Students’ attention holds better if you overturn expectations, says James Lang, author of the book Small Changes: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, in our latest webinar.

Lang, who teaches writing and British literature classes as Associate Professor of English at Assumption College, uses science-based engagement strategies, such as retrieval practice, in his classes. A few weeks into the semester, when his students start getting into a routine, he starts making changes.

When you make retrieval practice into a scheduled assignment, explains Lang, students get used to setting themselves up for learning by recalling the previous class.

“Once a week, students come in, and we start with a five- to 10-minute writing exercise where they answer a follow-up question about that day’s reading,” he explains. “That always sets me up—I can ask a question, have them write for 10 minutes, and then we use that question to spark a 20-minute conversation.”

When sluggishness hits at the five-week mark—“the point where [students say], ‘OK, I’ve seen all your tricks’”—Lang recommends switching out or building on top of these habits with some different teaching methods.

Many profs have established in-class quizzes in their classes. These usually happen around the halfway point in the class, but Lang’s suggestion is to try putting one at the very beginning of a class as a replacement for the writing exercise.

Lang bases his research on cognitive psychology of learning and the work of scientists such as Dan Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School?. His guiding idea is that subtle changes in the way teachers act can support larger improvements in learning. Techniques such as the minute paper and facilitating connection between students are quick, easy and work cross-discipline.

Evolution always happens in these small steps, says Lang. “Sometimes one change can help [professors] see the course completely differently… These small changes can oftentimes be a wedge that opens things up and gets people to think differently about their teaching.”

You can watch the full 45-minute webinar for free by registering here, or read a brief summary of certain parts of the webinar on Twitter.

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