Three Strategies from Small Teaching

In this post I will review three teaching techniques from this recent book:

Lang, James. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons for the Science of Learning. San             Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016.


Lang summarizes the cognitive research behind each of the practices, so if you need to be convinced about their efficacy, you should find a copy of the book. Lang discusses nine different practices, but this post will deal with only the first three. These three techniques are interrelated in that they all overlap with the first, “retrieval.” They are all easy to implement, requiring only slight adjustments to classroom practices, but offering big gains in retention of material.


Lang says, “If you want to retrieve knowledge from your memory, you have to practice retrieving knowledge from your memory” (20).

If you want students to remember what you have recently taught, you should ask them to retrieve it from memory shortly after they have learned it. This could be done with quizzes (short answers seem to be better than multiple choice) quickwrites, oral discussion questions, etc. The retrieval could be at the end of a lecture, or at the beginning of the next session. It does not have to be graded.

One interesting strategy is to have students answer a question in writing about the day’s material at the end of the session and then create a second copy of their answer. They turn in one copy, which the instructor uses to assess the class’s grasp of the material. At the next session, the instructor discusses the various answers, commenting on good responses as well as problems and issues, while the students assess their own responses, which they have in front of them, in the light of the discussion.

Lang also recommends using the reading schedule in the syllabus to periodically remind students of what they have already read, studied, and discussed.

Studies have shown that repeated retrieval from long term memory is more effective in improving performance on final exams than reviewing written notes. This means that frequent low-stakes quizzes, backward-looking, reflective, class-opening activities, and summarizing class-ending activities will help students learn.


Though Lang doesn’t discuss this particular activity, one form of predicting is the “anticipation guide.” I was introduced to this technique in a workshop by my former colleague, Carol Holder. Before we read a short article about migraine headaches, she gave us a list of 8-10 statements about migraines and asked us to mark them True or False. Of course, when we read the article, even those of us who had never suffered a migraine wanted to find out if our answers were right. It actually didn’t matter if they were right or wrong, but we read with more engagement and interest.

Lang argues that when we are asked to make a prediction, we search our memories for anything relevant to the problem. This “activates prior knowledge” and causes us to think more deeply (49). We then use prior knowledge to reason about new knowledge.

As Lang reads a novel with his students, at the end of a section, he asks the students what will happen in the next section (57). They need to think about the characters, the plot, and other textual clues to make this prediction. This question combines both the retrieval of information about what has been read and the prediction of what is to come, combining two learning techniques.


Reviewing what has been learned is as important as learning it in the first place. It is not enough to simply “cover” the material.  Lang describes a pattern of 1) learning new information, 2) reviewing old information, 3) reviewing the new information (which is now old information), and then 4) back to learning additional new information. In this way, learning and reviewing are “interleaved.” I have experienced the value of this sort of interleaving this many times in my own classrooms. I have a habit of giving quizzes on the material I taught the previous week rather than the material that students had read for the current week. This is often agonizing for students. They remember reading about the material. They remember discussing it, but still the answers are just out of mental grasp. I use these quizzes to figure out what I need to re-teach. Often concepts and terms need to be taught three times or more before all the students can remember them.

This sort of activity produces a cycle of learning, forgetting, and retrieving that allows the brain to encode, consolidate, and organize new knowledge (67).

Conclusion: A course that routinely features activities that review past learning and predict future developments, and that interleaves the teaching of new information and the retrieval of old information, will result in significantly better learning than a course which just marches through new information and tests it at the end.  To accomplish this requires only a few minutes of class time each session.  It’s really a no brainer.

James Lang also has a blog with further useful information and a series of useful posts in The Chronicle of Higher Education.



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