Paper presented at IASTED International Conference on Computers and Advanced Technology in Education , May 27 -30, 1998 in Cancun, Mexico


Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
402 N Blackford St.
Indianapolis, Indiana, 46202, USA
The United States Air Force Academy
2354 Fairchild Drive SUITE 2A6

with A. Gavrin (IUPUI) and R. C. Enger (USAFA)


Just-in-Time Teaching (JITT) is a joint project of the departments of Physics at IUPUI and at the United States Air Force Academy. We have significantly improved student morale and performance in our introductory physics class through a strategy combining a collaborative learning environment with extensive use of the world wide web. Our use of the web is twofold. Active learner assignments and enrichment materials are delivered to the students over the web. They respond to these assignments electronically. A subset of these electronic submissions provides immediate feedback to the instructors concerning the state of the class' progress. These assignments, due in the morning a few hours before class, are used to adjust the classroom activities to suit the students' needs.
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Today's introductory physics classrooms are filled with a mix of traditional and nontraditional students who come with a wide range of backgrounds and skills, We feel both a desire and an obligation to meet the students where they are, to help them learn and gain from our courses.

Physics faculty at IUPUI and the USAFA are striving to attain the list of goals identified by physics education researchers over the last two decades[1-3]. Students should control their learning processes, be motivated to learn physics, and be able to see and make the connections between physics in the classroom and in the real world. We strive for both physics content mastery and the acquisition and honing of more general skills. Students must improve their critical thinking skills, estimation skills, and problem solving skills. We also strive to emphasize team work, collaborative learning, and effective communication.

The Challenge

At IUPUI and the USAFA, we face additional challenges due to the natures of the institutions and the student populations. Our students at both are under severe time constraints. At the USAFA, the time constraints are due to a combination of academic, military, and athletic duties, while at IUPUI, they are due to jobs and family obligations. The effects on the students are the same: not much, or inefficient or ineffective, time spent on physics outside of class. Thus, we strive to help them manage their time effectively, and to encourage frequent, short study sessions.

Our students have widely varying backgrounds and study skills. It is not uncommon to find both technically underprepared and technically advanced "honors" students in the same course. This problem has different facets at IUPUI and the USAFA, but our response is the same: to help the whole spectrum of students advance, rather than primarily targeting the "average" students. At IUPUI, the students are older and more mature than those found at many colleges and universities, but they often have poor study habits. Many have mathematical skills that have grown "rusty" since their last educational experience. At the USAFA, each of the cadets excels in one or more academic disciplines, but not every student excels in, or is inherently interested in, technical areas.

At IUPUI, there are difficulties posed by a student body that is primarily composed of students who are commuters, who have poor academic backgrounds, and who are returning to or first entering higher education after several years in the workforce. Retention is a major problem. Commuting students, who are often part-time students as well, have a particularly hard time staying in the course. These problems are not unique to IUPUI or to science and engineering: high attrition rates are common among students returning to higher education nationwide[4]. The JITT strategies represent a deliberate, coordinated attempt to address these challenges.

At the Air Force Academy, the breadth of student backgrounds and interests is especially significant. All students, regardless of their major take calculus-based physics. The "Just-in-Time Teaching" strategies are designed to work well with extremes of student capability, as they provide remediation and encouragement to the weaker students while providing enrichment and curiosity-piquing to the stronger students.

IUPUI and the USAFA appear to be very different types of institutions with very different types of students, however we find that we share many of the same goals and challenges. We expect our students to demonstrate mastery of fundamental physics content, connect the classroom physics to real-world, develop cooperative work habits and communication skills, and be in control of their own learning processes. We want the students to develop their critical thinking ability, estimation skills, and ability to frame and resolve ill-defined problems.

Meeting The Challenge

The Just-in-Time Teaching approach blends an active learner classroom with the around-the-clock communication capability of the world wide web. Students interact with one another, human instructors, and technology in ways that optimize the effectiveness of these interactions. While no technology can match the benefits of an expert human mentor who observes the learning activity and intervenes as needed, there are aspects of learning where technology can have an edge over a human instructor.

