Small Changes, Big Impact

I’ve long been a huge fan of James Lang‘s since I read his book Small Teaching in a book group a few years ago. He calls us to make small changes to our teaching, one change at a time, rather than feeling obligated to overturn our syllabi and start anew. This practical approach of learning tools and tricks that I can implement immediately at any point in the semester has been fundamental to my thinking about pedagogy.

Lang regularly writes for The Chronicle, and one of my favorite pieces is “Small Changes in Teaching: Making Connections.” In this piece, Lang articulates the importance of helping students weave meaningful connections between the content they’re learning, the experiences they have, and the culture that surrounds them. He quotes How Learning Works, which argues that “One important way experts’ and novices’ knowledge organizations differ is the number or density of connections among the concepts, facts, and skills they know.” As we guide students through this process, he urges us to provide ample opportunities for students to work through this web of knowledge, making connections as they go.

In this article, he outlines three strategies for doing this: 1) the commonplace book (a combo diary/scrapbook where students can piece together things they’ve learned and draw connections), 2) social media reflections, and 3) the minute thesis (an activity in which students craft thesis statements based on a list of readings and themes). I particularly like his suggestions about making use of social media:

“Assign them to post one or two links a week to a connection they have observed or discovered. An economist might use Instagram to ask students to post pictures of commerce in action from their daily lives; an environmental scientist might ask students to post to a class Facebook page their images and observations of interactions between the natural and built environment of the campus; a mathematician might require students to Tweet when they see math in action on television or film.”

James Lang, “Small Changes in Teaching: Making Meaningful Connections”

Finding opportunities for students to apply the content they’re learning in class to their everyday lives has the power to make that learning more meaningful. By providing space for students to integrate what they’ve learned with the world around them, we have the opportunity to help students remember key takeaways beyond the classroom.

Check out this article for more details on these strategies as well as Lang’s other writings on the Chronicle. You can find him on Twitter @LangOnCourse.

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