Currently reading Darby & Lang (2019) “Small teaching online — applying learning science in online classes”. My summary (1/x)

I absolutely loved reading the “small teaching” book by Lang (2021), so I was super excited to dig into the related “small teaching online — applying learning science in online classes” by Darby & Lang (2019), and it did not disappoint! I loved it (my only complaint: why didn’t they call it “Tiny Teaching”??? What a missed opportunity!) and — as always — I am summarizing the main points (of the part 1, chapter 1, stay tuned for future posts!) from my perspective below, but it is totally worth reading the actual book!

“Small teaching” is about working on building tiny, but fundamental skills in students that have an effect way beyond the occasion they are applied in. This approach is super helpful, because it also means that we as teachers don’t have to completely redo our whole courses, but can start with tiny tweaks that can be implemented with minimal planning, and then continue tweaking slightly larger things for the next course implementation, and for the following years.

In this book, I really appreciate the idea to include Universal Design for Learning, i.e. accommodating all learners so that nobody has to ask for special treatment (in terms of e.g. time, equipment, …), in all considerations. Even thought that’s obviously how things should be, it’s still kinda rare to see. But here, my hopes were a bit higher than what I then actually read in the book.

Also, this book was written before the pandemic, so maybe the assumption that people are unfamiliar with online learning and of all the difficulties that arise from not being familiar with the technology and norms isn’t quite as bad these days. However, learning management systems (LMS) are different in different places, as are norms. So considering how students enter into our virtual spaces is still very relevant!

The book is structured in several parts, in this blogpost I am sharing my notes on “Part 1: designing for learning”, chapter 1. This chapter is focussed on backward design and alignment of the course: Making goals about “enduring understanding”, which means that the goals themselves have to be significant enough to have been deemed important over time and across cultures (my thoughts on that — fine for courses on basic knowledge. But what about courses on developing knowledge? Sometimes we don’t know yet what will endure), and that will also stick to the students because it is taught in a way that makes that likely, but also because it’s relevant to what the students do, over and over again. Only then, start considering content, methods, assessment. It uses the road-trip analogy: Where do we want to go? How will we know if we have arrived? What will we need to help us get there? There are quite a lot of practical points:

“Begin work on the final assessment in week 1”. Major assignments can easily get buried in the flood of information that students receive (both online and offline). Quiz to make sure they have read & engaged with the syllabus (and for how to write excellent syllabi, check out this!), but even better: actually make students do something that already engages them with the final assessment already, like brainstorming topics for a report (so they can think about how course content applies to that, and maybe ask relevant questions, throughout the course already), or try answering an exercise that is already in the format of the final assessment (engaging with tasks before learning everything you need to master them helps prepare the ground for later learning everything), or ask questions about the exam (and the responses to that will additionally help clarify things for them).

“Make the purpose of class activities explicit” — explain why you are asking students to spend time and energy on something. You probably have good reasons and made an informed decision, but if students don’t see it, they might not see the point and experience something as busywork, or not relevant for the final assessment. Do super short video explanations (including captions or a transcript) where students experience an authentic* version of you!

“…and do the same for assignments”. Obviously — much more motivating if it is clear what the purpose of an assignment is beyond “just” determining your grade. A suggested structure for this is “Here’s what I want you to do” — “Here’s why I want you to do it” — “Here’s how to do it”, both orally and in writing.

“Have students reflect on and respond to learning objectives”. Not only in the beginning, but throughout the course, to make sure students understand why they are doing what they are doing. One thing that Kjersti has really positive experiences with is actually negotiating learning outcomes with students. A suggestion in the book that I really like is have students do short reflections regularly on how they progressed on each of the learning outcomes over a period of time, why the learning outcome is relevant, and how they will continue working on it.

“Look back, look ahead”. This is both about helping students see what they have achieved (which reminds me of the “concept map” exercise I did a loooong time ago — drawing concept maps on the topic of the course in the beginning, the middle, and the end of the course. Maybe I should revisit this!). In the book, the “Three Takeaway assignment” is suggested which I really like: students reflect on the three most important things they learned in the course and “how they will continue to develop that learning and apply it in a future academic, workplace, volunteer, or family life setting”. I really like that perspective beyond the course, not just academically, but wholelistically! And the point that it’s important to consider whether students will most benefit from a reflection that they do together so they can learn from each other (e.g. in pairs, or as a think-pair-share), or a private one that might go more in-depth.

And thus endeth the part 1, chapter 1. So far, so good! Stay tuned for more posts on more chapters, hopefully soon!

*I recently taught a “communicating your research on social media” workshop, and someone asked how I became comfortable with showing my “unfiltered self”. Which was a great opportunity to talk about how that is really not what I am doing. Yes, I show silly selfies of me playing with water, for example, and I share about things like teaching fails, and I do #WaveWatchingWednesdays where I share lots of water pictures from my personal Instagram, but there are also areas of my life that I don’t ever talk about online (which I will not point out explicitly, exactly because I like to keep them private!), and also even when teaching online from my living room, yes, it is my real living room, but you can be very sure that I carefully edit what is visible in the frame.

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