Small Teaching - James M. Lang - E-Book

Small Teaching E-Book

James M. Lang

21,99 €


A freshly updated edition featuring research-based teaching techniques that faculty in any discipline can easily implement Research into how we learn can help facilitate better student learning--if we know how to apply it. Small Teaching fills the gap in higher education literature between the primary research in cognitive theory and the classroom environment. In this book, James Lang presents a strategy for improving student learning with a series of small but powerful changes that make a big difference--many of which can be put into practice in a single class period. These are simple interventions that can be integrated into pre-existing techniques, along with clear descriptions of how to do so. Inside, you'll find brief classroom or online learning activities, one-time interventions, and small modifications in course design or student communication. These small tweaks will bring your classroom into alignment with the latest evidence in cognitive research. Each chapter introduces a basic concept in cognitive research that has implications for classroom teaching, explains the rationale for offering it within a specific time period in a typical class, and then provides concrete examples of how this intervention has been used or could be used by faculty in a variety of disciplines. The second edition features revised and updated content including a newly authored preface, new examples and techniques, updated research, and updated resources. * How can you make small tweaks to your teaching to bring the latest cognitive science into the classroom? * How can you help students become good at retrieving knowledge from memory? * How does making predictions now help us learn in the future? * How can you build community in the classroom? Higher education faculty and administrators, as well as K-12 teachers and teacher trainers, will love the easy-to-implement, evidence-based techniques in Small Teaching.

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Table of Contents


Title Page




About the Author

Preface to the Second Edition

Introduction: Small Teaching

Part I: Knowledge

Chapter 1: Predicting







Chapter 2: Retrieving







Chapter 3: Interleaving







Part II: Understanding

Chapter 4: Connecting







Chapter 5: Practicing







Chapter 6: Explaining







Part III: Inspiration

Chapter 7: Belonging







Chapter 8: Motivating







Chapter 9: Learning






Conclusion: Beginning

Works Cited


End User License Agreement



Title Page




About the Author

Preface to the Second Edition

Table of Contents

Introduction: Small Teaching

Begin Reading

Conclusion: Beginning

Works Cited


End User License Agreement















































































































































































































































































Small Teaching

Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning



James M. Lang

Second Edition







Copyright © 2021 John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved.

Jossey-BassA Wiley Imprint111 River St, Hoboken, NJ

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Lang, James M., author.

Title: Small teaching : everyday lessons from the science of learning / James M. Lang.

Description: Second edition. | [San Francisco] : Jossey-Bass, [2021] | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2021024090 (print) | LCCN 2021024091 (ebook) | ISBN 9781119755548 (cloth) | ISBN 9781119755562 (adobe pdf) | ISBN 9781119755555 (epub)

Subjects: LCSH: Cognitive learning. | Thought and thinking—Study and teaching.

Classification: LCC LB1062 .L349 2021 (print) | LCC LB1062 (ebook) | DDC 370.15/23—dc23

LC record available at

LC ebook record available at

Cover design: Wiley


For Katie, Madeleine, Jillian, Lucie, and Jack, who taught me much when they were small


First and foremost, I must express my gratitude for monthly writer's group meetings with Mike Land and Sarah Cavanagh, during which I received wise and helpful feedback on every chapter of this book, both the first and second editions. Mike and Sarah served perfectly as advanced and interested readers, and they made this a better book in every way possible. Special thanks to Sarah for helping me avoid glaring errors in my use of terminology and theories from her home discipline of psychology, and for pointing me to numerous articles that helped thicken my research.

I had the opportunity to present the research from this book—and to test out its applicability to instructors—at many colleges and universities while I was drafting and revising the first edition. So thanks to my hosts and workshop participants at Olds College (Canada), Misericordia University, Regis College, the University of Denver, Fisher College, Florida Institute of Technology, King's Academy (Jordan), MacEwan University (Canada), Indiana State University, the DeLange Conference at Rice University, the University of Texas–San Antonio Health Sciences College, Bucknell University, Georgia Tech, and Columbus State Community College. Thanks as well to the many dozens of institutions around the globe that invited me to share the ideas of this edition with their faculty after the first edition was published. They provided me with a welcome platform to receive feedback upon, and continue to refine the book's theories and models for this second edition.

