Predicting: 5 key messages from “Small Teaching”

I recently read “Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning,” an excellent book1 by Dr. James Lang. To help me remember what I read and as a way of sharing some key messages from the book with a broader audience, I have decided to write some blog posts on select concepts. The first post was about retrieval practice and this second one is about predicting.

“Making predictions about material that you wish to learn increases your ability to understand that material and retrieve it later” (Lang, p.43)



1) When students take time (even just a few seconds) to make predictions about material they are about to learn, it increases their retention (or the memorization of facts) and comprehension (or the use of those facts in other contexts).

2) Even when the prediction the student makes is incorrect, it can increase subsequent retention. However, as Lang cautions, learners “have to receive fairly immediate feedback on the accuracy of their predictions or pretest answers if we don’t want those wrong answers to leave a deeper impression than the correct ones” (p.52). Providing fast feedback to students is essential in all prediction activities.

3) Prediction has a positive effect on retention and application of knowledge for the following reasons:

a) prediction helps implant new facts more strongly into the brain’s network of connections (and this promotes the activation of new facts in diverse contexts). “Prediction helps lay a foundation for richer, more connected knowing.” (Lang, 2016, p.49)

b) prediction activities can help students identify gaps in their knowledge.

c) prediction activities (and pretests) give students a better understanding of what the final assessment may consist of and this might help improve their study preparation.

4) As the instructor, you should speak with your students about why you are asking them to make predictions and/or take pretests on material they haven’t learned yet. By doing so, they will understand the ‘power of prediction’ and won’t feel you are being unfair.

5) Prediction questions should be at the conceptual level. In other words do not ask questions that are ultra-specific and that require students to draw on precise prior knowledge. Lang reminds us: “Predictions work because they require students to draw up whatever knowledge they might have that will assist them in making their prediction.” (p.59)

To learn more, see the Faculty Focus post titled: Learning on the Edge: Classroom Activities to Promote Deep Learning by James Lang.

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

Photo credit: Motion blur by Frank Monnerjahn

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