Suppose you are teaching an introductory biology course and your next lesson deals with genetics. You would like to prepare your students for the upcoming class by asking them to think about the topic. You assign some reading and this scenario to pique their interest:
Allison is driving with her parents when they get in a serious car accident. At the emergency room, the doctor tells Allison that her mother is fine, but her father Bob has lost a lot of blood and will need a blood transfusion. Allison volunteers to donate blood, and you tell her that her blood type is AB. Bob is type O.
a) Can Allison donate blood to Bob? Why or why not?
b) Allison, who is a biology student, begins to wonder if she is adopted. What would you tell her and why?
The above is an actual pre-class exercise, authored by Prof. Kathleen Marrs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The course in question was college level introductory biology, but it easily could have been a basic high school biology course. Dr. Marrs is practicing Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT), an interactive engagement pedagogy used in many courses since 1996. The instructor posts JiTT assignments on a website a day or so before the class meets. Students respond online, giving the instructor enough time to adjust the in-class activity informed by what the responses reveal. For more elaboration, see Dr. Eric Mazur discuss a strategy that incorporates JiTT, featuring short lectures interrupted by conceptual questions about physics.
Promoting Active Learning
Consider the main features of the JiTT exercise.
- Students are presented with a slightly provocative and memorable statement that is open to a considerable amount of interpretation.
- Students rephrase the question in their own words. The responses tell the instructor how students interpreted the assignment.
- Students must take a stand and justify their position. They must examine prior knowledge, consult the course resources, and perhaps discuss the issue with classmates.
The essence of the JiTT pedagogy is timely pre-instruction assignments, usually called warm-ups, that inform the upcoming lesson by encouraging the students to examine their prior knowledge and seek information about the upcoming topic before coming to class. Involving the students in the learning process this way is in line with current education research that recommends actively involving students in learning:
To be actively involved, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Within this context, it is proposed that strategies promoting active learning be defined as instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing.
Adjusting the Lesson Flow
There is room for flexibility as long as two crucial criteria are met. The assignments must be thoughtfully constructed and constitute an integral part of the lesson. Expanding on these two criteria, a good JiTT question . . .
- Is informed by education research, both cognitive and discipline-specific.
- Yields a rich set of student responses for classroom discussion.
- Requires an answer that cannot easily be looked up.
- Encourages the student to examine his/her prior knowledge and experience.
- Requires that the student formulate the response, including the underlying concepts, in his/her own words.
- Contains enough ambiguity to require the student to supply some additional information not explicitly given in the question. (This feature enriches the subsequent classroom discussion.)
- Targets a conceptual bottleneck.
- Is just outside the comfort zone.
- Is extendable and memorable.
- Is sufficiently captivating so that even struggling students may be interested in the answer.
Encouraging students to examine the status of their knowledge, metacognition is usually accomplished by including on the response page a free-form "comments" field.
Before going to class, the instructor looks at the responses and decides how to adjust the lesson flow. Student responses typically fall into a set of categories. The instructor selects representative examples to show in class, not ignoring the comments.
The instructor is now ready to adjust the classroom activities or lesson flow, and improvise if necessary. The flow is pretty much predetermined, but the words used in class will arise from the student responses and, most importantly, will be influenced by the feedback from the live class. Typically, the live class is shown a representative set of responses, and the authors of the responses are invited to comment and elaborate. The rest of the class is encouraged to challenge and suggest alternatives. Properly handled, this can be a teaching opportunity that goes beyond the course content. Students have an opportunity to practice critical thinking and communication skills. The course content is enriched because the wording actually comes from the live class, which makes the lesson fresh and interesting to the students.
Effective Uses of JiTT
There is a variety of ways to respond to the issues raised in the student responses to the pre-class JiTT assignment:
- Group activities
- Clicker activities
Here is checklist of recommendations to make the JiTT pedagogy effective:
- Let students know that JiTT will be used, why, and how it works. Make clear what a quality response looks like.
- Use JiTT regularly, but keep it short and manageable.
- Use JITT questions on exams, and use responses in distractors. Also, let JiTT count toward the final grade. Grade for effort.
- Include climate questions, and ask students how they reached their answers.
- Look for patterns in responses, and link responses to in-class activities.
- Make responses easy to submit and manage. Provide personal feedback as much as possible.
Have you used JiTT or other interactive engagement strategies? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.