The seeds for this book were first planted at a meeting with David Brightman at the Teaching Professor Conference in New Orleans, and he was an excellent guide as I worked my way through the conception and proposal stages. His commitment to higher education and to publishing excellent books made him an ideal editor. Pete Gaughan and Connor O'Brien at Wiley proved equally dedicated to the project, and my thanks especially to Connor for his developmental notes on the first draft of the book. The second edition was suggested and shepherded to life by Amy Fandrei, to whom I am grateful as well.

Many colleagues at Assumption University, both faculty and administrative, have been supportive of my work. I am grateful to the University for the two sabbaticals which enabled me first to complete the book and then, six years later, undertake the second edition.

I wrote the vast majority of the first edition at Nu Kitchen in Worcester, Massachusetts. I thank them for all the green tea, about which you will read further in Chapter Two. It seemed to help. The second edition was completed largely at home, as a result of the pandemic. Thanks to DAVIDsTEA for supplying my habit from afar.

I come from a family of teachers; it must have been something in the water where we grew up. I continue to find inspiration from them, especially from my sister, Peggy, who has served as both teacher and principal to urban student populations in Chicago. Also from my brother, Tony, at whose heels I have been tagging along as a student and teacher and writer and human being since we were childhood bunkmates. My mother was the first teacher in the family, and my father continues to teach me to this day.

Much of my extracurricular thinking about learning happens as a result of observing the experiences of my children, to whom this book is dedicated, so thanks to them for the enthusiasm they have always shown for learning, both in and out of school.

Even more of my thinking about education happens as a result of conversations with my wife, an elementary school teacher. For part of the time that I was writing the first edition, I spent Friday mornings volunteering in her kindergarten classroom, and while I was working on the second edition during the pandemic I could hear her teaching her remote kindergarten classes from the dining room all day long. Observing and hearing her teach reminded me constantly of the incredible value of teaching as a profession and of the selfless commitment that so many teachers make to their students. Those reminders continually renewed my inspiration to write this book.

So a final and most heartfelt thanks to Anne—for everything.

About the Author

James M. Lang is a professor of English and director of the D'Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption University in Worcester, MA. His books about teaching and learning include Distracted: Why Students Can't Focus and What You Can Do About It (Basic Books, 2020); Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes (with Flower Darby, Jossey-Bass, 2019); and Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty (Harvard University Press, 2013). He writes a monthly column on teaching and learning for the Chronicle of Higher Education; his work has been appearing in the Chronicle since 1999. He edits a series of books on teaching and learning in higher education for West Virginia University Press; he co-edited the second book in the series, Teaching the Literature Survey Course: New Strategies for College Faculty (2018). He has conducted workshops on teaching for faculty at more than a hundred colleges or universities in the US and abroad, and consulted for the United Nations on the development of teaching materials in ethics and integrity for college faculty. In September of 2016 he received a Fulbright Specialist grant to work with three universities in Colombia on the creation of a MOOC (massive, open online course) on teaching and learning in STEM education. He has a BA in English and philosophy from the University of Notre Dame, an MA in English from St. Louis University, and a PhD in English from Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter at @LangOnCourse, on Instagram at @jimlang7 or visit his website at

Preface to the Second Edition

Every year in late December people around the world make resolutions to change their lives. January 1st marks the beginning of new habits and attitudes, new ways of being a good human, and new approaches to the problems and addictions that plague us. I'm one of those people; I especially love to make big resolutions. I like it so much I don't limit myself to making them for the new year. My wife has now learned, after many years of living with me, to dread those moments in which I accost her while she's quietly reading her book and pronounce exuberantly: “I've got an incredible idea—it's going to change our lives!” She rolls her eyes, listens to my proposal, nods and smiles, and goes back to her book. She knows to do this because the follow-through on the big resolutions I make typically lasts only until a new one comes along, at which point I track down my wife and let her know that no, that last one was stupid, but this time I really have a great idea.

