Research into how we learn has opened the door for utilizing cognitive theory to facilitate better student learning. But that's easier said than done. Many books about cognitive theory introduce radical but impractical theories, failing to make the connection to the classroom. In Small Teaching, James Lang presents a strategy for improving student learning with a series of modest but powerful changes that make a big difference-many of which can be put into practice in a single class period. These strategies are designed to bridge the chasm between primary research and the classroom environment in a way that can be implemented by any faculty in any discipline, and even integrated into pre-existing teaching techniques. Learn, for example:
How does one become good at retrieving knowledge from memory?
How does making predictions now help us learn in the future?
How do instructors instill fixed or growth mindsets in their students?
Each chapter introduces a basic concept in cognitive theory, explains when and how it should be employed, and provides firm examples of how the intervention has been or could be used in a variety of disciplines. Small teaching techniques include brief classroom or online learning activities, one-time interventions, and small modifications in course design or communication with students.
JAMES M. LANG is director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, MA. He is the author of On Course: A Week- by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching and Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty as well as a monthly column for The Chronicle of Higher Education . His website is www.jamesmlang.com.
Imagine the media storm that erupted in 1956 upon the publication of an educational book with the attention-grabbing title of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain . The author of this spine tingler was psychologist Benjamin Bloom, who sought to articulate a set of objectives that teachers could use to guide their instructional activities. In spite of its eye-glazing title, the book's content ultimately became a sacred text for educational theorists and administrators everywhere, giving them both a conceptual framework and a vocabulary to articulate what they expected teachers could achieve in their classrooms. The taxonomy that Bloom created contains six major categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. A quick glance over the six categories would suggest that they follow a progression from lower to higher orders of complexity, from a static possession of knowledge to more creative forms of thinking in the categories of synthesis and evaluation. Indeed, the taxonomy is often depicted in the shape of a pyramid, with knowledge at the bottom and evaluation or creation at the apex.
Unfortunately, this visual image of Bloom's taxonomy as a pyramid, which all teachers have likely encountered at some point in their lives, has led many higher education instructors to view Bloom's categories in a distorted way. When you think of a pyramid, after all, where do you want to be? At the top, of course. Nobody wants to be down on the bottom row of a pyramid, crushed by the weight of the rising layers, unable to reach up for the stars. So some instructors seem to believe that the learning of facts or concepts, or helping students remember facts and concepts-or even procedures or basic skills-falls beneath them; they are interested only in higher order activities like critical thinking or making judgments or creating new knowledge. College instructors seem especially prone to this desire to hop over the bottom layer of the pyramid-or, more charitably, to assume either that elementary and secondary education should have helped students learn how to remember things or that students should master knowledge outside of class and thus that class time can be exclusively devoted to higher cognitive activities. In recent years such instructors have used a new argument to justify their dismissal of the knowledge category of Bloom's taxonomy: the omnipresence of Google. Why should we bother to help students remember facts, so this argument runs, when all of the facts of the entire world are available to them at the touch of a fingertip? Facts now come in the form of smartphones, and most of our students-at least in developed economies-have one or at the very least some form of regular access to the Internet. Let the Internet provide them with the facts, and we will instead focus our energies on the higher cognitive activities that make use of those facts.
Appealing though it might be to offload the responsibility for teaching our students basic knowledge to their elementary school teachers or to Google, the research of cognitive psychologists who study learning and the basic study habits of most students suggest that we cannot do this. One of our first and most important tasks as teachers is to help students develop a rich body of knowledge in our content areas-without doing so, we handicap considerably their ability to engage in cognitive activities like thinking and evaluating and creating. As cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham argued, you can't think creatively about information unless you have information in your head to think about. "Research from cognitive science has shown," he explained, "that the sorts of skills that teachers want for their students-such as the ability to analyze and think critically- require extensive factual knowledg