Small Changes that Make a Big Impact

Pete Watkins

One of the great joys of working in a teaching and learning center is that I get to read books and articles by some of the leading thinkers in college teaching. One of my favorite writers is James Lang, author of several well-regarded books on college teaching including On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, Cheating Lessons and Small Teaching, Lang gives practical advice based on both research and his own classroom experience and does it in a lively and engaging way.

Lang’s book Small Teaching arues that there are small changes we can make to our teaching that have a big impact. When his book was published in 2016, he discussed some of these small changes in a series of popular posts for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

One of his suggested small changes is to make productive use of the first five minutes of class as a time to grab students’ attention and get them prepared for the exciting journey that lies ahead. He compares the beginning of class to the opening lines of a novel that hooks the reader.

He also gives some good suggestions about how to use the last five minutes of class. Instead of trying to cram in a few more points or offering reminders about upcoming assignments, he suggests using these last few minutes in a more intentional way, for example, distributing a brief classroom assessment such as a minute paper asking what you learned today and what you still have questions about. Alternatively he suggests using the last five minutes to help students make connections between what they learned and the world around them such as current events, campus debates or personal experiences. He also suggests that we can use the last five minutes to “close the loop” and go back to our opening. I like to start class with some big questions that we are going to explore together, so I think that based on his advice I might start using the last five minutes to circle back to the question(s) with which I started class. Of course the questions that I pose are not questions with definitive answers which is why I always say we will “explore, wrestle with or investigate” (not answer) these questions.


You can read Lang’s complete series on small changes to teaching at the Chronicle’s web site. And if his ideas and writing inspire you, then save the date January 9, 2019 when Lang will be the keynote speaker at our 17th Annual Faculty Conference on Teaching Excellence at Temple University’s Howard Gittis Student Center.  Registration is not open yet, but send us an email at to be added to our mailing list and to be notified when registration opens.  

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