Based on the spate of articles that are published every December and January about New Year's resolutions, I'm not the only one that likes to make resolutions that overshoot my attention or stamina. Those articles almost all make the same point: if you want to make resolutions that stick, start small. You might have a big end goal in mind, but if you want to achieve it, you have to launch your efforts with practical and manageable strategies. In early January of 2021, one of those articles pointed me to the work of BJ Fogg, the director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University. In his book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything (2020), Fogg argues that we are most likely to affect real change in our lives when we start with the smallest possible increments we can imagine—if we want to begin developing our upper body strength, for example, we might begin with the plan of doing just two push-ups per day while we are waiting for our coffee to brew. Because that seems like such a small and manageable thing to do, we start the habit, and the habit can then expand until we reach our larger objectives. Our new habits are most likely to stick, Fogg argues, if we can pin them to existing behaviors or moments in our routines (i.e., I always do the push-ups while my tea is steeping) and celebrate our achievements each time we complete the desired behavior (even by just pausing for a moment to congratulate ourselves on another day of doing our push-ups). After I read Fogg's book I was so inspired that I immediately found my wife and pronounced that I had just read something really interesting, and had a great idea about how we could keep our New Year's resolutions and change our lives in the new year. She pointed out that she hadn't made any New Year's resolutions, gave me a nod and a smile, and went back to her book.

Although my non-tiny life resolutions typically don't gain much purchase in my life in the long term, every few years I manage to accomplish one very large task: turning an idea into a book. I don't have a perfect track record on that score either, of course. I make plenty of resolutions to start books that I never finish. But once in a while a big idea emerges that inspires me enough to sit down and start chipping away. In January of 2014, with my failed New Year's resolutions probably fresh in my mind, I wrote the following words in my journal:

Had a good idea for a book project today for Jossey-Bass: the Five-Minute Intervention, or Teaching on the Edges … it's about making brief interventions in a traditional class in order to maximize learning. So faculty don't have to start from scratch in re-thinking their teaching. Grounded in good cognitive theory, they can make 5–15 minute interventions that allow students to engage with the course and increase their learning potential.

That brief entry was the seed that blossomed into Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, first published in the spring of 2016 and now appearing in this second edition. I'm not sure any other book of mine has hewn so closely to its original conception from start to finish. The words above describe with perfect accuracy the book that eventually emerged, and still capture exactly what I hope this book can do for its readers: use research from the learning sciences to offer faculty small, practical changes they can make to their courses in order to improve their students’ learning.

The warm reception that this idea received has been one of the greatest surprises of my life. The book has sold more copies than all of my other books combined and seems to find new audiences every semester. I've received hundreds of invitations to give lectures or workshops on the book's ideas to faculty on college and university campuses around the globe. I wrote a multi-part series for the Chronicle of Higher Education on small teaching approaches, and those columns have been the most widely-read articles I have ever written. One of those columns in particular, which focused on how to teach effectively in the first five minutes of class, has proven especially popular. I still see it regularly make the rounds on social media, as someone new discovers the unlocked potential of those crucial opening minutes of the class period. In the fall of 2019 we published a sequel, Small Teaching Online, largely the work of faculty development expert Flower Darby, whose many years of researching and practicing online teaching enabled her to apply the small teaching approach to online courses. As this second edition was heading into production, we were finalizing plans for the third iteration in the series, Small Teaching for elementary and middle-school educators.

The small teaching approach was always designed to have two very different appeals to instructors and institutions. First, I wanted to offer pathways to the improvement of teaching and learning that were manageable for faculty, most of whom already have more work than they can handle in their professional and personal lives: teaching multiple classes, serving on committees, doing research in their disciplines, commuting to multiple campuses as adjuncts, raising children, caring for parents, advocating for social justice, surviving a pandemic, and more. As much as they might want to take deep dives into the literature on teaching and learning, they just don't have the time or energy to do so. I tried to make sure all of the techniques in the book were ones that faculty could put into practice without an excessive amount of new preparation or evaluation time. My hope was that faculty members who read Small Teaching or attended one of my workshops three days before the semester starts would still be able to squeeze one or two new teaching strategies into their courses that very semester. But even further, I hoped that faculty members who encountered the ideas from the book in the fifth or even tenth week of the semester could still find something new to try with their students before the course ended.

