Fall Teaching Changes, part 2

November 21st, 2016

James Lang’s Small Teaching (2016) approaches improving one’s classes not with sweeping changes, but by making tweaks to the existing program. The book is divided into three areas of improvement: knowledge, understanding, and inspiration. The section on understanding got my attention the most, and I made a few focused changes this semester with Lang’s advice in mind. He divided the improvement of understanding into three sub areas of change: connecting, practice, and self-explaining. I will go over how my changes fit into each of these actions.

Forming connections across the course material is something that is crucial to an introductory physical anthropology, since it covers a wide variety of topics, from biological evolution to genetics to human osteology to forensic anthropology to modern primates to human evolution, they are all connected by the same pool of knowledge and scientific methodology. I made a more concerted effort to point out these connections in lecture, and spread out the use of key terms across many weeks of class. For example, I know that a lot of the illustrations in the end of the course use facial reconstruction to estimate what fossil hominins looked like in life. I then plant the first mention of this method in the middle of the course when we talk about forensic anthropology.

As I learn more myself, I see more of these connections that I can make. For example, at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, I learned that naturalist Blumenbach was the first person to formally describe a chimpanzee. I could then bring this fact up in the modern primates lecture, which is weeks after the introduction to Blumenbach in the lecture on the history of race. One gratifying result of this interweaving of lecture topics is that students then make connections that I do not mention, or have not considered. For example, when linking the explanation of how the ancestors of Darwin’s finches ended up in the Galapagos Islands (Lecture 3) with the explanation of how the ancestors of lemurs ended up in Madagascar (Lecture 18), a student chimed in that these are both examples of genetic drift (Lecture 6).

While forming connections was something I intensified from previous semesters, promoting practice was a new activity. The aim of increasing practice is to make the students more comfortable with approaching problems from a reasoned and effective angle. For a lecture course with exams as a large portion of the course, increasing familiarity with solving test questions became my goal. Too frequently, I see students give up on a test without really thinking through the problem. Sometimes they admit defeat and turn it in when they still have upwards of forty minutes left to try.

My latest attempt to encourage students to really take the time to address tough questions is to work through an example multiple choice question at the start of almost every lecture. I also wanted to get the students thinking about solving a question on material that they have not learned. My idea was to show a harder question immediately before the lecture that gives its solution. This Pre-Lecture Question had a rocky start as I tried to integrate it into my existing lectures. The first attempts disrupted the flow I have been used to. I found it best to show the question with around five minutes before class starts. Once the lecture gets going, I talk about the previous pre-lecture question and how to solve it after the class announcements. The new pre-lecture question then reappears at the end of my class, when I have a short writing exercise. As the semester has progressed, the pre-lecture question worked its way into the schedule. Still, as I have to make a new question for every lecture in this initial run, I forget to do it roughly half the time.

Both highlighting links across lectures and explaining multiple choice questions have been received well by my classes. I will keep working with them to get them even more embedded into the rest of the course. Next time: a report on my success using the mobile quiz game Kahoot! as a midterm review exercise. Or maybe a little on the recent U.S. presidential election and its ramifications.



Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer.

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