieval practice” can decrease anxiety and places emphasis on how learning happens.

And guess what! These activities can also help students to discover connections between old knowledge and new knowledge. Calling attention to these connections helps students fortify their foundations. Because students don’t always see the larger organizational picture that we can see as experts in our fields, our helping them retrieve old knowledge and map new knowledge networks deepens learning.   A small teaching strategy for helping students connect information is to draw concept maps, visual depictions that identify connections between ideas in succinct ways.

Like the sound of some of these strategies? Hungry for more? Check out Lang’s book or – better yet – join the author and regional faculty who have been exploring small teaching strategies at the first annual Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium on March 16, 2018.  Think you have a small teaching strategy that could help your colleagues? Submit a proposal by November 1! Details below.

Call for Proposals

The Pittsburgh Regional Faculty Symposium welcomes proposals across four session types from all faculty, graduate students, librarians, instructional designers, and others involved in teaching and learning or educational development:

  • Concurrent Interactive Workshops
  • Steal My Idea / Pecha Kucha
  • Recipes for Success
  • Posters

Sessions may be presented by individuals or small groups. The proposals will be blind reviewed by colleagues from across the region.

For details on session types, click here.

To submit a proposal, click here.

We look forward to hearing about your small teaching ideas. CTE staff are available to consult on your proposals.

Author: duqcte

Founded in 1989 as a faculty initiative, the Center for Teaching Excellence helps faculty and graduate student teaching assistants excel as teacher-scholars deeply invested in their students’ learning. We believe that excellent teaching is an art that grows through scholarship, practice, reflection, and collaboration. Our approach at CTE is a personal one. We promote excellence in teaching by getting to know our faculty and TAs, learning from them, fostering their leadership, and bringing people together from across the University.

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