Second, I hoped that these easy-to-apply teaching strategies could have a powerful positive impact on student learning, performance, and retention. Over the course of my own teaching career I have seen how small changes I have made to my own courses could be transformative—could, for example, revitalize a course that had grown stale or change entirely the extent to which students were engaged with the course material. The connection notebooks that you will read about in Chapter Four are the best recent example of that in my own teaching. Using those notebooks, which take very little class time to complete and which require minimal grading from me, has transformed the literature survey courses I teach every year. Through the vehicle of those notebooks, students are able to create much deeper and more meaningful connections between their lives and 19th-century British poems they read for the course. They cite those connection notebooks frequently on our course evaluation forms as one of the aspects of the course that was most helpful to their learning.

To ensure that the small teaching strategies I recommended could have such a positive impact, they had to align with a principle or theory I had encountered in the research on teaching and learning in higher education. Those principles became the foundations for the chapters, enabling me to recommend small teaching changes in a systematic way. One of the major reasons that I wanted to produce a second edition of the book has been that my thinking about those principles has shifted over the last five years. This helps explain the most substantive change you will find in the book: the complete overhaul and re-framing of two chapters, one from Part Two and one from Part Three.

The first edition of the book contained a chapter on “Self-Explaining,” which presents research supporting the idea that asking students to talk or write about their learning while they are completing a learning task can deepen their understanding. During the workshops and lectures I gave on the different principles of the book over the last five years, I noticed that this chapter resonated especially with faculty who teach students in more individualized, skill-based settings, such as performing arts or clinical practice in medicine. Faculty outside of those settings had more trouble considering how to incorporate self-explanation in their classrooms. As I reflected on the act of self-explanation, and what made it useful, it occurred to me that self-explanation could be considered as one strain of the more general act of explanation, and that in fact two of the models in the chapter moved out of the realm of self-explanation and into this more general territory. Thus, the chapter formerly known as “Self-Explaining” has now been expanded into “Explaining,” and presents models for asking students to explain their learning aloud, either to themselves or to their peers or even to audiences outside of the classroom. The three chapters of Part Two now offer a very logical progression of teaching strategies. Learning deepens when students connect course content to their lives outside of the classroom, practice applying their new knowledge and skills in different contexts, and then explain their understanding to someone else. This last activity, of course, is another way of describing what we do as teachers, and we all know how much the practice of teaching enhances our own learning. The same holds true for our students.

Part Three of the first edition contained a chapter on “Growing,” which drew from Carol Dweck's research on the growth mindset. Dweck and many others have found that when students believe in the capacity of their intelligence to grow and expand, as opposed to seeing it as fixed and limited, it enhances their ability to learn. The theory of the growth mindset, and its application to education at every level, has been widely promoted and discussed outside of the academy, perhaps more so than any other strategy discussed in the book. The thoroughness of its penetration into educational discourse has prompted the inevitable backlash from those who caution us that instilling a growth mindset into students is no panacea. A fixed mindset is only one of the many barriers that students might face in their efforts to succeed in school, including social and economic ones that require deeper efforts at political change and economic reform. Having acknowledged that, I still see much value in Dweck's theory and its application to education and believe that teachers should know about it.

At the same time, a few years of reflection have helped me realize that what I really wanted to convey in that chapter were techniques that would help students feel like they belonged in their classrooms. They belonged there as learners, no matter what their prior educational experiences had been, and they belonged there as valued members of our community, no matter what barriers stood in their way outside of the classroom. Understood through that lens, the growth mindset still fits into that chapter, since a student with a fixed mindset might fear that their limited intellectual capacity means they don't belong in their college or even high school classrooms. But Chapter Seven, re-christened from “Growing” to “Belonging,” now includes other strategies to promote belonging, all of them built upon the theoretical foundation of an asset-based approach to teaching. Too often we view our students through a deficit lens, seeing what they lack and trying to fill it up with our teaching. But, of course, students bring an incredible array of assets into our classrooms, from their knowledge and skills to their diverse life experiences and cultural capital. The 2020 global pandemic brought to the fore the importance of creating a sense of community in our classrooms, and I believe that teaching strategies that help students feel like they belong in our classrooms provide the most effective route to the cultivation of such community.

