Small Teaching: Considerations for Teaching this Spring 

This week, in preparation for the first day of classes, we hosted another rendition of Digital Learning Days, an opportunity to bring together faculty, graduate students, and staff across Georgetown to discuss using digital tools in everyday teaching, and as always, core principles of effective pedagogy. We were joined by Jesse Meiller (Environmental Science), Jason Tilan (Human Science), and Kevin Andrews, the electronic information technology accessibility coordinator for University Information Services, who each offered their perspectives on a concept we’ve increasingly been discussing here at CNDLS: small teaching. 

The phrase comes from James Lang—who authored the book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and was a keynote speaker at our Teaching, Learning, & Innovation Summer Institute last spring—and refers to the simple choices you can make in your teaching that make an impact on how students learn in your course. Our panelists shared the following advice, drawing on their experiences in the classroom: 

Jesse Meiller (Environmental Science): 

Well-designed questions build connections and strengthen retrieval.

  • Ask more complex questions, before the students may be ready to fully handle them. This allows students to bring in prior knowledge, and rely on it, strengthening the connections in their learning matrix. 
  • Ask questions that connect to prior course material, or to material they can connect with outside of class. This strengthens that learning network. 
  • Use informal polling. Informal brainstorms, polls, and discussions invite more students to contribute. 

Practice makes improvement.

  • If you have outcomes you want students to be able to achieve, allow the students to practice those skills during class when the stakes are low.
  • Give students the opportunity to practice explaining concepts to one another, as a form of demonstrating understanding. As Meiller put it, “when they have to explain to peers, it firms up that content to themselves.” 

Jason Tilan (Human Science): 

Reflect on your context, and on your goals.  

  • Recognize and acknowledge why we’re here (at Georgetown, in your particular class), and how we got here: it frames the way you think about teaching your course in the first place. Understanding that our students are coming to us each from a different context is important in meeting students where they are. 
  • Either for yourself and/or your students, offer an introduction to Ignatian Pedagogy’s principles (context, experience, reflection, action, and evaluation) and use them to set the tone in your classes. 
  • Incorporate reflection and peer review when using rubrics. “When I started, rubrics felt robotic. They felt like a checklist—but checklists are important” said Tilan. “Our students are very good at rote memorization: to be an effective individual with the content you have at hand, synthesis and analysis are what counts.” So Tilan writes rubrics which capture the synthesis and analysis he expects to see in student work. 
  • Use rubrics during peer review in class. With anonymity, students will review another assignment from a peer and use the rubric to “grade” or evaluate it; then the author has an opportunity to resubmit. In Tilan’s words, “Sometimes peer review is not only for the benefit of the author, but also for the reviewer.” This example of using rubrics during peer review allows the reviewer to have a clearer understanding of the expectations in the assignment. 

Kevin Andrews, Accessibility at UIS: 

Make your course materials accessible. 

  • Add alternative text to images (here’s a guide on writing effective alt text). This works for those who use screen readers (JAWS is most common), and it’s also useful for students who are using tech in places with low/slow bandwidth. 
  • Headings: Use the actual text hierarchies, not just bold typeface.The keyboard can navigate text hierarchies, but bold and underlined text all reads the same. 
  • Avoid using scans: anyone using a screen reader won’t be able to read what you’ve uploaded. What to use instead? Try to find original documents, or turn your scans into readable PDFs by working with Georgetown’s Library, or use Adobe Acrobat. (Learn more about the free license available for Georgetown faculty.) 


If you have questions or ideas about any of the teaching practices laid out here, the recording of the panel is available, and we’re always available for a consultation.