Small Teaching Tip #10: Creating Connections

One of the most challenging aspects of education is getting our students to use prior knowledge and to connect that with the new information we are trying to teach them.  It seems as if students walk into each class and compartmentalize it in their brain, often, it feels as if they do this for each unit within a single class.  So how can we have them see the bigger picture?  How can we get them to view their education as a living, changing whole instead of a segmented path?  James M. Lang (2016) offers some tips and strategies to bring in prior knowledge before building upon it.

  • Have the students take a short quiz prior to class asking them to pull from prior knowledge, use the first few minutes of class to go over the results.
  • In the beginning of class tell the students what the lesson is about and have them write down everything they know about the topic, take the next 5 minutes to solicit responses.  
  • At the start of the semester pretest or use group activities to assess prior knowledge
  • After the first class of the semester have the students write down three things the know about the subject matter and three things they would like to learn, discuss these during the second class.
  • Have the students create a minute thesis connecting different themes throughout your course.  You can have them do this in a few minutes or over a whole class period.  Have them share their ideas and discuss it as a class.
  • Create concept maps linking together ideas throughout the course.  Have the students share and explore their peer’s ideas.  They can add to these maps for the whole semester or make new ones depending on the topic at hand.

Remember, as experts in your field it is easy for you to draw connections and see the big picture but for your students it may take more time and coaching.  Make sure to provide the framework for these connections and refer back to them often.  Again, James M. Lang (2016) offers “Quick Tips” on helping your students to connect concepts.

  • Ask students about their prior knowledge at the beginning of the course with oral questions or a “class knowledge dump”
  • Give students the scaffolding or framework of your lecture ahead of class time and let them fill it in using their prior knowledge.
  • Offer examples from everyday life and allow students to offer their own.  Help them to connect the “real world” with class concepts.

In order for us to really educate our students we need to help them see the bigger picture, help them create connections and guide them along the path of a whole, connected, educational career.


This post is part of a series which presents low risk, high reward teaching ideas, inspired by James Lang’s book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

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