The major revisions of these two chapters are the most substantial changes you will find in the book. But you'll find plenty of other changes along the way, including a slight re-ordering of the book's chapters, an expansion of the book's research foundation, and the addition of many new small teaching strategies. Chapter Nine, which has been re-named from “Expanding” to “Learning,” provides you with an updated set of resources to continue your own growth as a teacher. I hope that these resources will enable and inspire you to move beyond the models of the book and develop your own small teaching strategies, ones that work for your specific teaching context and your unique communities of students.

I considered one final change to the book that I ultimately did not adopt. The concept of small teaching, as I explain in the introduction, was first suggested to me by watching two versions of an American sport: professional baseball and amateur softball. For this edition, I thought long and hard about coming up with an alternative way to explain the concept of small teaching for two reasons. First, the book has reached a global audience, and an analogy from an American sport might not resonate with international readers unfamiliar with baseball. This problem was brought to the fore for me as I was speaking with one of the book's translators, who was struggling to find the right way to express the concept for a translated edition. Second, many academics have little interest in sports, and might find the parallels between teaching and baseball less than compelling. I'm not the most passionate sports fan in the world, but I do enjoy watching big games in a few sports and am happy to chat about them with friends and colleagues. One of my friends on the faculty, by contrast, rolls her eyes and heads back to her office anytime the subject of what she calls “sportsball” gets raised in a hallway conversation.

While I don't want to exclude readers like her from connecting with the original conception of small teaching, it can't be denied that observing my daughter's softball games in the summer of 2014, and then watching the World Series games in the fall of 2014 was what helped to transform my journal entry from January 2014 into a fully conceived book. Both experiences demonstrated to me that small changes could have a big impact, and inspired me to see the book through to completion. Thus, you'll still find in the introduction the same explanation of the concept of small teaching that you found in the original, even with its descriptions of “sportsball” games which may have long since faded from memory (unless, of course, you are a fan of the Kansas City Royals). Readers of the first edition might notice, however, that the opening story of the “Prediction” chapter has been changed, and no longer describes the “learning” impact of informal wagering on sports games. I thought the story of my wife's remote kindergarten class introduced the concept of that chapter just as effectively and placed it more squarely within a teaching and learning context.

From my journal entry through the first edition and into this second edition, the core conviction of this book remains the same: we can improve teaching and learning by attending to the small, everyday decisions we make as we design our courses, engage in classroom practice, and communicate with students. I have seen the power of this approach to transform the lives of both teachers and students, and invite you to join me in the work.

IntroductionSmall Teaching

“Much of what we've been doing as teachers and students isn't serving us well, but some comparatively simple changes could make a big difference.” (p. 9)

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

In October 2014, fans of Major League Baseball relished the sight of the plucky Kansas City Royals fighting their way to the final game of the World Series. What captured the attention of so many baseball enthusiasts was that the key to the Royals' success throughout the season had been an old-fashioned approach to the sport called small ball. Rather than relying on muscle-bound sluggers hitting grand slams, the Royals instead utilized the simple, incremental strategies that enable baseball teams to move runners from one base to the next and keep the other team from scoring: bunting, stealing bases, hitting sacrifice fly balls, and playing solid defense. These unglamorous achievements on the field don't win baseball players the accolades that they might earn from smashing game-winning home runs, but teams who play small ball in concerted and effective ways don't need those kinds of dramatic heroics. Indeed, some baseball analysts pointed to the success of the Royals, who achieved their victories on a relatively small budget, as evidence of the future of baseball. “The Royals have found a winning formula,” wrote Sean Gregory, the baseball columnist for Time magazine. “These days, if you swing for the fences, you're more likely than ever to strike out. So just put the ball in play…and take your chances with your legs. Steal bases to eke out those diminishing runs. Small-ball is cheap and effective. This is where the game is headed” (Gregory 2014b). As the article notes, the wonderful feature of small ball is that it's both effective and inexpensive—and hence available to everyone. Even teams that spend money on those high-profile sluggers can still play small ball—as was evidenced in the final game of the World Series, in which the bigger-budget San Francisco Giants snatched victory from the Royals by beating them at their own game and scoring two of their three runs on unglamorous sacrifice fly balls (Gregory 2014a).

