Friday, September 25, 2009

Just-In-Time Teaching

One of the things that I enjoy the most about teaching at Centre College is being part of a community of teachers who really care about teaching. Yesterday we had the first in our annual series of "pedagogy lunches." About a quarter of the faculty assembled for lunch, and (partly) paid for the privilege, to hear our colleague, Jason Neiser, talk about his success with "just-in-time teaching."

Before each class, Neiser sends the 60 students in his two sections of introductory physics two "warm up questions" to help them think through the concepts covered in the reading for that day's class. He also has an open-ended question that lets them raise further points they were curious about. These are low-pressure assignments - if they do a bunch over the term, they get a discount on the final. The grading is on a simple scale, and is based not on the correctness of the response but on how well they engaged the material. The J-I-T element comes in the hard part for the professor: he reads all of these responses before each class, and adjusts his teaching accordingly. The students' responses let him know if there are common misconceptions or pressing questions.

The real benefit, he reports, comes in the high level of conversation in the class. The students come in talking. They drive the discussion. He said he does not actually lose any time in teaching content, because they really learned most of the content from the reading and warm ups. And at the end of the term, when students take a concept mastery test that physics professor across the country use, his students show much larger gains than students in traditional lecture classes do.

The best part of the lunch workshop for me was the way that most of the professors there immediately started thinking of how they could apply this in their own classes. I had a thought about how I could adapt a journal assignment I am having my social theory students do this term. Other colleagues in a range of disciplines engaged the details and imagined the possibilities. Many of us will, no doubt, decide that this particular approach does not quite fit what we are doing.

But it is great to be part of a learning community.


Adriana said...

I really appreciate this post, as I think this is something that is important in higher education. Often times (though not necessarily at Centre), faculty are hired for content expertise and not teaching expertise, and have difficulty driving the point home in a way that is meaningful and relevant to students. While education departments are often considered the stepchildren and as less challenging than other disciplines, there is a great deal in the way of pedagogy and methodology that they can share with the community of learners as a whole. I'm very glad to see the faculty at Centre take this seriously and demonstrate commitment to excellence in instruction, as well as the willingness to learn from peers. Makes me even more proud to be an alumn.

randy said...

'just in time' teaching sounds like a fad from the world of business to me. when i was a student at centre in the early '80s, the quality of faculty and their overall level of pedagogy was just so high that i scarcely see how it could be much improved on. there WERE a couple of exceptions; one in the english dept and one in history, i think-they were old, grandstanding boobs who put on a great show for their students...but who didnt actually have much to say. looking back tho, i find them amusing. the english prof in particular had managed to parlay his knowledge of shakespeare quotes into a very cushy lifelong gig. :)

Gruntled said...

Centre is, I think, exceptional even among liberal arts colleges in how much the faculty talk together about teaching. In the last few years we have solved a constant bottleneck in collegiate professional development: professors are good at leading the discussion, but not at the overall organization of a series of discussions, especially not over a period of years. The ingenious solution is that the Center for Teaching and Learning, which is a staff-driven center that is half IT and half library folks, organizes the pedagogy lunches. They recruit talent, usually professors, to lead each discussion, but the staff provides the organizational follow through and continuity.

Rebecca said...

Sounds like a wonderful idea for certain types of classes and a non-threatening way to get students engaged with the material. With a literature class, though, I would worry that questions would lead students toward MY conclusions, not toward original ones of their own. I suppose the questions would have to be pretty broad.

You should post on all of the pedagogy lunches! Kudos to Centre faculty for giving so much effort to the teaching process. This is certainly not the case at every college.