Small Teaching Strategies

James M. Lang is a professor of English and the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, MA, where he teaches courses in British literature and in creative nonfiction writing. The author of five books, including Small Teaching and On Course: A Week- by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, and more than a hundred reviews or essays, on topics ranging from higher education to British literature. Lang writes a monthly column for The Chronicle of Higher Education as well as edits a series of books on teaching and learning in higher education for the University of West Virginia Press. He has delivered public lectures and faculty workshops at more than fifty colleges or universities in the United States and abroad, and is currently a roster member of the Fulbright Specialist Program in higher education.

I’m a big believer in the opening and closing minutes of class. I think those are really ripe opportunities for small teaching.

James Lang author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning

Small Teaching StrategiesThe book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning by James Lang was the selection for the Inaugural Book Club Learning Community. In this book, Dr. Lang describes strategies for improving student learning with a series of small-scale changes that can make a big impact. Designed to connect primary research and the classroom environment, these strategies can be implemented by faculty in any discipline and integrated into pre-existing teaching techniques.

Small Teaching Online book cover

Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes

Small teaching is a phrase coined by James M. Lang to describe an incremental approach to improving our instruction. Flower Darby's book looks at small teaching in an online environment.

Each chapter introduces a basic concept in cognitive theory, explains when and how it should be employed and provides examples of how the intervention has been used in a variety of disciplines.

  • Part I Knowledge: Retrieving, Predicting, Interleaving
  • Part II Understanding: Connecting, Practicing, Self-Explaining
  • Part III Inspiration: Motivating, Growing, Expanding

Since the fall kick-off, several departments have chosen the book as the basis for their consideration. The inaugural learning community had the opportunity to connect with Dr. Lang via video conferencing, hear him discuss strategies for the beginnings and endings of class periods, units, and the course, and have him answer our questions. Click here to listen to Lang's presentation.

A good summary of several key topics can be found in the Small Changes in Teaching series in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Lang's excellent book provides many evidence-based practical suggestions. Contact your instructional designer to talk through strategies that might be effective for your class.

5 minute presentations

The 5-minute speed presentations at both the Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 Teaching and Learning Symposiums received extremely positive feedback because of the practical applications that were presented. Between the two symposiums, 24 University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty described small teaching strategies that they have found engaging for students while promoting effective learning and implementable without overhauling their entire approach to teaching. The sessions topics ranged from “Using Debates to Help Students Engage in Course Material,” “Graphic Organizers,” “Modeling to Help Students Make Connections,” “Does Prediction Enhance Engagement and Retention?” and “Using Concept Maps,” among others. These presentations were recorded, and each presenter prepared a handout describing the strategy, outlining the steps to implementation, and providing their contact information.

  1. Does Prediction Enhance Engagement & Retention? Human Dimensions of Sustainability

    Julia Torquati, Professor, Child, Youth and Family Studies, College of Education and Human Sciences

    This presentation will describe two assignments in an online class. The assignments can also be modified slightly to be used in a face-to-face class. The first assignment requires groups of students to identify 3-5 principles that would promote healthy families and a healthy Earth. The next week, students read the Earth Charter and the Sustainable Development Goals and compare their principles to these two documents. Finally, each group prepares a brief (3-5 minute) video presenting one of the principles in the documents and explaining how the principle is related to human and environmental sustainability. Recording

  2. “But How Can I Process More Deeply?” a Class Activity and Video Resources to Deepen Students’ Levels of Processing

    Carolyn Brown Kramer, Assistant Professor of Practice, Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences

    Many students are accustomed to using study techniques and academic habits that lead to shallow processing of course concepts, which in turn produces weak, isolated, and fleeting understanding of the material. This presentation will include a simple class activity from cognitive psychologist Stephen Chew that demonstrates the benefits of deep processing, along with video resources that present specific suggestions and techniques to help students process more deeply. Recording

  3. Implementation of Group Assessments to Help Increase Student Understanding

    Renee McFee, Assistant Professor, School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

    Use of group quizzes and exams can allow students to work through course concepts and participate in peer-to-peer instruction. Although students believe group assessments help improve understanding of concepts, certain strategies can increase student satisfaction with this strategy. Recording