My own acquaintance with small ball comes from a less dramatic story than the one the Kansas City Royals engineered in fall 2014. I have five children and live in a New England city where love for baseball runs deep. For 15 years I sat on uncomfortable metal benches for 2 months every late spring and watched my children play various levels of softball and baseball in our city leagues. The particular league to which my children belonged was a long-standing one; many of the coaches played in the league when they were children. These coaches frequently took the games quite seriously, perhaps in an effort to recapture the glory of their childhood playing days. As a result, they scouted and selected the best players every year who were coming up from the younger leagues and thus left newer or inexperienced coaches to draft their teams from a much depleted talent pool. Yet, despite the advantages that these more aggressive coaches gained in recruiting the top players, they didn't always win. In little league as in the major leagues, the coaches who seemed to have the greatest success were the ones who focused their attention—and the attention of their players—on mastering all of the small elements of the game. Small-ball coaches would signal their base runners to steal when the fielders were haphazardly tossing the ball around the infield, or they would ensure that someone was always backing up a throw to first base in case the first-base person dropped the ball. Since nobody was bashing home runs out of the park on a softball team of 8-year-olds, small ball represented the only guaranteed strategy for long-term success in these youth leagues.

The idea for this book began to percolate at the end of one of those long softball seasons, as I was preparing for a round of fall visits to other college campuses in support of my previous book, Cheating Lessons, which was focused on how we can reduce cheating and promote academic integrity in higher education. When I first began giving presentations on this topic, I relished the chance to speak to my fellow college and university teachers about major transformations they could make to their courses. Unfortunately, I was usually making such visits during the middle of a semester, which meant that workshop participants had to wait until the following semester to implement any of my suggestions. Even instructors with the best of intentions to revitalize their teaching might find it challenging to carry what they had learned in a two-hour workshop in October to their course planning in January or August, given all the work that would occupy their minds in the interim. More fundamentally, sudden and dramatic transformation to one's teaching is hard work and can prove a tough sell to instructors with so many time-consuming responsibilities. As a working instructor myself, I teach courses in literature and writing every semester, so I know full well the depth of this challenge. As much as I frequently feel the urge to shake up my teaching practices with radical new innovations, I mostly don't. Reconceiving your courses from the ground up takes time and energy that most of us have in short supply in the middle of the semester, and that we usually expend on our research or service work during the semester breaks.

My reflections on this dilemma led me to consider whether I should incorporate into my workshops more activities that instructors could turn around and use in their classrooms the next morning or the next week without an extensive overhaul of their teaching—the pedagogical equivalents, in other words, of small ball. With that prospect in mind, I dove into the literature of teaching and learning in higher education with new eyes, seeking small-ball recommendations that were both easy to implement and well-supported by the research. Over the course of many months this search led me through the work of cognitive psychologists who study the mechanics of learning, to neuroscientists and biologists who helped me understand some basic aspects of brain science, and to research in learning-related fields such as emotions and motivation. I was pleasantly surprised to find in these fields a manageable number of learning principles that seemed readily translatable into higher education classrooms. Gradually I began searching for practical examples of how these principles could operate in the classroom, and I began recommending some of the strategies I was discovering to participants in my workshops. I could feel the energy and excitement rising in the room whenever participants could see a short road between a late afternoon workshop and a concrete and positive change that they could make in their classes the next morning. But nothing made me more interested and excited than the small successes I experienced when I incorporated some of the strategies I had learned about into my own classroom. Over the course of that fall semester, as I both worked on my own teaching and spoke with other instructors about these ideas, I became convinced of the seemingly paradoxical notion that fundamental pedagogical improvement was possible through incremental change—in the same way that winning the World Series was possible through stealing bases and hitting sacrifice fly balls.

