Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | July 7, 2017

Small Teaching

small teaching.jpgThe other day I finished reading a new book about teaching, James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. I spend more hours than I’d like to admit thinking about teaching: syllabi, readings, assignments, new courses, classroom activities, curriculum development, how to connect with students in a meaningful way for all of us, how to still have time to research/write …

When we think about making changes to our courses, it can often feel overwhelming. Maybe not all students realize it, but it takes a lot of time and energy to plan courses and individual classes. Re-framing, re-structuring a course is a big task, but I’m often trying to brainstorm how to improve every course and every class I teach, whether it’s through a new assignment, reading, module, theme, whathaveyou. That’s one of the reasons why I ordered Lang’s book; he’s making a case that we can really change our classes and our students’ learning experiences with small changes. According to Lang, 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 practices” (5).

Lang organizes the book in three main sections: Knowledge, Understanding, and Inspiration. Each section has three chapters and each chapter introduces the concept, offers some of the findings from the science of learning on it, and then (the best part!) models for how to engage with that concept through small teaching. No matter how much active learning a teacher might aim for, we can always do better. Active learning for the sake of active learning is not a good approach. We need to think about why we plan courses and individual class sessions the way we do (in that sense, the chapter on “Self-Explanining” is also about us as teachers).


I made a running list of the ideas from Lang’s class that I plan on implementing in my courses. Some of these will occur in the first few minutes of class, others in the last few minutes, some in the middle, and a few course structure changes. Some of these just prompt me to be more transparent with students about why we’re doing what we’re doing and especially making clear why Religious Studies matters regardless of their chosen discipline. Some of these ask them more questions about what they’re getting out of the class, what’s making sense, and what quandaries and questions remain at the end of a class session.

The book also had some good validation for some of the activities I already do (things like play a song that intersects with the day’s topic as class begins and the activity-based learning of trips to the library’s archives and special collections). All in all, a helpful book that I’m recommending to other teachers.


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