Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. James M. Lang. California: Jossey-Bass, 2016. 272 pp.

Review by Victoria Buckley, University of Cincinnati, [email protected]

Creating sweeping change that impacts student learning can be an overwhelming thought. Especially so when as advising practitioners our time and attention is constantly pulled. As we transition from the school year, to orientation and back, we aren’t given ample time to deeply examine and improve our advising strategies as they relate to student learning. It is in this mindset that Small Teachings: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. aims to position itself. Lang (2016) flips learning theory on its head by focusing on quick, bite-sized ways educators can impact learning with little preparation or effort. He describes interventions that can be implemented the very next day without a full course overhaul. Although the last chapter of the book is dedicated to large-scale practices, the bulk of this book focuses on small ways we can deepen learning for the students with which we work.

Lang is a veteran faculty member and has taught courses in British Literature and creative nonfiction writing (Lang 2016). He also serves as the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Massachusetts. All the teaching and learning exercises presented in his book are grounded in learning science and demonstrated to have a positive impact in educational environments. Additionally, to qualify as small teaching, an intervention needs to be brief and accomplishable in five to 10 minutes, a one-time activity, and must fit within any course with small modification. The idea of the book is to help educators make real-time adjustments to their courses, not an overall course redesign.

Throughout Small Teachings, Lang presents three parts that focus on major cognitive activities: Knowing, Understanding, and Inspiration. Each part contains three chapters that provide a variety of small teaching activities one can implement in the classroom or advising setting (Lang 2016). The overall structure of each chapter allows the reader to engage at different levels depending on one’s time and interest in the subject. After the introduction of the concept, Lang presents a theoretical understanding as well as models and principles. Additionally, there are “small teaching quick tips” (p. 38), which provide one-sentence reminders for implementing the chapter’s strategy.

Small Teachings was created as a gathering of powerful activities and learning experiences one can put together for students. Lang (2016) states that everything he has recommended in his writing “come from someone or somewhere else” (p. 106). Although the ideas he presents are not new research, he aggregates them in a framework that helps the reader easily see how small teaching can greatly impact the learning environment. A major strength of the book is the multitude of suggestions for additional reading if one wants to dig deeper. Lang’s goal is to present the teaching interventions in the easiest way possible and then connect the reader to other prominent authors that take these methods further. 

Although Small Teachings is aimed at making change in the classroom, many of the suggested activities can be employed in an advising setting as well. For example, the first chapter of the book is on the process of retrieval (Lang 2016). Research suggests that learners cannot actually retrieve learned information unless they practice retrieving information (i.e. are tested). This notion helps me understand why my students might forget a sequence of classes, or how to register for next semester, or the process for requesting enrollment in a closed. They have not had to practice retrieving this information from the last time we discussed it, so how could I expect them to recall it? Taking a classroom concept from Lang, one thing we can do is to start every advising appointment by testing student knowledge. We can help our students remember and recall more information by asking them to reiterate and remember what we covered in our last advising appointment. 

Small Teachings aligns with the NACADA Core Value of Commitment and the Core Competency of Conceptual (NACADA 2017a, 2017b). Throughout the text, Lang presents many ways in which Advisors and Advising Administrators can engage in life-long learning and professional development. By even applying one of the interventions that he suggests, we can strengthen the learning of the students with which they work. Further, reflecting on the small teachings presented in the book can help us understand our own learning. For example, predicting what you think know about a new subject will eventually help strengthen any new knowledge learned (Lang 2016). I can apply this when trying to learn a new technique or student development theory. Whether in the classroom or advising setting, implementing lessons from Small Teachings demonstrates the dedication “to excellence” that the Commitment Value calls for (NACADA 2017b).

 Additionally, Small Teachings exemplifies the conceptual core competency area (NACADA 2017a). Lang presents relevant learning theory and strategies that can amplify one’s advising practice. In one example of small teaching, Lang (2016) presents the idea of self- explanation. Research shows that “learners benefit from explaining out loud what they are doing during the completion of a learning task” (p. 138). Thinking of my own advising practice, asking a student to self-reflect is an easy way for me to not only understand why they are making decisions, but it also helps the student understand. Further, self-explanation can help level the educational playing field and create a more equitable learning environment. Lang outlined additional studies that illustrated self-explaining out loud can also benefit the learning for peers who may be listening.

Whether you facilitate classroom learning in the classroom or teach students through advising, Small Teachings presents new ideas to change your practice and create impactful learning experiences for students. No matter what point in the academic calendar you read this book, you will surely find at least one small teaching you can implement the next day to strengthen student learning.


Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. James M. Lang. California: Jossey-Bass, 2016. 272 pp.

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017a). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017b). NACADA core values of academic advising. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreValues.aspx



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