This newfound conviction ultimately gave rise to the notion of small teaching, an approach that seeks to spark positive change in higher education through small but powerful modifications to our course design and teaching practices. Small teaching as a fully developed strategy draws from the deep well of research on learning and higher education to create a deliberate, structured, and incremental approach to changing our courses for the better. The past several decades have brought us a growing body of research on how human beings learn, and a new generation of scholars in those fields has begun to translate findings from the laboratories of memory and cognition researchers to the higher education classrooms of today. Their findings increasingly suggest the potency of small shifts in how we design our courses, conduct our classrooms, and communicate with our students. Some of the findings may also suggest pathways to change that arise from dramatic transformation to our courses, and I applaud those innovators who are pointing us down those routes. But if we are seeking to boost our students' learning of course content, to improve their basic intellectual skills—such as writing, speaking, and critical thinking—and to prepare them for success in their careers, then I believe we can find in small teaching an approach to our shared work of educating students that is effective for our students and accessible to the largest number of working college and university teachers.

Widespread accessibility to working teachers matters a great deal, especially if we consider the incredibly diverse range of contexts in which higher education operates these days. Teaching innovations that have the potential to spur broad changes must be as accessible to underpaid and overworked adjuncts as they are to tenured faculty at research universities. They must find a home on the campus of a small liberal arts college as easily as they do on the commuter campuses of regional comprehensives. They must offer something to traditional lecturers in big rooms and to discussion leaders in small seminars. They should be as available to us in ordinary times as they are in the midst of a pandemic. The activities outlined in this book, taken as a whole, fulfill these directives: with a little bit of creative thinking, they can translate into every conceivable type of teaching environment in higher education, from lectures in cavernous classrooms to discussions in small seminar rooms, from fully face-to-face to fully online courses and every blended shade between. They stem from very basic principles of how human beings learn and hence cross both discipline and content type—whether you are teaching students to memorize facts or formulae, to develop their speaking or writing skills, or to solve complex and wicked problems. Not every instructor in every discipline in every teaching context will find a space for all of the small teaching activities outlined here, but every reader should find opportunities to use at least some of them. You can implement them tomorrow morning, next week on Friday, in the design of your next quiz or test, and even in the next e-mail you send to your students.

To ensure that these techniques lent themselves to this kind of universal accessibility, and thus merit space beneath the umbrella of small teaching, the principles outlined in this book had to meet three basic criteria. First, they had to have some foundation in the learning sciences. Fortunately, over the past decade or two a cohort of learning scientists has begun to present findings from those disciplines in forms that are accessible to non-specialists like me. Books like Daniel Schacter's The Seven Sins of Memory; Daniel Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School; or Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel's Make It Stick describe the results of research in neuroscience and cognitive theory in ways that spell out their implications clearly for teachers and learners. Since the publication of the first edition of the book, the roster of such books has only continued to expand. Notable recent titles include Patrice M. Bain and Pooja K. Agarwal's Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning; Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki, and Oliver Caviglioli's Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide; and Joshua R. Eyler's How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching. All of these authors helped me identify prospective principles for the first edition of the book, and consider some new ones for this second edition.

The principles I selected almost all have solid support from experimental research of one kind or another; they emerge from the labs of neuroscientists, biologists, and psychologists. But in order for a principle to earn a spot as one of the book's chapter titles, it had to meet a second criteria: there had to be at least some research demonstrating that it could have a positive impact outside of the laboratory, in real-world educational environments—higher education–whenever possible. In other words, I had to see published accounts of experiments or qualitative research that demonstrated that this principle could make a demonstrable positive difference to student learning, performance, retention, or well-being. This test proved the most challenging one to meet; some strategies that seemed plausible to me, or that stemmed from fascinating laboratory experiments, did not ultimately make it into the book since they could not clear this essential hurdle.

Finally, I had to observe the principles directly myself somehow, either from my own experiences as a teacher or learner or from direct observation of other teaching and learning environments. Call me overly cautious, but I needed these principles to pass this final smell test for me to be absolutely certain that I could recommend them to working instructors. Most of the chapters that follow begin with an example of how I have sniffed out these principles in some learning experience from my own life or from the lives of my students or even my children, and I hope these personal examples might help you identify moments in which you have seen them at work in your own learning histories as well.

