Just in Time Teaching with GIS: an experiment in teaching

(Note: This post is more of a confession than a scientific article. Any factual, useful, researched information that you take away from it is purely accidental and should be viewed with a healthy skepticism.)

I recently completed my tenth year as an instructor in front of a college classroom. I’ve taught at community colleges and large, public R1 universities and nearly everything in between. For nearly all of that time and in each of those settings, lecturing was the dominant activity in the classroom. Indeed, I organized my classes around the lectures – nearly everything else was a side dish to the main course, my precious lecture – a sermon of science, if you will, delivered as a gift to my receiving rows of disciples two or three times a week.

Lecturing was what college professors do. Throughout my education, very few instructors strayed far from the lecture style, although the media of presentation changed from chalkboard to overheads to nearly ubiquitous PowerPoint slides. I’ve had instructors who had brilliant, carefully-crafted lectures honed over years of presentation. And I’ve had weak, painful, even incomprehensible lectures from unsteady instructors buried in their notes. Unfortunately, I’m sure I’ve given both types, and I wouldn’t care to rate the percentages between them. A brilliant lecture made the material spark to life, and it made me want to learn more and dive into a subject. A painful lecture was a waste of time at best, and spread disinformation and disinterest at worst.

By now, as a critical reader, you’ve recognized the straw-man argument I’m building – gasp! – lecturing is problematic. I’m certainly not the first to point this out (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Lecturing (alone) is not a particularly effective method to build learning in students yet persists because it’s easy to do and is wrapped up in the identity that’s expected for college professors.

Personally, lecturing became a problem for me when I found myself giving the same lecture for the 20th or 25th or 30th time and simply couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for it. I tried to breeze past the slides so that we could discuss ideas in class or go to other activities. Anything in class was better than the lecture for me. Tellingly, it wasn’t the students who demanded any changes, and my teaching evaluations never particularly suffered – both of which may say something about how low students’ expectations are in general. But personally, I could tell it was time for a major shift in how I taught in order to reinvigorate my teaching and make it fun again. Lectures were no fun for anyone – so why do it?

Lecturing is not the only game in town. There are, of course, multiple modes of pedagogy that invoke methods to minimize lecture time in the classroom. The broad list of activities under the title Active Learning (6, 7, 8), Problem-Based Learning (9), and Flipped Classroom (10) are just a few. At different times, I’ve incorporated ideas from each of these methods into my teaching.

Around the time I was rethinking my approaches, a colleague recommended MSU Denver’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Design Just-in-Time Teaching workshop led by the center’s director, Jeff Loats. I decided prior to the workshops and the semester to jump in feet first, and redesigned two of my four classes as no-lecture-in-the-classroom classes using methods from Just-in-Time Teaching with a few things borrowed from the flipped classroom model as well.

The approach for the class is fairly simple and is quick to explain:

  1. Before each class, students engage with the material, often reading a chapter or two and possibly watching a video. The video might be a recorded lecture or something else online.
  2. Students answer a four or five question online WarmUp (or quiz). The questions in the WarmUp are not designed to be right or wrong answers, but to get students to think about key concepts and questions in the material and apply them successfully in an open-ended manner. For example, an early GIS-based question might be “If you were building a GIS dataset for your town, what types of data would you collect? Which would be vector data models and which would be raster? Why?” Students should be able to apply the knowledge and explain their answer using some justification – but it doesn’t need to be 100% correct.
  3. The first question in the WarmUp is nearly always “What did you find confusing from the readings and/or videos? If you didn’t find anything confusing, what did you find interesting, and why?”
  4. The last question in the WarmUp is nearly always “How much time did you spend this week working on this class?” This is simply to collect baseline information about work habits and isn’t used for grading. I used simple quizzes on Blackboard, our LMS, but there are specialized websites built for JiTT.
  5. The WarmUps are due the night before class. For each question, I pull two to four representative answers to use at the beginning of classtime. “Good” answers, in this case, demonstrate common misinterpretations or confusions, or represent a “best answer” case. A “useful” answer explains the student’s thinking, and showing these to students gives them a good idea of what I’m looking for in the results.
  6. At the beginning of class, rather than lecturing, I spend 30 minutes reviewing the students own answers from the WarmUp. I show them other students’ responses – anonymously – and then we discuss them. Now, instead of lecturing a set of things I think they should know, I’m directly addressing misconceptions and skipping over the ideas they understand – there’s no need to go over something they already “got”.
  7. Then, in class, we have an activity that builds on the topic. Here is the Flipped Classroom / Active Learning piece. Students will generally then have a homework or lab assignment that follows after this.

