APR Update: Making Room for “Small Teaching” Strategies

By Deborah B. Gentry, Ed.D, CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison
CFLE Network
Content Area
Family Science Education
APR Update: Oops, I Wasn't Paying Attention

When a summer, holiday, semester, or vacation break presents itself, faculty often set a goal for themselves of using some of the time to read, perhaps for work or perhaps for sheer entertainment. Sometimes this goal is achieved, sometimes not. For me, this winter break entailed recovering from some foot-related surgery. Constrained by immobility and some degree of pain, I was content to read while sitting and keeping my foot elevated and iced. I accomplished my reading goal for this break from routine by perusing James M. Lang’s recent book titled Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. In this column, I share some of the main ideas presented by the author and pose several “trauma-sensitive” teaching applications.

Before this column unfolds further, some definitions are in order. According to Lang, “small teaching” is a strategic approach to teaching based on the premise that students can experience powerful, meaningful, and lasting learning from brief learning activities, as well as uncomplicated interventions or modifications to instructional design and delivery. Impactful learning can, though need not necessarily, be the result of complex, elaborately designed and implemented learning activities. Small teaching approaches have the potential to promote 1) the retrieval, prediction, and interweaving of knowledge; 2) enhanced understanding by connecting, explaining, and practicing concepts and skills; and 3) a growth mindset that demonstrates personal motivation and inspiration. Small teaching can occur in the context of face-to-face courses, as well as online courses.

Though other contributors to this newsletter have described the concept of trauma education/trauma-informed instruction/trauma-sensitive teaching, I am adapting Evans’ (2013) definition of trauma-informed care for this column’s working description:

A trauma-informed teacher engages students with histories of trauma in ways that sensitively recognize the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledge the role that trauma has played in their lives.

Similarly, when preparing students enrolled in college-level family life education programs of study to competently deliver services (e.g., educational, preventive, and/or therapeutic) to individuals and families upon their graduation, faculty should carefully consider when, where, and how to infuse trauma education (e.g., concepts, principles, approaches, and techniques) into the courses they teach. Content Areas 2 (Internal Dynamics of Families), 4 (Human Sexuality), 5 (Interpersonal Relationships), 7 (Parent Education and Guidance), 8 (Professional Ethics and Practice) and 10 (Family Life Education Methodology), seem particularly appropriate for some level of incorporation of trauma education.

When exposed to new content and new approaches or strategies for teaching any content, cutting edge or classic, many faculty express concern about how they can possibly infuse anything else into their lessons or courses without sacrificing something they are already committed to including. Lang’s response is that “small teaching” interventions and activities require very little time to implement. Most of all, for the time expended by teacher and students, there are benefits for both. When students are called upon to think more deeply and then share the results of their thinking with the teacher, the teacher has an opportunity to formatively assess how well the students are mastering the content. The teacher can promptly take steps to correct faulty thinking, as well as confirm to students when they are indeed on track. As a result, students may perform better on larger, weighty learning activities. Thus, evaluation and grading tasks undertaken by the teacher tend to be less onerous and disappointing. Both students and teacher feel more inclined to persist with their efforts.

Critical to the success of any small teaching activity or intervention is having, as a deliberate part of one’s teaching philosophy and subsequent instructional design components, the belief that students learn better and more lastingly when they are:

  • prompted to make connections between new content and the knowledge and experiences they have already accumulated, and
  • given opportunities to make choices about or have a say in how they go about their mastery of the content and skills of the given course.

Though important to any course’s foundation, building and processing connections and some degree of control and choice seem particularly crucial for students who have experienced trauma and are enrolled in courses that feature content and helping skills related to violence, abuse, neglect, and/or loss. Care must be taken to ensure learning activities, assignments, and assessments show an awareness of and sensitivity to past trauma experiences and do not exacerbate the trauma further.  

