Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning

By Christine Keenan, MSN, RN, CCRN, CHSE, Associate Director, Education Division, American College of Cardiology

In James Lang’s third book, “Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning,” a stepwise approach to evidence-based learning strategies are outlined, offering small, practice-ready changes that teachers can incorporate into every day practice. Although Lang’s rich personal experience is anchored in higher education, the principles and practical tips easily translate to healthcare education, actually challenging some of our long-standing assumptions and practices. By detangling the complex web of learning research, each chapter masterfully outlines the theory, application and every day learning tips that can improve metacognition and learner engagement.

The book is grouped into three distinct concepts: Knowledge, understanding and inspiration.

Helping students retrieve relevant learning requires frequency, aligning memory tasks with assessment tasks and time spent on thinking. Lang discusses the cognitive impact of predicting what moves beyond basic knowing and retaining information into comprehension and application. Challenging learners to predict the answer or outcome primes the brain for learning and drives them to make content connections. Predicting exercises require conceptual connections and induce reflection, but also need immediate feedback. Interleaving, a current hot topic, is CrossFit for learning; it involves spacing and changing up the learning tasks, constantly building mental muscle.

The next chapter emphasizes the difference between knowing and understanding, as Lang reminds us that while learners are acquiring new knowledge, “they need to use their knowledge in a wider range of cognitive activities.” For greater understanding, connections, practice and self-explaining, learning strategies should be used. Content connections need to be facilitated by revisiting concepts and building comprehension neural networks. The use of concept maps or the one-minute thesis are easy ways to assess a learner’s current understanding. Self-explaining requires a learner to think about, and then articulate, their understanding, helping the teacher and the learner uncover misconceptions or misunderstandings.

The last chapter reminds us of the need to inspire and motivate a growth mindset of learning. Cultivating inspirational learning environments requires teachers to take a step back and think how they personally contribute to inspiring and motivating their learners. This may seem like a tall task, however, Danial Willingham, a cognitive scientist, studied the “special power” of tried-and-true learning strategy — storytelling. “The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories, so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as ‘psychologically privileged,’ meaning that they are treated differently in memory.”

As healthcare educators, we strive to create educational experiences that move from informational to transformational — challenging our learners to think and practice differently based on the latest evidence in treatment and patient care. “Small Teaching” challenges are own mental models, asking us to consider evidence-based learning strategies that result in improved knowledge, understanding and engagement. Through its simple, small practice changes, we can make, or recommend to our faculty, ready-to-use learning strategies that don’t have to wait for “someday” to be adopted.

Find "Small Teaching" and other Almanac-reviewed titles in the Alliance's Amazon store.

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