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March 1, 2019

Small Teaching, Big Impact

A presenter on small teaching

Ryan Sobeck of the Faculty Center for Professional Excellence discusses teaching methods influenced by neuroscience research.


Student success lies at the heart of a professor’s work. If students struggle to absorb their course material, professors can get discouraged. They might think they have to redesign their whole curriculum.

That’s where small teaching comes in.

Small teaching practices are five- to 10-minute activities that can be added to any class to foster a more engaging and productive learning experience. Designed using neuroscience research about how our brains process information, they were first proposed by James M. Lang, Ph.D., professor of English at Assumption College, in his 2016 book, Small Teaching: Everday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

To help faculty understand and implement these practices, Adelphi hosted a session on small teaching at the Teaching and Learning Conference on January 30. The session was led by Karen Kolb, M.S.I.S, and Ryan Sobeck ’14, M.F.A. ’16, M.A. ’17, of Adelphi’s Faculty Center for Professional Excellence (FCPE). As instructional designers at FCPE, they help faculty members improve their teaching methods, working with them on developing their courses, building their assignments and addressing classroom concerns.

During the session, Kolb and Sobeck outlined Dr. Lang’s techniques for helping students retrieve and recall information.

Dr. Lang suggests that, if you want to help students retrieve information in a certain way—such as through multiple-choice questions on a test—you must help them practice that method of retrieval. Don’t just have them passively reread their notes or the textbook; help them actively recall the material.

For example, professors can administer low-stakes practice quizzes at the beginning or end of class. They can have two or three questions that take just five minutes to complete.

“These quizzes help students continuously recall the information that they just went through, either from the previous day or from earlier that week,” Sobeck says.

Another strategy is to have students recap the previous day’s lesson at the start of class.

Lisa Minicozzi, Ed.D., assistant professor and program director for educational leadership, used this technique in her leadership seminar for first-year students last year. At the beginning of each class, she split the students into groups of three or four and had them work together to bridge the topic from the previous class with the current topic.

“Dr. Minicozzi would often pick out three or four students to prepare ahead of time and come up with a creative way to present to the class,” says Tommy Perez, a first-year nursing major who was in her leadership seminar. “The class would then break into smaller groups to target specific points. My classmates really enjoyed this, as they were often more comfortable expressing their ideas to a smaller audience. We’d then bring everything together into one general theme, which we’d discuss as a class.”

“I think this helped students feel that they were positively contributing to their own learning,” Dr. Minicozzi says. “They chose the salient points for discussion rather than always me choosing. They steered the conversation.”

Kolb and Sobeck also provided techniques for helping students make connections between old and new information. One way they can do this is with concept maps—diagrams that chart relationships between different ideas.

As an adjunct English professor, Sobeck uses this technique in his creative writing class. He has had students look at the five novels they’d read and make concept maps for their themes, character motivations and authors’ sociopolitical situations.

“By using multiple concept maps with the same core set of information, students start to recognize that there are connections there between these works where they might otherwise have felt like they were just stand-alone pieces,” he explains.

Another technique uses a KWL chart, where professors ask students to spend five minutes writing down what think they already know about the topic (K), what they want to know (W) and what they’ve learned (L).

“This gives the instructor an opportunity to address potential misinformation that students already have,” Sobeck says. “Since they map out what they want to know, they also start asking questions and looking for answers when you provide new material.”

Sobeck and Kolb want professors to feel inspired to use these new teaching practices and build better learning experiences for their students—and realize they don’t have to overhaul their whole curriculum to do it.

“Our hope is that faculty can recognize and realize that they can try small changes in their classroom and see meaningful results,” Sobeck says.


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