  4. Using Concept Maps in Graduate and Undergraduate Seminars

    Libby Jones, Associate Professor, Civil Engineering, College of Engineering

    Graduate and some upper level undergraduate seminars typically involve students reviewing and discussing journal papers. Students new to reading journal papers often struggle with identifying the research questions addressed in journal papers in addition to critically evaluating the methodologies used and the results. In this presentation, I will review a "how to read a journal paper" discussion that I couple with concept maps. Students using concept maps for journal papers better comprehend the papers and better contribute to the discussion on the journal papers. Recording

  5. Great Expectations: Discussing Student Success

    Michelle Carr Hassler, Assistant Professor of Practice, College of Journalism and Mass Communications

    These simple first-day-of-class activities can help set a positive tone for the semester and give students - and the instructor - an opportunity to reflect on expectations and goals. Recording

  6. Engaging Students in Large Lectures With the A-Team

    Amber Messersmith, Lecturer, Management, College of Business

    Professors' and students' visions for large lecture participation often run counter to one another. Professors want participation from students when posing questions, in hopes the lecture will be engaging and help assess student comprehension. Many students want to remain anonymous, sitting back and listening to lectures instead of speaking up in front of peers. Rather than hoping for one courageous student in a sea of faces to respond, the professor can turn to the A-Team. This team is a rotating group of students assigned to spend one class period during the semester in the spotlight, ready to participate by responding when questions are posed, and held accountable for their classroom participation. If you have a question, if no one else can help, and if you can find them...maybe you can call on The A-Team. Recording

  7. Experiences in Teaching Offline and Online Versions of the Same Applied Physics Course

    David Mabie, Assistant Professor of Practice, Biological Systems Engineering, College of Engineering

    MYSM 109 (Physical principles of life sciences and agriculture) was converted into an online course three years ago. There have been several challenges integrating new materials between the offline and online offerings as the course has evolved. This presentation is focused on presenting some of those challenges in identifying how some content works better in the different sections. Recording

  8. Class Warm-Up and Cool-Down: Providing a Framework and Practice for Retrieving

    Sabine Zempleni, Lecturer, Nutrition and Health Sciences, College of Education and Human Sciences

    Situation: Several times a semester I talk to frustrated students who take good notes and spend time memorizing definitions but during exams or assignments are at a loss. Students tend to memorize facts and definitions as isolated ideas without connecting them to the overall concept. To practice retrieving concepts, during the first 5 minutes of the class I ask students to complete a framework for the concepts they will work on by filling in as many details as possible from their readings for the day. During the class, students work on applying those concepts. The last 5 - 10 minutes of the class are used to add more details and applications to the framework started at the beginning of the class.

  9. Helping Students Visualize a Good Composition: A Tool for the 21st Century Learners

    Katherine Nashleanas, Lecturer, Geography and Spatial Science and Fellow, Center for Great Plains Studies, College of Arts and Sciences

    Most of us want to include more writing for critical thinking in our courses, but what to do with students who haven't had a composition class yet or those who have but still have difficulty writing? Are they going to be penalized? I have what I like to call a "quick and dirty" way to visually teach composition in my geography classes that puts all students on the same playing field and gives them more confidence and mastery of the composition form. Recording

  10. Scaffolding Content, Discussion, and Feedback

    John Sangster, Assistant Professor, Civil Engineering, College of Engineering

    This format of daily classroom handout can provide one stop shopping for scaffolding the content of your lecture, conducting think-pair-share, getting the muddiest point, and kicking off student recall. As a bonus, preparing it a few days before class provides a review of last year's lecture, and helps to plan out in-class discussions. Recording

  11. 3 Simple Strategies to Design Peer Learning

    Sushma Jolley, Instructional Design Technology Specialist, Innovative Instructional Design; Christine Kiewra, Assistant Professor of Practice, Child, Youth, and Family Studies, College of Education and Human Sciences

    In this presentation, I will explore how you can design the structure of peer learning to improve student’s academic and social cognitive skills. Recording

  12. Bringing the Shark Tank to a Large 200 Plus Student Class in Marketing - What Can You Learn about Using Similar Activities in Your Class

    Rob Simon, Associate Professor of Practice, Marketing, College of Business

    I use a “shark tank” format model to add a presentation and competitive element to a large lecture type class. The objective is to have the students make a brief focused presentation that integrates the key elements of the class and to give the students feedback from professionals and graduate students. The students create a marketing plan on a non-existent product or service and try to convince a “judge” of the viability of their marketing plan and why the “Judge” should invest in it Recording


Overviews of the techniques described in these short sessions are available for download. 