For each module (chapter in the book), we follow this structure. You can see what the schedule looks like here – I’ve become a big fan of providing checklists of all of the activities in the class at the beginning of the semester. (Yes, you can change it if you need to.) It’s helpful for organized students and gives them a sense of what to expect; for disorganized students, it doesn’t hurt either.

Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT) has been around now for 20 years. (11, 12, 13), and I’m not the first to use it in Geography (14). The evidence for JiTT suggests that it’s more effective than traditional lecturing for improving assessment scores in students.

How I explain the process to students

I don’t have enough measured evidence in my classes yet to confirm that it’s better than previous methods, but I do have some anecdotal evidence that it’s better for me:

  • Students read. To me, the best benefit besides more engagement and less lecturing was seeing that the students were reading more, although not all students and not before every class. Still, I could tell that reading was happening before most classes, as students would be able to talk about concepts using the vocabulary built outside of the classroom. JiTT ensured that my students were reading, certainly more than they had previously.
  • More engaging time in the classroom. Not having the crutch of the PowerPoint deck meant that I had to be on my toes more, but that also meant that I was engaging with and responding to the students directly. Students could see their own words expressed directly back to them, and this made them pay more attention. It certainly felt more vital than lecturing, and the feedback from students at the end of the semester was very positive.
  • Quick Feedback. A big advantage of JiTT is the immediate feedback. Waiting until after an assignment – or worse, a midterm – to learn that a student doesn’t understand a key concept is terrible for both the student and the instructor. JiTT provides much better means to let instructors know what the students don’t and how to correct that.

Why does JiTT work? The quick feedback piece is critical. Lecturing on a subject is not a precise enough instrument to give students the feedback when they don’t understand a topic. JiTT is more surgical, allowing the class to discuss only the items that are both important and misunderstood.

Personally, I think JiTT works because of two key facts about learning:

  • Learning is constructed, not delivered. Learning is often social and occurs when students connect concepts, ideas, and skills to themselves, and that’s more likely to occur when they’re are playing and building with these ideas than hearing them delivered from upon high. Doing this with their peers in the most important time and space – classtime – is critical. Classtime is precious; use this resource wisely.
  • Providing meaningful feedback is the most important activity instructors do. JiTT and WarmUps are not designed to address every inaccuracy and misunderstanding that students have. Instead, they are designed to provide feedback on students most common misconceptions on the most important topics. Feedback must fall in the “Goldilocks” zone – too much feedback is overwhelming and disheartening; too little feedback doesn’t prepare the student for success.

I’ve now used JiTT in a classroom setting and online, and I’m comfortable that it’s a better approach than lecturing (alone). I expect that in a few semesters, I’ll have data that may help determine whether that’s true or not. In any case, it’s a better experience for me as an instructor. That can’t be a bad place to start.

(Addendum: I had a question about grading the WarmUps. I give one point for a “thoughtful” answer to a question – one that clearly uses the technical language from the reading or video – regardless of whether the answer is correct or not. I give 1/2 a point for an answer that doesn’t show much effort or clearly isn’t related to the reading. For example, responding to the question “What did you find confusing or interesting in the reading?” with “It was all interesting to me.” doesn’t really tell me anything useful as an instructor. And no answer gets 0 points.)

(Much thanks to Jeff Loats and the participants of his class for their insights into JiTT from multiple disciplines.)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Great article; thanks for sharing your experiences. As an adjunct instructor who teaches online, I would like to know the teaching differences between the two environments. What modifications do you make to JiTT for online teaching.

    1. admin says:

      For the online class, I respond to the WarmUps with a video. You can see what one looks like here: https://youtu.be/wknL20OetiM

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