What We’re Reading: Small Teaching Online

illustration by Clare Reid

What we are facing in these times is monumental: moving what we are doing into a distance delivery format online. The task at hand feels in a lot of ways insurmountable; we all know and have read that a regularly-scheduled and planned online course takes 6-12 months to properly design and build. This doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t small things we can do to drastically improve the student learning experience in our current situation. 

In 2016, James M. Lang published Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, a book arguing that making small changes in your teaching can have an outsized impact on student learning. He based his recommendations on the science of learning, explaining what cognitive difference each small change would make. 

Flower Darby wanted a companion book, but for educators teaching online. So, with Lang, she wrote one. Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes has the same goals as the original book: to recommend small teaching changes that are supported by learning science, changes that can be easily implemented by faculty. 

The book is organized in an easy-to-browse format, and written in accessible language. It is a quick read, but a resource you will go back to over and over again, filled with fantastic advice and strategies that can, in fact, be easily implemented in your remote course, often paying immediate dividends in terms of student learning and engagement. 

For example, if you are going to use discussion boards for engagement, be sure to provide a summary of the activity, highlighting particularly relevant or salient parts of the conversation—don’t just expect that the discussion board prompt will do all the work for you and the students. Also, balance formal and informal multimedia in your online course; in other words, don’t just rely on pre-produced content, but instead also intersperse short, unpolished videos addressing current issues or challenges the students are facing. 

Much of this advice is advice we already give at CNDLS, and isn’t just good online pedagogy, but good pedagogy, period. But for those looking for an easy to read resource to keep by your side as you design your online course, then this is an ideal book.