One occasion for applying the “small teaching” approach is during the period prior to the beginning of class. Lang points out that there is no need to wait until the clock strikes to start teaching! Due to tight scheduling (classroom, teacher, and/or students), the luxury of having 10 minutes of informal time prior to the official start of the class period may not be possible. However, as students enter the physical or virtual classroom with perhaps 5 or so minutes to spare, a teacher can undertake a quick effort to capture students’ attention in a manner that is relevant to recently covered content or that which is to be addressed in the immediate future. Project a photo, quote, or news headline on a screen or perhaps play an audio clip of a song or speech. To accompany this attention-getting “hook,” pose several questions to students: What do you notice? What do you wonder or question? What might happen next? Students can privately ponder answers to these questions or, if comfortable doing so, informally share ideas with fellow students sitting nearby. A trauma-informed teacher would sensitively employ a hook that would be appropriate for all students, but particularly so for those who have trauma related histories.

Another instance for weaving in “small teaching” activities is during the first five minutes of a class meeting, traditional or virtual. During this time, provide an opportunity for students to recall information addressed during the last lesson and use it in some fashion. Such retrieval practice is more beneficial to the students than having the teacher give a synopsis. Pose questions like these and ask students to take 3-4 minutes to jot down answers: What do you remember most about the concepts dealt with during the last lesson/class/unit? In what ways do your past or current experiences or observations (e.g., past coursework, personal life, work life, or current events) reinforce the importance or usefulness of these concepts? Collect and review the written answers. Taking 1-2 minutes to have students voluntarily share their answers while you jot the main ideas on the board and react with affirmation, confirmation, elaboration, or gentle correction is more immediately beneficial.

Rather than focusing on past learning, an alternative way to use the first five minutes of a class meeting is to set the scene for what is coming next. To accomplish this, pose questions like these and ask students to take 3-4 minutes to jot down answers: Today/this week, we are going to focus on ______. What do you know about ______ already? What have you heard about it in the media, learned in a previous class, or experienced in your own life? Once again, taking 1-2 minutes to have students voluntarily share their answers is the ideal follow-up as this can quite revealing. The teacher may be surprised by the misconceptions expressed, or heartened by the quality of knowledge displayed. Either way, the teacher has more insight about how best to proceed. Whether these five minutes focus on the past or the future, the trauma-informed teacher should be ready to respond sensitively to contributions made by students with trauma histories, especially if those contributions speak to specifically about his/her traumatic experiences.  

The last 5 minutes of class are equally fitting for use of a “small teaching” activity. The result may be more meaningful for students than madly trying to enumerate a handful of additional points or issue a series of reminders. Lang concurs the well-known “One Minute Paper,” first devised by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross in their classic book Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, is a good one to employ. This entails asking students to write down answers to questions such as the following: What is the most important thing you learned during class today? What ideas or concepts remain unclear to you? What other related aspects would you like to know more about? Once collected and reviewed by the teacher, the answers provide a reality check for the teacher, especially if they identify concepts that need to be attended to again. Additionally, the last five minutes of class represent an opportunity for students to apply the course material from that day to brainstorm some connections beyond those the teacher may have made. Lang suggests telling students that they can depart from class when they have identified five ways in which the day’s material appears in contexts outside of the classroom. It is amazing, Lang notes, how quickly they can come up with examples when this activity stands between them and lunch, getting to a job, or meeting up with a friend.

Answers to the One Minute Paper or brainstormed connections to everyday life can be an excellent basis for the first five minutes of the next class meeting. Finally, if the “hook” employed during the minutes before class officially began is not followed-up as the session unfolded, it can be revisited in these closing minutes. Once again, it is quite possible that students with trauma related histories might contribute answers that specifically mention various trauma experiences and outcomes. As in other circumstances, the trauma-informed teacher must be ready to respond with sensitivity and care.    

After becoming acquainted with Lang’s ideas about “small teaching,” I tried applying them to the CFLE Content Areas mentioned above in the third paragraph. There is one example per Content Area. Perhaps they will inspire you to read up on “small teaching” and then devise your own examples.

