Small Teaching: Ways to Make Quick, Impactful Changes on Student Learning

While the spring semester is now partially completed, it is still critical to engage in reflective practices as a constant component of teaching students. While analyzing how your courses have gone throughout the first couple of months and looking to make improvements throughout the remainder of the semester, you may notice small changes you can make to adapt your curricular delivery, assignments, or assessments for the betterment of student learning and engagement. In February, we posted on The Cowbell a blog post that centered around the TILT (Transparency in Learning and Teaching) Framework. In this blog post, we will take the tenants or ideas of the TILT framework a step further, and focus on ‘small teaching’ – ways to incorporate a one-time modification or intervention that can be done in a period of no more than 5-15 minutes. 

James Lang wrote about small teaching in 2016 with his book entitled Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. The book has since published a second edition. In it, he contends that for anything to be designated as an impactful technique regarding small teaching, it first must be accessible. This accessibility includes the ability for the technique to be translated for every content delivery mechanism, from small group instruction to large lectures. Secondly, it requires minimal prep and grading. This ensures that it is a small and incremental change, rather than a complete overhaul. Lastly, it must be foundationally rooted in the learning sciences.  

One adaptive instruction technique that embraces the small teaching criteria is to frame your curriculum with predictive questioning for analysis and background knowledge. This effectively challenges the students to go beyond their current level of understanding and ability to critically analyze and predict. If the prediction is incorrect, students can begin to analyze why they thought that way, where they may have thought differently, and develop a deeper understanding of what the correct response would be and why.  

Much like in the world of academia, the same patterned learning can be found in real-world examples. If you have ever taken leftovers from a meal and predicted incorrectly at what size container to utilize, or you have stepped out on an ice-covered driveway only to realize a better pair of shoes may provide more grip, you have engaged in predictive living. Our lives are in a constant predict-detect-correct cycle of learning. There are several ways predictive learning can be utilized in the classroom in small ways. You can activate prior knowledge through pre-quizzes or writing prompts, utilize polls or informal class predictions, or as a closing discussion about predicting upcoming lab experiments and results. These can be followed up with short discussions at the beginning of a future class. 

Another minor change that can impact your students is the practice of information retrieval. Dr. Pooja K. Agarwal has done extensive research around memory and retrieval practice, and in a recent publication of Educational Psychology Review, she concluded that “retrieval practice improved learning for a variety of education levels, content areas, experimental designs, retrieval practice timing, final test delays, retrieval and final test formats, and the timing of feedback” (p. 1427). This sort of retrieval practice lends itself to long-term learning, rather than short-term success. 

There are a few ways you can effectively implement retrieval practice in short amounts of time. For example, implementing small quizzes at the end of each Canvas module can help lead to a greater depth of understanding. This could be utilized for several modalities, such as asynchronous online teaching, for a version of conditional release to move on through other modules. You could implement a short writing analysis of the current day’s lesson and information presented, or, to achieve a similar result, conduct an ‘exit ticket’ question as students wrap up class for the day.  

These are just some of the ways to utilize small, incremental changes that provide deeper learning and student understanding to be enhanced. It is important to keep in mind that any sort of small teaching modification should continue to be aligned to course expectations and learning outcomes as students will be more successful when it is done with consistency in a holistic sense to maximize its impact.

If you would like to learn more about how to use the tenets of small teaching within your own course design, feel free to contact the CATL office by email ( or schedule a consultation with us. If you are interested in reading more about small teaching and the science of learning, CATL has copies of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning available for checkout as well.