Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      April 1999 Volume XXII Number 1

Just-in-Time Teaching

by William Rozycki

In 1964, at the start of his teaching career, Gregor Novak was assigned to teach an evening class in physics on what was then the Purdue University Indianapolis campus. "The students came once a week, already tired from work, for a three-hour class. It was a challenge to engage their interest," recalls Novak, now a professor of physics at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Gregor Novak, professor of physics, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Novak makes complex and abstract physics concepts concrete by using computers to design hands-on problem-solving experiments. --credit

Novak decided to reach his students by making some changes from the standard lecture. He broke up the course work into smaller, more manageable modules, and then, in a time well before interactive learning had become an educational mantra, designed exercises that required active student input for their solution. The results convinced Novak that students, even tired adults with competing priorities, can and will learn when they are truly engaged.

Since then, Novak has steadily moved to the forefront of curriculum and methods development in physics education, at every step meeting new challenges in motivating and engaging his students. In the early 1970s, Novak developed a Physics 200 course for education majors. "Those students had little interest in physics, and a lot of fear because of the cognitive challenge," Novak recalls. "I had to find ways to reach them, to reassure them, and to connect physics with the real world." He broke his course material into a series of fifteen-minute structured activities for small groups and developed examples and exercises that connected physics theory to common sense or familiar activities. The students learned by doing; Novak's role was to monitor the group work and then to give a summary and closure at the end of the activities. The results were gratifying; the education students became adept at bringing science into their own classrooms. The Physics 200 course was cited in the Directory of Teaching Innovations in Physics, published by the American Association of Physics Teachers.

In the 1980s, as a logical outgrowth of this early experimentation, Novak turned his attention to the expanding area of computer-assisted learning. He developed a software tutorial program to enable students to solve physics problems and do exercises at their own speed, on personal computers. "The idea was that individual students could go at a pace that suited them, at a time that suited them. The computer is infinitely patient," Novak explains. But the limits soon became apparent to Novak. The technology allowed self-directed learning, but only up to a point. "We know from cognitive learning studies that group interaction is a key ingredient in enhancing learning. The computer-assisted learning programs of the 1980s, including mine, lacked that one ingredient," Novak points out. "They were isolating, solitary. There was no sharing of ideas with peers or teachers." Rather than give up on the technology, Novak stored the lessons he learned, looking to the future.

Throughout his years of teaching and course development, Novak also has kept abreast of the research in pedagogy and cognitive development. Evidence indicates that peer interaction enhances and speeds learning, thus supporting his early innovations. Novak's breaking of large chunks of material into simpler, shorter modules has been buttressed by findings that such a method increases long-term retention.

As he has honed his course design, Novak also has researched the needs of the workplace. Some of his findings were surprising. "A 1995 survey of employers who hired physics majors found that it wasn't technical proficiency that mattered most to them," Novak recounts. "What employers valued was the ability to communicate effectively and to work well in a team." Novak has now, characteristically, incorporated these skills into his course design, so thatcommunication of ideas and team problem solving are integral parts of his physics courses.

This image is based on a NASA drawing of the trajectory of the Cassini probe that will reach Saturn in July, 2004. Novak uses the NASA drawing on his "What is Physics Good For?" Web site ( to accompany a lesson on gravitation and space in the engineering physics course. --credit

The culmination of Novak's thirty years of experience and research is a Web-based, classroom-linked strategy termed "JiTT" or Just-in-Time Teaching. Novak developed JiTT jointly with Andrew Gavrin, assistant professor of physics at IUPUI, and Evelyn Patterson, associate professor of physics at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. Now in use in introductory physics classes at IUPUI, the Air Force Academy, and other universities, JiTT promotes physics instruction as dialogue. "Much of the dialogue, whether student-student or student teacher," Novak points out, "can occur outside the classroom, thanks to the maturation of electronic technologies." Interaction is not simply electronic, but also occurs in the classroom with fellow students and with instructors. Student feedback shows the approach meets its primary goal: engaging students by allowing them to control the learning process.

"The core element of JiTT is the interactive lecture" Novak explains. At IUPUI, students do World Wide Web-based preparatory assignments, termed WarmUp Exercises, which are due by electronic transmission a short time before class begins. Instructors in the interactive lecture then adjust and organize lessons based on those student responses. "In that way," Novak says, "the students largely determine the way the physics is presented in the classroom." The student input is "Just in Time" for the lesson, hence the name. With knowledge of those responses to the subject matter, instructors engage the students at their level of background knowledge and use their answers as input for class discussion.

A second part of the course, the collaborative recitation, is held on alternating days from the interactive lectures. The recitations do not use the Web for communication; instead, interactivity is promoted by breaking students into groups of two to four, and these teams then solve problems on a whiteboard, sharing their ideas and communicating solutions. Instructors, graduate assistants, and student mentors circulate among the groups, giving input when needed.

"The recitation portion of the course is designed not only to give hands-on experience in problem solving," Novak explains. "Because students work in groups, they have to attempt explanations to their peers. They often learn that a particular method or idea is more complex than they realized. The exercise improves both critical thinking andcommunication skills."

Most importantly, students find the JiTT approach helps learning. Of those surveyed after two semesters of JiTT courses, 92 percent preferred the approach to a standard course. A former student, Jerry Travelstead Jr., recalls, "The Web provided a level of connectedness to the class that otherwise would have been lacking."

With JiTT now in successful use in introductory physics courses at IUPUI, Novak spends some of his time promoting its principles for wider use. Several times a year, he gives workshops to show how the approach can be used by other physics faculty in their courses; Novak also presents at national conferences, including a 1997 Project Kaleidoscope-sponsored conference on urban campus issues held in New York City. Project Kaleidoscope is an informal national alliance of individuals, institutions, and organizations committed to strengthening undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education. Prentice-Hall will soon publish a guide to the JiTT approach, written by Novak and his colleagues.

Why has Novak devoted so much time to finding better ways to engage his students? He thinks for a moment and then answers, "I like the challenge. Physics teachers in some places have superb students who love physics and devote their time to learning it. Not much challenge in that. For me, finding ways to get busy, tired, uninterested students engaged in learning physics--that's a real challenge. It keeps me interested."

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