Assuming a teaching and learning activity met all three of these criteria, it still had to be capable of implementation in ways that fell under the umbrella of small teaching. As you will find in the pages that follow, a small teaching approach or activity may take one of three forms:

Brief (5–10-minute) classroom or online learning activities. I love the idea of small interventions in a learning session that can capture (or recapture) the attention of students, provide quick opportunities for student engagement, and introduce or seal up new learning. Even when you have an otherwise busy class session planned, you can find time for a five-minute activity that will provide a substantive boost to the learning of your students.

One-time interventions in a course. As in the case of the Minute Thesis exercise in Chapter Four, the meaning of small will occasionally shift from “a small portion of a class” to “a small portion of the course.” In other words, some small teaching activities could occupy an entire class period but need to do so only one or two times in the semester.

Small modifications in course design or communication with your students. These recommendations might not translate directly into 10-minute or one-time activities, but they also do not require radical rethinking of your courses. They might inspire tweaks or small changes in the way you organize the daily schedule of your course, write your course description or assignment sheets, or respond to the writing of your students. The strategies in Part III especially will fit under this category of small teaching approaches.

An essential shared quality of all three of these forms of small teaching is that they require minimal preparation and grading. Although we are all busy, this feature of small teaching strikes me as especially important for adjunct instructors, who may be teaching multiple courses on different campuses or working additional jobs to make ends meet. An adjunct instructor who can walk into class every day with a variety of small teaching exercises can actually reduce overall preparation time by seeding these powerful learning activities throughout her teaching. One-time activities like the Minute Thesis or a mindful practice session, which likewise require minimal preparation or grading, can also serve as a back pocket technique that an instructor could use on a day when a sick child or medical emergency or mental health day has reduced or eliminated normal preparation time.

Yet such activities, which may first find their way into your classroom as a means of filling an empty 10 minutes at the end of class or an unplanned course session, have the power to produce as much or more learning than your anxiously overprepared lecture. For me, this represents the real power and promise of small teaching. I hope the chapters that follow will demonstrate to you that small teaching is not a realist's compromise, an inferior choice we have to make because we don't have the time or energy to make the big changes that would really make a difference to our students. We have excellent evidence for the learning power of small teaching activities—in study after study–as you will see in the chapters that follow. Small teaching activities have been proven to raise student performance on learning tasks by the equivalent of a full letter grade or higher. That's powerful evidence—as powerful as anything I have seen in the learning research, including in studies devoted to grand slam approaches that grab the headlines of the Chronicle of Higher Education or other publications of our profession.

In further service to the argument that small and incremental approaches can have great power (and to the fact that we are all busy), you will find a variety of levels at which you can understand the small teaching strategies recommended in each chapter. You will have the richest understanding of any given small teaching approach by reading the chapter in its entirety, of course, but you can also drop into the practical application sections in the latter half of the chapters if you are looking for fast and immediate help. The structure of each chapter includes the following elements:


You will usually find here examples of how the particular learning phenomenon described in that chapter might appear in everyday life.

In Theory:

This section delves into the research that supports the recommendations of the chapter and includes descriptions of experiments from laboratories and classrooms as well as brief descriptions of key findings or principles from the cognitive sciences.


Four or five detailed models are described in each chapter—fully fleshed-out examples of how instructors could incorporate a small teaching approach into their course design, classroom or online practice, or communication with students. This second edition contains a number of new models that I have encountered since the book's initial publication.


I hope and expect that instructors will not simply follow the models, but also will take the overall strategy and develop their own new models. The principles provide guidance for creating your own small teaching strategies.

Quick Tips:

One-sentence reminders of the simplest means of putting the small teaching strategies of that chapter into practice; flip through or return to these when you have 15 minutes before class and need a quick tip for an engaged learning activity.


A final reflection on the main theory or strategy of the chapter.

I hope that your first reading of each chapter will help you see immediately how to make changes to your teaching that will benefit your students. But I hope as well that you can continue to rely on the book long after your first reading. Keep it handy and flip through it every now and again or whenever you feel the need to try something new and different in your classroom. Use the book to spark new or newly invigorated conversations on your campus about how we can best help our students learn and about how we can best promote positive change in higher education. Finally, when you are ready to further explore the literature on teaching and learning in higher education, and move beyond these specific recommendations, review the reading suggestions in Chapter Nine