This is the second in a series of posts on the book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning by James M. Lang.

Part I - Knowledge

The first three Small Teaching chapters focus on teaching a body of knowledge (facts!) to students. Lang points out two reasons that it is important to carefully teach basic knowledge:

  1. Critical thinking about a topic is only possible when we have a factual knowledge about that topic.
  2. We humans don’t necessarily know how to best learn factual information, and often intuitively choose learning strategies that don’t lead to the best outcomes.

Chapter 1 - Retrieving

The first Small Teaching practices involves the retrieval effect: if you want to retrieve knowledge from memory, you have to practice retrieving knowledge from memory. Research studies show that when we include ‘knowledge retrieval exercises’ (i.e. quizzes or similar) into teaching, students do a better job of remembering facts, and the effect persists for months after the original teaching occurred.

So, the Small Teaching practice is to frequently ask students about what they learned. We can use opening questions (“what did we learn in the last session”), closing questions (“what did we just learn”), online retrieval (online quiz or Q&A), or asking students to recall concepts / skills for the relevant section of the syllabus. No matter the format, it is important to do ask frequently, make sure questions align with overall goals, and ask questions that require thinking, not just regurgitation.

Putting this in the perspective of a Carpentry workshop, the exercises throughout the lessons help with retrieving the preceding concepts, as does the use of minute cards to review useful and confusing concepts at the end of a session. Also, any time we can quiz students when we are about to revisit a concept from a previous lessons helps (‘was there something we did in the previous bash lesson that we can use in for this git example?’), particularly since many of our workshops are four distinct lessons, often taught by different instructors.

Finally, we do need to make sure that we don’t cram so much information into a lesson that we don’t have time for these knowledge retrieval exercises (‘if I skip this exercise, I can fit it a session on grep!’).