Retrieve, space, elaborate, and transfer with Connection Notebooks

How can we help students build connections beyond the classroom?

As we describe in our guide on the transfer of learning, it can be hard for students to transfer what they know beyond a lesson or class. Really hard.

Don't despair! This week, we feature Connection Notebooks, a quick evidence-based strategy by teaching expert and collaborator James M. Lang. They're the perfect opportunity to boost students' transfer of knowledge and extend learning from the classroom to the world beyond. 

Retrieve, Space, Elaborate, and Transfer with Connection Notebooks

How can we encourage students to retrieve, elaborate, and connect with course content? Here's a strategy called Connection Notebooks by James M. Lang, Professor at Assumption College. Connection Notebooks include retrieval practice, spacing, elaboration, and transfer – all in five minutes or less!

Ask students to dedicate a specific notebook as their Connection Notebook at the beginning of the semester (or provide one for them) and have them to bring it to class every day. Approximately once a week, ask students to take out their Connection Notebook and write a one-paragraph response to a "connection prompt" at the end of class. For example:

  • How does what you learned today connect to something you've learned in another class?

  • Have you ever encountered something you learned today in a TV show, movie, song, or book?

  • Have you ever experienced something you learned today in your life outside of school?

If there's time, ask a few students to share their responses with the class. You may want to collect students' Connection Notebooks a few times a semester, just to make sure they've completed their entries for a low-stakes grade. They make for very fascinating reading, too!

Connection Notebooks are effective for a few reasons:

Like Professor Lang's evidence-based Connection Notebooks? Check out more of his insightful teaching strategies from his Small Changes in Teaching series in the Chronicle of Higher Education. We especially love his tips on how to make the most of the few minutes right before class, the first five minutes of class, and the last five minutes of class. Here's to building connections!


James M. Lang, Ph.D.

Professor, Assumption College

James M. Lang, Professor and Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Massachusetts, is our go-to for simple, practical, evidence-based teaching strategies. Whether you're in K-12 or higher ed, spend just five minutes exploring his valuable bookstweets, and blog.

Professor Lang's recent book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, is full of strategies directly drawn from research on retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving, and more. He also has a new book on the way, Teaching Distracted Minds, with scientific perspectives and creative solutions for distractions in the classroom. Always wrestling with cell phones and laptops during class? Keep your eyes peeled for his new book in 2020!

Finally, learn more about making connections, and lots of other great ideas for teaching, at the annual Best Teachers Summer Institute in June of 2019.