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Applying James Lang’s Ideas for Small Teaching

Fall 2021 marked the comeback to the classroom for many classes at the UM-Dearborn campus after being away for many months and at this point in the semester, it is a good time to reflect on what is happening in your classroom and find new ways to improve in-person teaching. Some changes can be very time consuming and daunting to implement, but there are a few things that you can do that do not take a big effort or a lot of time.

Using ideas from his book Small Teaching, James Lang’s Chronicle of Higher Education series suggests simple changes that faculty can incorporate in their class that do not take a long time to plan or implement. These small changes can make a big difference for students’ learning. He called them “5-minute interventions to improve your teaching”.

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Professor of English and the Director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College.

These small interventions can help you improve student learning:

  • The minutes before your class can be time used to connect with your students. If you teach a highly-structured class, you might not have enough opportunities for students to talk to you or ask you questions. When you arrive 10 minutes early to your classroom, there is time for you to set up the computer and other technology you need to teach or to write information on the board; the rest of the time you could be interacting with your students. You don’t have to start talking to them, just be available to listen in case someone wants to talk to you. The minutes before your class set the tone for how the students perceive you. Think carefully about how you want them to see you: prepared, distracted, organized, stressed, ready to listen, etc. Your teaching time starts as soon as you enter the classroom even if you haven’t started explaining anything yet.
  • The first-five minutes of class are crucial class time. Robert Gagne proposed in his book “The Conditions for Learning” Nine Events of Instruction or nine steps to improve learning and the first step is “Gain your students attention”. If you think about it, you could be teaching to the walls if your students are not paying attention to you. You can use icebreakers, or other activities you don’t do very often to grab their attention. Or you could simply start asking them questions about the last topics you taught in the last class to wake the students up. Then you could remind your students of prior knowledge they need to understand the concepts you are teaching that day. 
  • The last-five minutes of class are also very important. Sometimes when faculty run out of time they cram the most important concepts of the day during the last five minutes of class. If you were a student trying to learn those concepts, would you be able to grasp them if they were presented to you in a rush? Plan your class to better facilitate your students’ learning; check the time you need to present information or the time students need to do classroom activities. This means that you really need to pay attention to the clock. As a rule of thumb, I stop teaching my class five minutes before ending time because by then students will be more preoccupied with any commitments they have after class and they might not be paying attention. The last five minutes can be used to give them brief reminders. However, in addition to giving them reminders in class I put all the important information in writing, such as due dates (i.e., Canvas, email, board, etc.). Canvas post assignment’s due dates on the course homepage and this is the first page the students see when they open your course.

If you are going to change your teaching, it makes sense to start with a small change that does not overwhelm you. I encourage you to try some of these ideas and be patient; don’t be surprised if no one comes to ask you questions the first time you arrive early and ready to listen or if your attention grabber did not go as planned. It takes time to master doing new things. 

Reach out to the Hub instructional designers if you want more ideas for changes in your teaching.

Featured Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay