Six small practical changes in your teaching that can have big impact

Are you scared off by the breadth and depth of changes to your teaching that are often suggested by well-meaning colleagues? There are many things that you can do to improve student experience and learning, but they don’t all need to take hours to design and implement. Here are six practical and eminently achievable suggestions for small changes that can have big impact.

James Lang recently published a new book that distils the science of learning into punchy ideas, and has written a series of short articles on The Chronicle of Higher Education to summarise some impactful tips. Here’s a commentary and summary of the summaries.

The minutes before class starts

Spend a bit of time before every class connecting with one or two students. This could be as simple as chiming in on an overheard conversation, asking about the latest assessment, or asking what they’d like to do next semester. As a typically shy introvert, this was difficult for me to get used to, but your students have an amazing amount of respect for you so don’t be afraid to just talk with them. Engaging with your students like this will help build relationships and open conversation.

I’m assuming you’re teaching a subject because it fascinates you too. Help your students appreciate this for themselves by creating wonder. It could be as simple as showing an awe-inspiring image or quote as your first slide, instead of the typical title slide (sometimes with the incorrect year showing). You could combine this with a classroom response system to get students to tell you what they think en masse.

Talking with students and making title slide: 5 minutes
Engaging and inspiring the next generation: priceless

The first 5 minutes of class

We often spend the first few minutes of class on administrative matters like collecting assignments or talking about the upcoming test. Building on the few minutes before class, why not start your class with a puzzling question that’s related to today’s content? Or, ask a question where they need to recall or apply something from last week’s lecture? We’ve written previously about the importance of connecting with prior knowledge and the role of memory in learning. Getting your students to write down (not type!) a quick response is a great way to reactivate their knowledge. If you’re brave, ask your class to scrunch up their bits of paper and throw them at you, and pick a few to review – just recycle the paper afterwards. It gets the blood pumping, and which student doesn’t want to throw something at their teacher?

Thinking of good questions to ask: 5 minutes in the shower
Connecting students with their prior knowledge: priceless

Making connections

It happens to all good teachers – in everyday life, you see connections between what you see around you and what you teach in the classroom. It could be something in the news, a conversation you had, the natural world, anything. You can make these connections obvious for your students to help them see the relevance of what they’re learning, but also strengthen the way that they are connecting knowledge. Today’s students are mostly glued to social media – why not leverage this? For example, Prashan Karunaratne from FBE has set up a Twitter hashtag so that students can post up aspects of their everyday lives that relate to ECON111 – check out the feed. Why not also spend a few minutes in every other class giving feeds like this some face time and showcasing great examples? This gives your students a voice and helps them see that you value this.

Setting up a Twitter/Instagram account and posting/replying a few times a week: 15 minutes
Helping students connect your subject to their world: priceless

The last 5 minutes of class

Instead of rushing through the last 20 slides in the final 5 minutes of a lecture, why not break the flow of content at an opportune point and continue in the next session? Then, use the last few minutes to help students reflect and review. The minute paper is an old favourite, and for good reason. By asking two or three simple questions, students can quickly retrieve what they have learnt, and you can also get an insight into how clearly your message has come through and if there are any sticking points. You may want to ask questions like, “What was the key thing you learnt today?”, and “What questions do you have from today?”. If going low-tech, pieces of paper that students drop off at the end of class work well. If you want an electronic alternative, try a classroom response system like Socrative. It takes 5 minutes to review students’ responses, and these give you deep insight into what they’re thinking and how effective you were (and if you need to change/clarify/review anything). Also, if you kicked off your lecture with an awe-inspiring quote or a brain-teasing question, try and wrap up by revisiting this.

Signing up for Socrative and setting up two questions on a slide for a minute paper: 10 minutes
Giving students space to retrieve and feed back to you: priceless

Giving them a say

We all love having choices and options that allow us to personalise and contribute to our own little corner of the world. The same goes for students, and giving them some flexibility and control over their education doesn’t have to be time consuming. In tutorials, some suggest having your class as a group come up with some class rules or expectations (I like calling them ‘shared values’) in the first class – that way, they own it together. If you have control over the assessments in your unit, consider having your students write their own exam questions, such as by using a tool like PeerWise. You’d be surprised by the quality of questions (and associated depth of learning) that students can produce, especially if there is skin in the game. I tell my students that I’ll pick a few good questions from PeerWise to put into mid-semester and final exams (and actually do), give them a few tips on writing good questions, and watch the magic. Most of the time, questions that students write actually outperform staff-written or textbook-derived questions in terms of differentiating quality.

Setting up shared values and/or a PeerWise account: 10 minutes
Giving your students a voice: priceless

Space it out

Expertise comes from repeated practice and feedback, and cramming doesn’t lead to expertise. But are we designing our curricula in a way that students have no choice but to cram, and are we providing them with opportunities for repeated practice and feedback? OK, so this ‘small change’ isn’t as small as the others, but it is still quite achievable. One approach that Lang considers is ‘cumulative’ assessments, where each assessment is purposely designed to build on previous ones. Instead of breaking up the semester into topics and separately testing each one (I’m guilty of this…), how about rolling over some questions from the previous topic into the assessment for the next? Or, having two assessments where the later one draws from feedback provided for the first? The feedback doesn’t have to be time-consuming; it could be a whole-class review of common misunderstandings instead of individualised comments. As Macquarie ventures into the world of thinking at the program level, this spacing and building upon other assessments will become even more important.

It’s tricky to provide an estimate for this, but it will be measured in hours not minutes. But, the effect of helping your students deeply master your subject is still priceless!

Tell me more!

Check out James Lang’s articles on The Chronicle for even more examples of how you can make small changes for big impact.

2 thoughts on “Six small practical changes in your teaching that can have big impact”

  1. Love the idea about throwing paper at your tutor – will try it right now. Also, I want to try the idea of letting students suggest essay topics. Thanks Danny.

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