4th post of 9 in the Small Teaching Series

Small Teaching by J.M. Lang presents methods for making small changes in your teaching practices (hence the name) that can significantly improve your students’ learning. Each chapter provides the research-based evidence behind the practices Lang proposes so you can have confidence that Lang’s ideas work. The Coulter Faculty Commons will be boiling the Small Teaching chapters down into blog posts to provide instructors with concepts they can apply to a lesson, a class, or a course.

Retrieving, Predicting, and Interleaving are all small teaching lessons that offer opportunities to help students acquire Knowledge. The next three lessons will focus on developing students’ Understanding, to help you foster active learning moments in your classroom. This post addresses using Connection to increase student understanding.


Far too often students have knowledge that exists in separate boxes from prior learning. Getting these discrete bits of collective knowledge to have relevance to each other and helping students to find meaning in their relationship is a difficulty for many educators. As an expert in your field, you have a dense network of neural connections between skills, facts, and concepts. It may be easy for you to slot new information into a fully developed network seeing connections with it and “dozens of other things [you] know” (Lang, p. 93). Your novice students may lack the abundance of connections, and consequently comprehension, with information as individual pieces that exist in certain contexts.



“Neurons form new connections with one another with every new experience we have: new sensations, new thoughts, new actions.”

(Lang, p. 94)






Building comprehension consists of helping students build interconnected networks of knowledge with other ideas, concepts, and information. With no ability to force students’ brains to make connections, our role is to create an environment that facilitates the formation of connections. Lang (2016) suggests the following tips to help enhance the connections students make:

  • Solicit Prior knowledge of your students at the beginning of the semester or individual class periods with brief written or oral questions or with whole-class knowledge dumps
  • Ask students to create concept maps that answer questions or solve problems; use concept maps multiple times throughout the semester with different organizational principles
  • Consider providing students with the scaffolding or framework of lecture material before class; let them fill in the framework with their connections.
  • As much as possible, offer examples or cases from everyday or common experience but also-and more importantly-give students the opportunity to provide such examples on their own.
  • Consider using the Minute Thesis or other in-class activities that help students see or create new connections prior to major assignments or exams

To help students “obtain the big picture-view” three principles should be kept in mind.

Provide the Framework – Make the framework/organization of the material visible. Showing how new information fits in regularly.

Facilitate Connections – Be present as the guide and expert in developing student knowledge networks, providing feedback on student discoveries, and correcting courses when they stray away.

Leverage Peer Learning Power – Use collaborative exercises to encourage students to help each other build bridges to disconnected knowledge.

Faculty lead the journey through the land of knowledge. Guiding students along the trails that connect experiences, content and Ideas. Skillfully revealing the mental map that has taken decades to build and crafting lessons that lead students to build their own network of connections.


As always, if you’d like to discuss these or other ideas with the Coulter Faculty Commons you can schedule an appointment at https://affiliate.wcu.edu/cfc/consultations/

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.