Start Small: Small Changes to Your Teaching Practice Add Up Over Time

Most of us have heard that joke-that-is-actually an analogy,

“How do you eat an elephant?”

“One bite at a time.”

For our purposes, that elephant is your teaching practice. Maybe you are teaching a course for the first time, and feel like you’ll be doing well just to get your content in order. Maybe you’ve taught your course many times: your students are bored and so are you. Maybe you are feeling pressure from your students to change, but don’t know quite where to start. In any event, course planning can quickly take on overwhelming dimensions, leading to that common refrain, “I want to work on my teaching but I don’t have time!”

However, if time for you is a vague, stress-inducing notion akin to eating the elephant in one sitting – revamping your course in one marathon semester – well yes, there’s a pretty good chance you don’t have time. You’ll never find the hours on end to choose and sequence content, write learning objectives, develop and align assignments and assessments…

 “Are you kidding me? If I don’t have a publication by my next Annual Report I’m dead meat.”


There are three things I like to tell instructors who genuinely want to improve their teaching, but struggle to find the time in their schedules, or to make a priority of teaching in a system that neither recognizes nor rewards teaching excellence in any meaningful way.

First, start small.

You don’t have to change your whole class. Change one lesson. Refine one question you pose to your class to encourage higher order thinking. Try one group assignment and see how it goes. Change one reading. Add one supporting resource for your students. Invite one guest speaker to your class. Don’t succumb to “all or nothing” thinking: Where a course overhaul isn’t feasible, there are still many opportunities for small, focused changes. The key here is focus – know why you are making the change, and give some thought and reflection to how it went after the fact. (One bite at a time, right?)

Keep the stakes low.

Changes can be challenging and even a bit scary when we don’t know if they’ll “work,” or how students will react. One way to experiment without getting yourself and your students too wound up is to do something you’ve never done before, but keep the stakes for grades very low. Most students won’t balk at an out-of-the-box assignment if it is only for 5%-10% of their course grade. Make sure that the assignment is pedagogically valuable for your students, and tell them why you think it is valuable. Structure the assignment and grading criteria so that the effort it requires is proportional, in terms of both students’ workloads, and your own grading load. Think fast, effective, focused feedback here! If the assignment is a flop, no real harm done. You’ve learned something, and your students have perhaps been pushed to try something a bit different than they usually do in a class. Dump what doesn’t work; refine what does. Have some fun with it, and encourage your students to do the same.

Keep your eye on the end game.

One risk of incremental change is that we never get around to the business of “the big picture.” Small changes can lead to (or reinforce) disconnect for you and for your students. You’ll feel more confident experimenting with your pedagogy if you can clearly tell your students why you are teaching the content you are teaching, and why you are assigning the assessments you are assigning.

CTL is your best friend here. Did you know that the Centre for Teaching and Learning will do an individual consult with you? With this support, you’ll get fresh perspective on your course design – a fresh set of eyes to help you assess your instructional goals, content, sequencing, assessments and evaluations. Remember, you don’t have to implement changes all at once. Rather, you’ll have a clear picture of where you want to go with your course, and a map to get you there, even if it is just a few steps at a time.

At some point then, you’ll probably need to look at your whole course if you want to clarify your teaching and learning goals, and offer a stronger course to your students. There are no substitutes or shortcuts for really good pedagogical design. It takes time and effort. In the meantime, if you are stuck in a rut, short on ideas, or overwhelmed with too many possibilities (especially on the technology front!) you can still set small, achievable goals for your practice. Here are some examples to get you thinking:

Improve student engagement:

  • Make eye contact with ten students in class every time I lecture.
  • Use a pair/share strategy once during every lecture
  • Develop a five-question mid-term teaching feedback quiz for my students on e-Class.
  • Try i-Clickers or course polling once this term.
  • Find three new resources this year that will appeal specifically to helping my students see “real world” connections to course content

Broaden students’ learning strategies and outcomes:

  • Try one group work assignment for 10% of students’ grades
  • Learn and apply one summative strategy in your class so that students (and you!) are clear about why you just did what you did
  • Add one short (300 words, e.g.) reflective writing assignment to students’ assignments
  • Create a mini-assignment for grades that scaffolds a major assignment (e.g. advanced preparation of an abstract or bibliography for a forthcoming research paper)
  • Teach one reading strategy this term

Focus on learning “trouble spots”

  • Develop a self-assessment quiz for the most difficult concept in my course
  • Teach and assess one specific writing or research skill I’d like to see students do better with
  • Unpack a challenging reading in class using an informal/ungraded group work activity
  • Find and post five online resources that will help your students understand your course content

There’s nothing to these really. They’re not, as we say, “rocket science,” and most do not take a ton of time to implement. They are also are also SMART goals for your teaching: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. They develop your skills, your creativity, and your confidence as an instructor. Sometimes we just need to breathe, and remember that we don’t have to eat the whole elephant all at once.


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