Small changes can produce big results

One of my friends once shared he was always excited in the Spring if he was teaching the same course in the Fall and would tell himself “Great! I can redesign this course now that I know all the things wrong with it.” Then, after a summer of manuscript revision or house projects he would say to himself “Thank goodness I am teaching that same course and don’t have to prep anything new.”

The prospect of course revision is often daunting, even when we know there are problems. Decisions about how things are now were mostly made with good intentions and the backing of good research. The thought of discarding all that and starting over seems like too much. Truth be told, it probably is.

James Lang certainly thinks so, and that is the starting point for his work on Small Teaching.

small teaching
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He makes a strong case for incremental change and gives powerful, grounded suggestions for how to improve teaching without overwhelming yourself. If the book is too much, I would recommend his companion pieces in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year about the first five minutes of class and the last five minutes. To tease one great suggestion I will offer this excerpt from the last five minutes piece

“Finish the last class of the week five minutes early, and tell students that they can leave when they have identified five ways in which the day’s material appears in contexts outside of the classroom. You’ll be amazed at how quickly they can come up with examples when this activity stands between them and the dining hall.”

The big picture take away from Small Teaching should be that course revision can be as simple as a trip to the Technology and Learning Program to learn about better grade book integration or making sure group work in your class is always followed by a debrief, it does not have to be a full scale tear down and start over.

Earlier this year a Tuesday Tip on Trigger Warnings elicited strong response from many of you. Given the wide interest I want to be sure you are aware of Jonathan Rauch’s presentation on Wednesday. This award winning scholar’s thoughts on free speech are sure to provoke discussion and his talk should not be missed.

Got feedback on this tip? A small teaching change to suggest? Leave a comment or email it to us. Got an idea for a tip? Send it along.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Caffeinated Cats podcast! The newest episode is on food on and off campus. Link to it on soundclouditunesovercast, or follow the podcast on facebook.

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Spring Cleaning

spring cleaning checklistIt was spring cleaning time at my house last weekend, complete with an elaborate 30-point color-coded checklist taped to the refrigerator that was pleasing to no one in the family but me.  By the end of the day, though, we all noticed how much the quality of light in the living room had been improved just by washing windows that hadn’t been cleaned in years for a while. Here’s a modest checklist for spring cleaning your courses:

  • Review and update Student Learning Outcomes. Of course, some of these are determined by departmental and/or General Education requirements, but where you have options, consider what you really want students to remember from the course when you run into them five years from now. Is the course set up to focus on and achieve those most meaningful ends?
  • Replace outdated materials. Readings and films that were cutting-edge in the 1990s can be hard to give up, especially with limited budgets for replacing them.  But a couple of hours spent seeking out fresher content pays off well in student engagement and our own sense of currency. (And eliminates those cringe-worthy moments in class watching videos with Clinton-era soundtracks.)
  • Improve accessibility.  Whether it’s reformatting an article PDF, or adding a statement about accommodating students with disabilities to a syllabus, making our courses more universally accessible is the right thing to do, and it’s not very difficult. Help is available from both TLP’s accessibility guide and the Accessibility Resource Center’s faculty support services.
  • Plan ahead for funding next year’s projects. There are good campus sources of faculty funding for course innovation, conference travel, and research, but you have to be ready when the calls come.  Don’t get caught by unexpected deadlines. We’ve put together a handy one-page Faculty Funding Sources at a Glance; post it prominently and get the jump on next year’s proposals.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.