  1. Using Debates to Help Students Engage in Course Material

    L.J. McElravy, Assistant Professor of Youth Civic Leadership and Graduate Chair of Agricultural Leadership, Education & Communication, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

    Looking for a strategy to encourage student critical thinking in the classroom? Setting up a debate actively engages students, while also providing you, the instructor, insight as to what your students are learning.

  2. Multiple-true-false questions help reveal mixed and partial understandings in students

    Brian Couch, Assistant Professor, School of Biological Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences

    While most instructors are familiar with the traditional multiple-choice format, a student's selection of one answer provides little information regarding their thinking on other options. This presentation will discuss how the related multiple-true-false format can provide a richer portrait of student thinking about all the answer choices.

  3. Preparing Lessons on the GO: Graphic Organizers That Is

    Kenneth A. Kiewra, Professor, Educational Psychology, College of Education and Human Sciences

    Learning is facilitated when information is displayed visually. Graphic organizers such as hierarchies and matrices display information visually so that relationships among lesson ideas are easily seen and learned. This presentation introduces educators to four types of graphic organizers they can use when designing instruction.

  4. Dare to Go Live! Student Facebook Live Production for Real-World Learning

    Jamie Loizzo, Assistant Professor, Agricultural Leadership, Education & Communications, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

    Facebook Live can be used as a student tool for gaining real-world communication experience. The presenter will discuss a project-based learning (PjBL) course in Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Communication (AESC) that piloted using Facebook Live for immersing students in mobile video production principles, as well as teaching tips for scaffolding assignments for successful student deployment of live video streaming.

  5. New tricks for teaching old fossils: Encouraging science literacy in introductory-level students

    Emily Hammerl, Assistant Professor of Practice, Anthropology, College of Arts & Sciences

    The presentation will discuss ways to incorporate current findings into an entry-level classroom. In this case, using an article reading guide and activity designed in response to an exciting set of fossil remains that were announced midway through the semester of an introductory course.

  6. Modeling to help students make connections

    Joseph Dauer, Assistant Professor, Life Sciences Education, School of Natural Resources, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

    Having students create, revise, and review models can help students to see the many connections between topics. I will describe ways to present the activity, rapid feedback to gather, and getting students to see the value of this activity.

  7. Best practices for using external (YouTube) videos in Canvas

    Jerald Varner, Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering, College of Engineering

    Rather than just having the link to a video on the content page having an image of the video and a start arrow directly on the content page makes it more likely that students will engage with the video content.

  8. Providing Students Immediate Feedback on Individual and Group Work in Large Classes

    William Wagner, Professor, School of Biological Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences

    Providing immediate feedback on student work allows students to learn from their misconceptions while they are still engaged with the material. This can be a challenge in large classes. I will present some simple, low-tech methods to provide immediate feedback to students on individual and group work in large classes, including the use of IF-AT forms to provide immediate feedback during exams.

  9. Rubric Construction: Encouraging Students to Prioritize Concepts

    Erin Blankenship, Professor, Statistics, and Associate Dean, College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

    This rubric writing activity can be completed by students several times over the semester. It encourages them to think about not only the solution to the problem, but by “dividing up” points they must also consider if some parts of the solution are more important than others. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and can easily be added on to other existing activities/problem sets.

  10. A Rapid Exercise in Resilience Thinking

    Dirac Twidwell, Assistant Professor, Rangeland Ecologist, Agronomy and Horticulture, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

  11. Making Large Classes Feel Small

    Katherine Nashleanas, Lecturer, Geography Program and Fellow, Center for Great Plains Studies, College of Arts and Sciences

    Improving student interaction and building a greater “buy-in” to the course for students in large classes can be accomplished by doing one simple thing.

  12. Canvas Course Analytics: Insight Into Student-Course Interactions

    Tareq Daher, Instructional Design and Technology Coordinator, Innovative Instructional Design

    Canvas provides instructors with analytics on how students interact with their courses. Course analytics may provide insight on topics students struggle with, timeliness of assignment submission, and individual student interactions with the course. Learning analytics can assist you in making course design improvements. In this presentation, we will learn how to access your course's analytics, what information is available to you, and how to use that information for quick course design improvements.