  • For a Family Theories course, which probably fits best into Content Area 2, use the first five minutes to pose this question to students: “Before we explore the next theory of family dynamics, what facets of Conflict Theory (the theory most recently studied) do you recall? Take about 3 minutes to sketch out a concept map that best reflects the components you believe to be most important about the theory. Afterwards, I hope a number of you will briefly share your results with the rest of us.” Alternatively, since Lang supports frequent, low stakes quizzing, a 3 or 4-question quiz about Conflict Theory could be administered to the class using audience response keypads or “clickers.” Some debriefing about correct and incorrect answers would follow. These activities promote students’ retrieval abilities.


  • During the time before class starts on a day when the focus of a Human Sexuality course (Content Area 4), is LGBTQ teen issues, show the first half of the three-minute film titled Understanding. Once viewed, ask each student to write down what s/he predicts thinks will likely happen next. This activity prompts students to apply their predicting skills. At a relevant time during the lesson that follows, students watch and discuss the remaining minute and a half of the film. Recently released by Kodak to promote a 35mm product, director Terry Rayment and cinematographer Kate Arizmendi provide a poignant message about identity and acceptance. It is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZBrowcWnMU .
  • When developing quizzes and exams for a Family Communication course, perhaps fitting Content Area 5 best, formulate questions that require students to connect material learned more recently to material learned longer ago. Call upon students to revise their understanding of previous content in light of that which has been more newly learned. Interweaving and connecting concepts helps students to think more deeply. As this kind of course addresses a continuum of means of resolving and managing conflict, students with trauma histories involving abuse and violence may exhibit considerable test-taking anxiety, especially when questions focus on these topics.
  • In a Parent-Child Relationships course (Content Area 7), incorporate case studies to enhance students’ abilities to connect and apply concepts they are learning. While the teacher is likely to find or create case studies that are more relevant or appropriate, having students contribute case examples of their own offers them a worthy challenge. If students with trauma histories are enrolled in the course, implementing this kind of activity will require extra care and sensitivity.
  • For an Ethics for Family Professionals course (Content Area 9), invite a guest speaker to give a presentation comparing various ethical codes of conduct that family professionals abide by. Ask the speaker to complete his/her presentation with 5 minutes of class time remaining. During this brief time, ask students to write down answers to these questions:  What is the most important thing you learned during class today? What ideas or concepts remain unclear to you? What other related aspects would you like to know more about? You can collect and review these written answers and follow-up during subsequent class meetings.
  • Typically, a Family Life Education Methodology course (Content Area 10) serves as a capstone experience for a student’s program of study. A professional practice/internship experience is often taken concurrently or soon after. Many students, perhaps especially students with trauma histories, may feel apprehensive about becoming a new professional. This is a prime time for the teacher to provide inspiration and motivation. Lang (2016a, p. 121) suggests the following 1) Get to class early every day and spend a few minutes getting to know your students, learning about their lives and their interests, and creating a positive social atmosphere in the room; 2) Point out how practitioners in your field [FLE] make a positive difference in the world and remind students often about the possibility that their learning will help them to do the same in the future, and;  

3) Show enthusiasm for your discipline and field, as well as for individual topics, texts, and assignments. Tell them of your hope that they will find them as fascinating as you do.

For those readers who do not have time to read Lang’s book in its entirety or prefer to learn by video format, the Chronicle of Higher Education compiled a series of short pieces written by Lang about “small teaching” for a Special Report that was published this past summer. In addition, St. Joseph’s University hosted Lang as a keynote speaker for a teaching and learning forum this past summer. His presentation is posted on YouTube. Provided below in the reference list is a link to this video.


Evans, J. K. (May, 2013). What does trauma-informed care really mean?  [PowerPoint
            Presentation.] Retrieved from http://www.cpe.vt.edu/ocs/sessions/csa-trauma.pdf .

Lang, J. M. (2016a). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of teaching. San
            Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lang. J. M. (2016b). Small changes in teaching: A special report series. Chronicle of Higher
             Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/specialreport/Small-Changes-in-Teaching/44.

St. Joseph’s University. (June, 2016). 5th Annual Teaching and Learning Forum: James M. Lang,
            Keynote Speaker. [Video.] Retrieved from  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGoalVZDqPs .

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