Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Small Teaching

Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher changed how I think about teaching, and sparked some good discussion in our community. Therese Huston’s Teaching What You Don’t Know had a similar impact a few years earlier, and now there is James Lang’s Small Teaching.

As its title suggests, Lang’s book focuses on little things that teachers can do right now to improve their teaching, rather than on big, systemic changes that might have larger impact, but which require larger effort (and probably buy-in from other people). To be included, a practice had to:

  1. have some foundation in the learning sciences,
  2. have been shown to have impact in real-world situation, and
  3. have been used or observed by the author.

His suggestions are all either:

  • brief (5-10 minute) classroom or online learning activities,
  • one-time interventions in a course, or
  • small modifications in course design or communication with students.

Most importantly, they require minimal preparation and grading. Frequent low-stakes quizzes to prompt recall, interleaving different material, having students write a one-minute thesis or draw a concept map, making the assessment criteria clear, setting aside time for self-explanation and peer explanation—none of these should be new to anyone who has been through our instructor training course, but Lang does an excellent job of organizing them and connecting them back to research and theory.

We do less than half of what Lang recommends in our workshops. I’m going to start suggesting Small Teaching as an auxiliary text in our training, and I hope that a year from now, some of our instructors will be able to tell us how these techniques have worked for them.

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