Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Minute Thesis

Welcome to readers from The Chronicle of Higher Education, who are visiting this page to check out some samples of the teaching activity of the Minute Thesis. (If you have arrived here without reading that article, go check it out first and then come back!) The Minute Thesis, a learning activity which I use in class whenever we have material to review or when students are ready to brainstorm project or presentation ideas, helps give students a quick preview of lots of possible ways to create new combinations and connections within the course material we have been studying, as well as to develop their own creative new approaches to what can sometimes seem like well-worn paths through ancient territories. It essentially involves creating category lists of course material, asking students to draw lines connecting items from different categories, and then giving them a minute (or more) to brainstorm a thesis that connects those items together. In a typical version of the game, we might end up thinking our way through five or six different new connections.

This first image, to the right, comes from a course I have been teaching on a regular basis in recent years, and which I love, in spite of its less-than-thrilling title: "British Literature Survey II."  This course helps prepare our majors for the upper-level literature courses they will be taking, offers a general education literature course to non-majors, and gives all students an opportunity to see how British and Irish literature from 1800 to the present can help inform our understanding of the relationship between literature and history, as well as the richness of the British and Irish literary traditions.  The particular version of the Minute Thesis represented on this board is designed to create connections between the various authors we have read during the Romantic period and the subject matter and themes that dominated our readings and the time period. In this case, the student with the marker has the task of circling a single theme and connecting it to two authors. The students then come up with a thesis for how those two authors might have both addressed or reflected that theme in their works, and also how they might have dealt with that theme in different ways.  You can see one line, for example, which connects William Blake and William Wordsworth to the subject of the "Natural World."  It shouldn't require much creative thinking to see how the natural world played a critical role in the thinking of both of these authors; it does require some thinking to establish how the natural world might have played a slightly different role in their thought and poetry.  In this class I sometime will swap out the themes for historical events, and leave the themes open.  So in that case the second column would have included instead things like: 1789--French Revolution; 1798--United Irishmen Rebellion; 1811-1812: Luddite Rebellions, etc.

The second board depicted here, to the left, represents an attempt to use the Minute Thesis to encourage faculty to consider how they can use a handful of learning principles to create small and positive changes to their teaching.  The items in the column on the left are a partial list of learning principles from my new book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2016); the column on the right presents moments of a course or a class period which we often don't use as productively or effectively as we could: the first five minutes of class, the last five minutes of class, first day of the semester, last day of the semester, etc.  In this case I ask faculty workshop participants to consider a course they are teaching as a third item on the list, so the arc of one line essentially might ask them to consider: "How can I use retrieval in the first five minutes of British Literature Survey II next week?" Even just running through three or four possibilities with a group of faculty, and asking them to work in pairs or small groups to generate their course-specific theses, enables everyone to walk out of the session with one or two new ideas, all grounded solidly in the research on teaching and learning in higher education.

As I said in the Chronicle article, you can vary the categories, the time, the means of creating the connections, and almost everything about this exercise in a thousand different ways.  If you come up with a variation that works really well, and you would like to share it with others, please post it in the comments on the original article or on this blog post.  And if you are looking for lots more small ways to create continuous engagement from students in your courses, keep an eye out for Small Teaching, out on March 14, 2016.


  1. Dr. Lang,
    I really enjoyed your recent piece in the Chronicle, and as I read it, I was wondering how I could apply some of your ideas to everyday living. I'm retired, having spent most of my adult life in the corporate world as a tech writer and editor. I taught in grad school and then part-time for awhile. My first love was always teaching, but life intervenes. I have always looked for ways to keep my mind occupied on those things that expand my awareness of myself in the world and help me develop connections with other people and with the world around me. Now more than ever, I look for opportunities--in reading material, in conversation, in what I watch on TV. Thank you for this reminder about using a commonplace book, something I did a long time ago when I started college. I'm on it!

    Verna Wilder