Small Teaching, Big Impact

Headshot Derek Lee, English

This post is authored by Derek Lee from the Department of English. Lee developed this contribution as part of his participation in the CAT’s New Faculty Learning Community (FLC) last year. Be on the look out for a second post from another FLC participant later this week. If you are interested in joining this year’s New Faculty Learning Community (first and second year faculty are encouraged to participate), you may learn more here. Applications are due Friday, August 26, 2022.


Have you ever wished there was a magic potion for teaching? Some incredible resource filled with syllabus advice, in-class exercises, and conversation starters that immediately makes you a better teacher? No such elixir exists, but James Lang’s, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (2nd Edition, 2021) comes pretty darn close. As part of a CAT New Faculty Learning Community I joined last fall, we read Small Teaching and discussed our pedagogical experiences at Wake. The central thesis of Lang’s text is that making small changes to our teaching (first-day activities, writing exercises, etc.) can have big effects on student learning. What I liked about this approach is that I could make minor tweaks to my classes and achieve major improvements in student engagement and outcomes. As it so happened, I was also developing a new upper-level English course for spring 2022 (ENG302: Comics, Race, & Social Justice), so this struck me as a perfect opportunity to apply a slew of Small Teaching strategies all at once see which ones worked best. By creating an entire class based on Lang’s principles, I could uncover the highest impact changes and implement them in my other courses going forward. In the rest of this blog, I’ll discuss three “small” activities that had the biggest effects for me.

Strategy 1: The Minute Thesis

Without question, the best activity I borrowed from Small Teaching was “the Minute Thesis.” In this thesis generation prompt, you first list all the course texts in a single column on the blackboard. Second, you list several course themes, theoretical concepts, and motifs in another column. Third, you call up a student to circle one theme and two texts associated with that theme. Finally, every student has one minute to craft a thesis right on the spot. Afterwards we share and discuss our ideas before trying it again with a new student’s selections.

This exercise went over like gangbusters in my class. The Minute Thesis helps students see interesting connections across texts that initially seem wildly different. Many students have been trained to always write English essays on a single text; this exercise demands a comparative analysis that often results in more interesting arguments. I also experimented with Lang’s format to have three separate students come to the blackboard to choose the theme and two texts. This adds a high degree of randomness/chaos that leads to the kind of weird and daring theses I tend to prefer. Most importantly, the Minute Thesis is fun. It turns thesis development from a lonely, frustrating activity into a fast-paced, communal one.

One important tip I should share is to give this activity plenty of time. Lang suggests the exercise can be completed quite quickly, but I think dedicating at least 30-40 minutes is necessary for the writing time, feedback, and multiple iterations needed for students to get the most out of it.

Strategy 2: Opening Questions

A second Small Teaching activity that worked well is what Lang calls “opening questions.” In the past I would usually remind students about content we had covered previously in order to give that week’s reading the proper context (e.g., “Last week we covered X. This week we will build on that with Y…). Lang’s advice is to have students perform this labor. At the start of class, I’d say “Remind us about Foucault’s theories of power” or “Tell me about the two major historical figures we brought up last week when discussing …” Some students will have a blank look of terror on their faces and others will start shuffling back into their notes, but eventually an answer—and a conversation—will emerge.

By pulling old knowledge into a new conversation, students perform “retrieval”—this is important because retrieval promotes active, engaged learning. Midterm and final exams are based on retrieval logic, as several months of old content are activated for a new challenge. I don’t have such exams in my literature courses, but opening questions allowed my students to keep several major concepts fresh in their brains throughout the semester. Over time they built up a vocabulary and grammar of literary terms, historical episodes, and philosophical frameworks that led to higher level discussions over the course of the term.

Strategy 3: Personal Stories

A third strategy I picked up from Small Teaching was using personal stories to motivate and connect with students. This might come naturally to some teachers, but not for me. When I first began teaching in graduate school, I fastidiously kept my private life out the classroom because I didn’t think it belonged in teaching first-year composition or the analyzing texts like Frankenstein.

But Lang argues that personal stories can motivate students by connecting classroom learning with their lives. Over the years I have reached the same conclusion, and in my new class I encoded it into my pedagogical practice. In both our in-class conversations and online Canvas posts, I welcomed personal anecdotes and gut reactions to our reading. I have observed this implicitly brings my students closer to the material, helps them understand its significance to their own lives, and ultimately why books matter more than ever. For example, when we read Jerry Craft’s New Kid, I told my students the text strongly resonated with me because I, like the young protagonist Jordan Banks, also left a New York City public school to attend an elite private high school that was mostly white. The jump from public to private school was disorienting for me in terms of socio-economic difference, cultural codes, student interests, clothing choices, winter vacation plans, and so on. Two students immediately popped up their hands and shared their own experiences. One was a student of color whose high school teachers kept confusing her with the only other minority student in the grade, a situation which continually befalls the ethnic characters in New Kid. Another admitted that Wake Forest was the “whitest” institution he had ever attended and that navigating it had been difficult.

The conversations such personal stories elicit may bring us out of the text (The horror! The horror!) but I agree with Lang that this is often a good thing. Literature has the potential to change lives, and it becomes even more powerful when we can merge those narratives into our own experiences, cultural backgrounds, and worldviews.

These three strategies worked particularly well for me, and I plan to implement them into my other classes going forward. Small Teaching has dozens more ideas like them, all of which are based on pedagogical research and Lang’s personal vetting. If you have the chance, I recommend reading the book and trying out some of his ideas. I am confident it will make a big difference!

Reference

Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning (2nd ed). Jossey Bass: Hoboken, NJ.

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