OI2 Professor Spotlight Series: Dr. James (Jim) Patton

Photo of a right-side car mirror

By Kristen Mosley

We recently chatted with Dr. James "Jim" Patton who is an associate professor of instruction in the Department of Special Education. Dr. Patton has taught at UT Austin for nearly 10 years and has a wealth of advice on all things instructional innovation. For our latest conversation, we specifically spoke with him about a hallmark practice of his instruction: the SMIT.

What is SMIT?

Photo of Jim Patton
Dr. Jim Patton

SMIT stands for the “Single Most Important Thing”. The simplest way of explaining it is that SMIT stems from the idea of having students reflect on what we just did. Importantly, students are instructed to think—you want to give folks not just 30 seconds as they’re walking out the door, but rather a little more time to reflect at the end of class on what they think is the SMIT of the day.

Sidebar: you’d like to think there is more than one important thing in a class day! However, students are instructed to consider “What is that one piece of information that lingers?” Notably, I’ve seen that you never get just one topic from students, and a student’s SMIT is rarely about a broad area. Typically, each SMIT is a discrete and noteworthy comment from a speaker or embedded topic within the broader theme discussed during the class that emerged uniquely for that student.

Tell us about how you incorporate SMIT into your course.

Importantly, the SMIT is not graded for content. For most courses, each SMIT is worth one point for completion, and it’s not graded on the length of what the student wrote. Students get one point for completing the SMIT—so there is an incentive for staying and completing the SMIT each day. I create a timed Canvas assignment that becomes available during the last five minutes of every class and the assignment closes at the time that class closes. When needed, I’ll accept late responses if someone needs to run out of class due to a one-off appointment, but the SMIT is intentionally designed to close at the end of class and not be an assignment that lingers beyond the moment.

What is the purpose of the SMIT?

The purpose of the SMIT is twofold. First, the SMIT is designed for student reflection. Second, the SMIT is designed for me to review and write down themes from the day. After each submission of SMITs, I create a document with the SMIT themes, which I use as a quick “last class review” at the beginning of the next class. The SMITs are therefore predominantly used as a review process. So, the SMIT provides students with an in-the-moment reflection as well as a review session during the next class to hear what themes emerged from the prior class’s SMITs as well as what their peers thought was most important. Granted, sometimes I’ll share an unrelated anecdote at some point in class and that is a student’s SMIT for the day; however, for the most part, students’ SMITs are related to the core content of the class. Additionally, I’ve found that the more students you have tends to mean the more breadth of topics you see submitted across the SMITs.

What advice do you have for others considering implementing SMIT in their own course or adopting a similar practice? 

I typically review the prior class’s SMITs the day before the next class so they’re fresh on my mind going into the review. I usually glance through them immediately after they’re submitted, but I don’t analyze them for themes and prepare them for presenting until closer to the next class period.

I’ve found this practice to be particularly useful for courses that meet once weekly. The review, which is derived from students’ own reflections, is both a student- and instructor-tool. The students benefit from the reflection and the later review of information, and I benefit from hearing students’ perceptions of the content and learning what stands out the most for students in each class. The review of the material during the next class is also helpful for students to be reminded of the prior readings they’ve completed and concepts they’ve examined. Ultimately, the SMIT reorients learners to think about the totality of the information being learned and discussed, which has been impactful for making connections across class meetings and content areas.