Just-in-Time Teaching

Just-in-time teaching actively involves students in the learning process through a two-step series of learning activities. In the first step, students complete a focused set of activities outside of class (usually via interactive Web documents) and submit their work to the instructor. In the second step, the instructor (often just hours before the next lecture) collects the students' responses and identifies areas of understanding and misunderstanding to adjust the next lesson so that students can receive specific “just-in-time” feedback on those particular areas.

The purposes of just-in-time teaching are to encourage more student responsibility for learning the content outside of class, maximize the efficiency of class-time to allow for more focused and more meaningful explication of the content, and have more time for interaction and discussion. Instructors who use just-in-time teaching also find that their students are more active and more interested than they would be in a more traditional lecture (Novak, Patterson, Gavrin, and Christian, 1999).

Since many students will not read a textbook, but they will watch a video or listen to an mp3, many instructors have elected to use short video lectures (via YouTube) or podcasts (via ITunes U) as the starting point of the learning process in just-in-time teaching.

For example, suppose that each week, after your students have finished their readings but before your lecture, you wanted to know exactly what topics were giving students the most trouble. You could then focus the class on these areas that require special attention. David Brown of Wake Forest University suggests using the “muddiest point” technique before a lecture. He uses simple e-mail to gather student responses but there are other ways to accomplish it as well.

Some instructors have been using Illinois Compass (UIUC's installation of WebCT Vista) and the CITES wikis, but you can achieve the same effects with any course management system.

  • Create an assignment drop box. Give it a title (say, “Week 4's Muddiest Point”) and type a question (for example, “As you worked through this week's readings, what point did you understand the least?”). Set both the due date and the cutoff date to around four hours before your class meets.
  • Next, around two hours before the class meets, collect all the responses. Every student has turned in a paragraph or so thinking “out loud” about the readings. WebCT allows you to create a “Printable View.” This gives you a concise list of what your students are most concerned with, which you can easily skim.

Professor Brown explains how he uses the student responses: “My use of the ‘muddiest point’ responses varies. If half the students focus upon one particular page, the whole class period might be devoted to clarifying that problem. If a passage is mentioned by only one student, I may prepare a response specifically for that student and avoid using class time” (2005). You can imagine other possibilities as well.

Should you grade this? Perhaps, if your students complete it in earnest. Perhaps you need only offer extra credit for originality or strong critical thinking. Many instructors who use just-in-time teaching give “completion points” rather than points for accuracy or content. If you are teaching a class with too many students to easily read and respond to before your lecture, you may want to divide the class into groups and rotate which group is charged with the responsibility each week.

This use of a course-management system is an improvement over e-mail because it allows the course-management system to do most of the administrative work of tracking who has turned in the assignments and gathering all the responses into one readable document so that you can concentrate on teaching. Could you use a survey in Illinois Compass to do this? Sure, except this would be anonymous so you couldn't easily respond to individual students if you wanted to. Could you use a quiz? Yes, but you would have to grade the responses before you could display them all. Could this happen in a discussion board? Certainly, if you intend to respond to student posts and have them respond to one another.

You might use the discussion tool to create a weekly “muddiest point” topic and have the students collaboratively contribute, debate, and then nominate their top three muddiest points (particularly if you're teaching a small class with advanced students). The instructor need only log in and review the last posts in the series, which typically summarize and confirm the class consensus-if consensus is what you're after. This requires more lead time on the part of students, but it might pay off with greater engagement.

You might also ask your students other kinds of questions. What was the most provocative point? What chapter from this week's readings is most important to the history of political science? What scene from this week's film should we be sure to focus on in class? However, make sure that your questions allow you to see what your students know. For example, asking students to solve long complicated math problems where you see only the answer will not provide as much useful information as a well thought out true/false question.

New technologies offer many options to structure precisely how you and your students communicate. They also invite us to rethink old pedagogical questions in new ways.


  • Brown, David G. (2001, November). The Muddiest Point. Campus Technology. Retrieved from http://campustechnology.com/articles/2001/11/the-muddiest-point.aspx
  • Novak, G. M., Patterson, E. T., Gavrin, A. D., & Christian, W. (1999). Just-in-time teaching: Blending active learning with web technology. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.