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Using Questions to Guide Learning: “Just in Time Teaching”

As teaching and learning at UNH become increasingly influenced by the philosophical concepts that underlie the Discovery Program—e,g.,   active learning, learner-centered pedagogy, and inquiry-guided learning—many faculty are looking for ways of replacing their traditional lecture/discussion class formats with new ways of engaging their students in the subject matter and of motivating students to assume greater degrees of responsibility for the learning that they take away from the course.

In the estimation of a growing number of practitioners, one such technique enables them to meet their students' wish for a more engaging and relevant approach, while at the same time allowing for a deeper grasp of the course content without sacrificing the breadth of coverage that is often dictated by the larger curriculum.   The pedagogy—“Just in Time Teaching” (JiTT)—might sound like it's a substitute for detailed preparation for class, but it's quite the opposite.   In fact, rather than prepare to teach a given class that will run as it was scripted well in advance of the scheduled meeting, professors who use JiTT must be prepared for a variety of scenarios, one of which is that many students didn't quite understand the material from the previous class and therefore adjustments must be made to incorporate that lack of understanding, or even false understanding, into the approach one takes to the following class.

The challenge is to find a way to assess the degree of understanding or misunderstanding, and at the same time be able to uncover its source in time to do something about it—that is, before the hole gets any deeper.   At the same time, one doesn't want to completely bore the students who “got it” the first time by going over the material in the same way, one more time.   This is a possible shortcoming of the in-class assessment techniques many of us are already using: “muddiest point” papers, minute papers, etc. or “peer instruction devices”(commonly referred to as “clickers”).   These very valuable methods of getting a snapshot of student understanding offer just that—a still photo.   JiTT proponents claim their approach lets them “get into students' minds…it helps make their thinking visible.”   The claim is that the technique helps them get past “ Did they get it?” to “Why did they miss the point I wanted to make?”

How it works

According to James Rhem of the National Teaching and Learning Forum , “the mechanics of JiTT appear overtly simple: professors post a number of queries (commonly called ‘warm ups') on a course web site prior to each class meeting.   Students must log on and post replies to these by a certain deadline (usually a few hours before class). Professors review the student replies before class and make the understanding, partial understandings and complete misunderstandings the focus of the class meeting.”   Note that preparation for class now involves directly addressing the issue of students learning material, rather than putting together a presentation about that material.

Obviously, the effectiveness of JiTT is directly related to the type of questions posed and to the students' willingness to participate in a process that requires them to actively engage with the subject both inside and outside of class.   Examples of “warm ups” from various disciplines can be found on the WEB sites provided below.   Also to be found are activities designed to help students see how course topics can be better understood and more interesting when applied to situations they find relevant to their lives.   These activities, called “good fors,”--as in “What is physics (or statistics, or biology, or psychology…) good for?”, are designed to force students to make the connections between knowledge and application, rather than have the professor make that connection for them.  

To learn more about Just in Time Teaching, go to the NSF-supported WEB site: http://www.jitt.org/

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