FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - Just-in-Time Teaching: The Best of Both Worlds

Fall 2001



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Just-in-Time Teaching: The Best of Both Worlds

Gregor M. Novak

". . . it appears that how the students approach general education (and how the faculty actually deliver the curriculum) is far more important than the formal curricular content and structure." Alexander W. Astin [4]

Just-in-Time Teaching, JiTT, is a pedagogical technique that combines the best features of traditional in-class instruction with the exciting new communication channels opened by the World Wide Web technologies. Over the past five years we have developed a teaching strategy dubbed "Just-in-Time Teaching" which makes use of the feedback loop between in-class and out-of-class teaching and learning. While this is still a work in progress, we can point to dramatic improvements in retention rates and to significant attitudinal and cognitive gains as well. Encouraged by the participants at national workshops (sponsored by, among others, The National Science Foundation, Project Kaleidoscope and the American Association of Physics Teachers) we have produced a book on the subject [1]. JiTT is now used in over one hundred courses across the US and in a few countries abroad. These courses span all the science disciplines and some in the humanities. Just-in-Time Teaching will be the subject of a Chautauqua Short Course in June 2002. For more information, examples of JiTT materials and a partial list of JiTT adapters and courses please visit our web site http://jitt.org.

The JiTT strategy is aimed at many of the challenges confronting instructors and students in today's classrooms. Student populations are diversifying. In addition to the traditional nineteen-year-old recent high school graduates we now have a kaleidoscope of "non-traditional" students: older students, working part-time students, commuting students, and, at the service academies, military cadets. At a minimum these students face time management challenges. They come to our courses with a broad spectrum of educational backgrounds, interests, perspectives, and capabilities that call for individualized, tailored instruction. They also need motivation and encouragement to persevere in what for many is a bewildering, unfamiliar task. Consistent, friendly support often makes the difference between a successful course experience and a fruitless effort, and often it even means the difference between graduating and dropping out [2]. We are now becoming increasingly sensitive to these issues thanks to the recent work in education research which has also made us more aware of learning style differences and of the importance of passing some control of the learning process over to the students. Active learner environments yield better results but they are harder to manage than lecture oriented approaches [3]. It can be argued that that the ancient method of mentoring, a student learning under a watchful eye of a teacher, would be the best strategy to deal with these problems. It is obviously impractical in the age of mass education, but it is an ideal to be kept in mind. With the help of world wide web technology, JiTT is a modest attempt at mimicking some features of mentoring.

To confront these challenges, the Just-in-Time Teaching strategy pursues three major goals:

  1. To maximize the efficacy of the classroom session, where human instructors are present.
  2. To structure the out-of-class time for maximum learning benefit.
  3. To create and sustain team spirit. Students and instructors work as a team toward the same objective, to help all students pass the course with the maximum amount of retainable knowledge.

Although Just-in-Time Teaching makes heavy use of the web it is not to be confused with either distance learning (DL) or with computer aided instruction (CAI.) Virtually all JiTT instruction occurs in a classroom with human instructors. The web materials, added as a pedagogical resource, act primarily as a communication tool and secondarily as content provider and organizer. JiTT web pages fall into three major categories:

  1. Student assignments in preparation for the classroom activity. WarmUps and Puzzles, discussed in this article, fall into this category.
  2. Enrichment pages. In physics we title these pages "What is Physics Good For?" - "GoodFors" for short [5]. These are short essays on practical, everyday applications of the physics at hand, peppered with URL links to interesting material on the web. These essays have proven themselves to be an important motivating factor in introductory physics service courses, where students often doubt the current relevance of classical physics, developed hundreds of years ago.
  3. Stand alone instructional material, such as simulation programs and Mathematica exercises.

WarmUps and Puzzles are short, web-based assignments, prompting the student to think about an upcoming topic and answer a few simple questions prior to class. It can be seen from examples below that some of these questions, when fully discussed, often have complex answers. We expect the students to develop the answer as far as they can on their own. We finish the job in the classroom. These assignments are due just a few hours before class time. The responses are collected electronically and scanned by the instructor in preparation for class. They become the framework for the classroom activities that follow. In a typical application, sample responses are duplicated on transparencies and taken to class. In an interactive session, built around these responses, the lesson content is developed. Instructors employ a variety of techniques to analyze the student responses ranging from a cursory scan just before class to elaborate scoring [6].

Students complete the WarmUp assignments before they receive any formal instruction on a particular topic. They earn credit for answering a question, substantiated by prior knowledge and by whatever information they managed to glean from the textbook. The answers do not have to be complete, or even correct.

Puzzle exercises are assigned to students after they have received formal instruction on a particular topic. They serve as the framework for a wrap-up session on a particular topic. The WarmUps, and to some extent the Puzzles, are designed to deal with a variety of specific issues. In physics, these can be roughly categorized as follows.

  • Developing Concepts and Vocabulary
  • Modeling -- Connecting Concepts and Equations
  • Visualization in General and Graphing in Particular
  • Estimation, Getting a Feel for Magnitudes
  • Relating Physics Statements to "Common Sense"
  • Understanding Equations - the Scope of Applicability

In other disciplines, the issues addressed may range from accommodating different learning styles to specific cognitive objectives.

