Small Changes Webinar—James Lang Answers Your Questions

Small Changes Webinar—James Lang Answers Your Questions

In our February webinar, Small Changes in Teaching, education expert James M. Lang covered how to introduce active learning to a classroom with tactics such as retrieval practice—and how to keep students engaged through the whole semester.

We packed a great deal into 45 minutes, and although we were able to answer some of the questions from the 955 people who registered, we couldn’t get to everybody—so, as promised, Lang took time to answer the questions we had to skip.

If you missed the webinar, you can watch a full broadcast for free by signing up here. You can also read commentary on Twitter as it happened.

And don’t forget to sign up for our next webinar, on March 16, with Daniel F. Chambliss, author of How College Works. Chambliss will look at the importance of peer-learning relationships in the classroom, and reveal some small interventions teachers can take to help them blossom.

What recommendations do you have for translating [active learning techniques] into an online / distance learning classroom environment?

My best recommendation for translating cognitive principles into online environments is to read Michelle Miller’s book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Miller is a cognitive psychologist whose work actually helped kick off my interest in using research on learning to support small teaching ideas. I teach primarily in face-to-face environments, so I tend to go to her work when I am thinking about translating learning research into online teaching formats—and I recommend that readers do the same.

Do you have any tips for student resistance to active learning? That is, when they prefer to be passive and resent having to work?

For me the key is to socialize them into active learning from the first day of the semester. Jay Howard’s excellent book Discussion in the College Classroom makes the case that students have been taught from high school and into many college classes that they are responsible for paying “civil attention” in class—nodding, smiling, taking notes—and not much else. They have internalized the norms of civil attention and can feel uncomfortable or actively resist when faculty suddenly expect them to move beyond civil attention and actively participate.  

The only real solution to this problem is that the class has to shape new, active norms of participation from the very first day, and continue to adhere to those norms throughout the entire semester. If you want students to participate in class, expect participation on the first day and every day thereafter. Build it into the routines of class: opening minutes, closing minutes, discussion breaks, and so forth.

Unlike many faculty members, I don’t set aside points in class for participation, because I expect all students to participate in class on a regular basis. That participation can take many forms—writing, working in groups, responding to polls, contributing to a class discussion—but everyone is expected to participate. I explain this on the syllabus, remind them of it on a regular basis, and will sometimes send notes via e-mail to students, or write a comment on a quiz, if I haven’t seen them participating in class in any of these various ways.

What is the largest class that you have tried these techniques in?

The largest classes on my campus are about 30 students, and I have used all of the techniques I discussed in the webinar in classes of that size or smaller. I also give a lot of presentations and workshops to faculty on other campuses, and have used polling to spark conversation and even whole-group discussions with audiences as large as 400.

What is your opinion about the use of laptops during class? Do you allow your students to use them?

I actually wrote a column about this subject for the Chronicle of Higher Education, so you can find a pretty full explanation of my viewpoint there. I am currently writing a multi-part series on distractions in the classroom—including phones and laptops—for the Chronicle, the first column of which will appear on March 13. So you can follow that series for more research and ideas on how to address this difficult question.

Any thoughts on mindful learning in a laboratory environment? Many students work to complete their laboratory as quickly as possible. It sounds like the five-minute closing exercise would be excellent.

I think laboratories are excellent places to allow students to conclude with some kind of activity that encourages them to seal up what they have learned. A five-minute writing exercise would be great for that. Laboratories also present opportunities for the use of another learning principle, called self-explanation, which I wrote about in one of the chapters of Small Teaching.  You can look there for more ideas on promoting learning while students are doing the kind of active learning that laboratories are designed to create.

Dr. Lang, you mentioned that you go to some websites for ideas about teaching. Can you share a few of those?

Yes, I am a big fan of the ABL Connect site from Harvard University, which provides a database of excellent ideas for active and activity-based teaching in higher education. I also like the Faculty Focus website, where you can find new articles on teaching and learning in higher education once a week or more.

Pooja K. Agarwal has created an excellent website on retrieval practice, both summarizing the research on its many benefits and providing guidance to educators on the use of retrieval practice in courses at many levels. David Gooblar’s Pedagogy Unbound website, like ABL Connect, offers a searchable compendium of ideas for teaching.  

Finally, I try to post new ideas and resources to my Twitter followers on a regular basis, so join that conversation at @LangOnCourse, or check out the resources and summer conference of the Best Teachers Institute from Ken Bain, and join us for a three day dive into the research on teaching and learning in higher education with Ken, me, and other faculty members from around the world.


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    Becky Nusbaum

    Awesome webinar, Dr. Lang. Thank you for sharing applicable classroom tools! I just purchased Minds Online per your recommendation (I’m doing my dissertation on Teacher Ed Twitter-based PLNs measured against CoI model, social presence, cognitive presence & teacher presence. I’ve focused so much on collaboration and social presence, that I’m eager to read Miller’s contributions on cognitive!)

    Thank you for your beneficial webinar! (I purchased your book too!)

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