In preparing WarmUp assignments for an upcoming class meeting we first create a conceptual outline of the lesson content. This task is similar to the preparation of a traditional passive lecture. As we work on the outline we pay attention to the pedagogical issues that we need to focus on in the classroom. Are we introducing new concepts and/or new notation? Are we building on a previous lesson, and if so, what bears repeating? What are the important points we wish the students to remember from the session? What are the common difficulties typical students will face when exposed to this material? (Previous classroom experience and education research can be immensely helpful here.) Once this outline has been created we create broadly based questions that will force students to grapple with as many of the issues as possible. We are hoping to receive, in the student responses, the framework on which we build the in-class experience. Students leaving a JiTT classroom have been exposed to the same content as their peers in a passive lecture, with two important added benefits. First, having completed the web assignment just before class time, they were ready to actively engage in the classroom activities. Secondly, they leave the classroom with a feeling of ownership, since the interactive lecture was based on their own wording and understanding of the relevant issues. To close the feedback loop, the give and take in the classroom suggests future WarmUp questions that will reflect the mood and the level of expertise in the class at hand. Thus, from the instructor's point of view, the lesson content remains pretty much the same from semester to semester. From the students' perspective, however, the lessons are fresh and interesting, with a lot of input from the class.

We have conducted numerous surveys looking for cognitive as well affective outcomes. It is clear from students' comments that they consider the electronic exchanges intimate and personal. Most JiTT pages contain a space for students' thoughts and concerns. The concerns are addressed immediately, in class, to everyone's benefit and they are often followed by multiple email exchanges between the instructor and the student who raised the issue, occasionally followed by a personal visit in the instructor's office. These sentiments are echoed by a large number of JiTT adopters, many of whom consider the enhanced personal interaction with their students one of the primary reasons to adopt the JiTT pedagogy.

Technology is a tool. The benefits, or harm, derived from it depend on the use. The internet is primarily a communication tool, as is the printing press. JiTT pedagogical strategy makes use of the ubiquity and speed of this extraordinary communication channel to prepare the student and the teacher for a richer and more personal face-to-face encounter in the classroom. The on-going feedback loop provides the instructor with a fairly detailed profile of the student audience, both as a group and as a collection of individual human beings with special needs. The resulting classroom experience gives the students the comfortable feeling that the instructor is aware of their mental state and their needs as they unfold through the semester. While, in principle, this kind of information could be collected on paper, the process would not be as effective. The space and time barriers involved (when do you collect the paper submissions and where?) would be frustrating. A comparison with letter writing versus a telephone conversation is not unfair. The immediacy of a telephone conversation with quick turnaround of ideas bonds in a personal way. Similarly, bringing to class students' responses while they are still warm creates a dialog atmosphere where each student can feel that they own a part of the lesson. The not infrequent email exchange after class enhances this feeling. In the 1984 report by the Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education the following quote appears: "Learning technologies should be designed to increase, and not to reduce the amount of personal contact between students and faculty on intellectual issues." To a large extent, using the internet technology in the way it is used in a JiTT-based course honors the spirit of this advice.

We hope that adapting a JiTT strategy will motivate faculty to reach beyond their particular discipline and engage in a dialogue with colleagues in other disciplines with whom their share the responsibility to nurture a common student body. In the current pedagogical climate that emphasizes active collaborative learning, cross-disciplinary projects that focus on the learning process rather than subject matter content are likely to make significant contributions to educational reform. Today's students must be made aware of the interconnectedness between the disciplines they study. Interdisciplinary courses and programs are being offered to meet these needs. The vehicle for the delivery of successful interdisciplinary courses must be the learning process. Content, important as it is, should be added only after the delivery process has been developed.

As noted by Astin in his book on the college experience [4], when thinking about teaching and learning, academics tend to focus on the content rather than process, sometimes exclusively. When new technologies emerge, teachers usually ask: "How can this help me deliver factual information from my field of expertise better, faster, more efficiently?" JiTT asks the question: "How can the new tool help students take more responsibility for their own learning under mindful expert supervision?" When the teaching and learning issue is presented this way, many faculty (particularly younger faculty) find a lot to talk about. Comparing notes across disciplines benefits all. The content-based interdisciplinary barriers, rooted in the myopic emphasis on content, disappear and a physicist can learn from a biologist. Suddenly we are reminded the object of the verb to teach is students not physics or biology. Reading books like Astin's helps, but it is not an absolute necessity. Just focusing on the process of teaching and learning and away from content will get the interdisciplinary discussion started.


  1. Novak, Gregor M., Patterson, Evelyn T., Gavrin, Andrew D., and Christian, Wolfgang. (1999) Just-in-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
  2. Cope, R. & Hannah, W. (1975). Revolving College Door: The Causes and Consequences of Dropping Out, and Transferring, Wiley, New York. [
  3. Hake, Richard R. (1998) "Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses," Am. J. Phys. 66 64-74.
  4. Alexander W. Astin, (1993) "What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited" (Jossey-Bass Publishers), p.425.
  5. please see Andy Gavrin's paper at http://webphysics.iupui.edu/JITT/CATE1999.doc
  6. please see http://www.biology.iupui.edu/biocourses/N100/warmupscoringrubric.html


  • Forinash, Kyle. (1999) "Book Review of Just-in-Time Teaching," American Journal of Physics, 67 (10), pp. 937-938.
  • Jonassen, David H. and Grabowski, Barbara L. Handbook of Individual Differences, Learning, and Instruction, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993.
  • Langer, Ellen J. The Power of Mindful Learning, Addison-Wesley, 1997.
  • Laws, Priscilla (1997), "Millikan Lecture 1996: Promoting active learning based on physics education research in introductory physics courses," Am. J. Phys. 65, 13-21.
  • McKeachie, W. J., Pintrich, P. R., Yi-Guang, L., and Smith, D. A. F. (1986) "Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom: A Review of the Research Literature." Ann Arbor: Regents of the University of Michigan.
  • Sutherland, Tracey E. and Charles C. Bonwell, editors. Using active learning in college classes: a range of options for faculty, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Gregor Novak is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Physics at the United States Air Force Academy and Professor of Physics at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. He is co-author of the book Just-in-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology (Prentice Hall 1999.) email: gnovak@iupui.edu