There is no longer any doubt in the physics teaching community that learning environments emphasizing student engagement enhance learning[5]. The JITT approach utilizes emerging communication technologies to add an extra dimension to the active learner environment.

The JITT Classroom

The heart of the JITT method is a collaborative recitation/discussion session. At IUPUI, students meet in a common room where there are at least two faculty instructors, one or two graduate students and several undergraduate student mentors. At USAFA, all classes are small enough so that one faculty member can facilitate.

Sessions start with a short review of homework, with special emphasis on systematic problem solving techniques. Teams of two to four students are then given a set of unfamiliar problems. The teams first discuss the approach they will take. With the help of the facilitators they reach a consensus. They then systematically solve the problem. Students practice problem solving, teamwork and communication. Faculty and teaching associates personally get to know the students. This approach builds a sense of class community which leads to more engaged attendance and eliminates some of the causes of attrition.

Lectures are built around student answers to WarmUps. These are short quizzes which have an electronic due date just hours before class. They are constructed so that the student must preview the upcoming material in the textbook. The instructor collects the students' electronic submissions, reads them, and presents a selected subset of them to the class, weaving them into the class as appropriate. This establishes a feedback loop that is beneficial to students and instructors alike. Discreet in-class critique of these submissions helps improve the writing skills and the construction of physics knowledge.

The JITT Web Pages .

The JITT web material is designed to facilitate an effective blend of human and technological resources. The web assignments encourage students to prepare for the classroom activity where the instructors will provide the intellectual mentoring. By providing a map to the wealth of information available on the web our web pages encourage the students to think beyond the limits of the course material. We require that the exposition be in plain English with supporting arguments referring to the underlying physics and mathematics but without the use of equations. This is how an engineer or a scientist communicates with the non-technical members of a project team.

The web assignments have different educational goals as detailed below, but they also work together in several important respects. By scattering the credit over several different pages we encourage students to work on physics frequently and in short sessions and to be in constant electronic communication with the instructors and with one another.

JITT Web Parts

From a course Welcome Page, the students can branch out to the various web parts.

Keeping up the drumbeat is the weekly This Week in Physics. This newsletter style page keeps the students informed of the class news and often calls attention to physics related news events. Often there is a midweek edition of the page, e.g., after a major test in the course or an important news event.

The WarmUp (Preflight at USAFA) affords the students some ownership of the "lecture" session. These conceptual exercises are the heart of the JustinTime instruction system. Each morning before class the instructor reads the student responses and then adjusts the lecture material to respond to the students' demonstrated knowledge.

Conceptual questions are particularly valuable JITT items. It is easy to forget the misconceptions that many students bring to their first contact with various physics concepts[6]. For example, consider the words force, power, and energy. In everyday English, these are generally considered to be synonymous. However, in physics, these words all have special meanings and the quantities cannot be equated. Students, pressed for time, often miss this fact on a first reading of the book. A WarmUp question asking the students to write about these concepts motivates many students to reread a few sections.

These answers are used as talking points for the instructor later that morning, while the issue is still fresh in the students' minds. By doing this, the instructor "individualizes" the lecture. Students in the classroom recognize their own wording, both correct and incorrect, and thus become engaged as part of the feedback loop. It is quite common for the classroom discussion to continue via email between the instructor and particular students. Paradoxically, technology used this way encourages a more personal and intimate bond between instructors and students. It is clear from course evaluations that students feel part of a team working on a common project.

The Puzzle is a weekly assignment, consisting of a single question that typically involves several concepts. After the student responses have been collected electronically, a classroom discussion follows which closes the topic and integrates it with the rest of the course material.

The What's Physics Good For page brings a weekly essay on some related topic, not central to the course material. These essays differ from the "application" essays in physics textbooks in important ways. First, they contain numerous links to external web sites containing a wealth of related material. Second, they always end with extra credit assignments which induce the students to follow the web links and thus relate the course material to the real world. We refer to these assignments as "extra credit" for a specific reason. We noticed that students would not visit the JITT site unless there was a direct academic incentive. We did not wish to reduce the amount of traditional homework nor did we wish to "require" extra work without a concomitant increase in the number of credit hours earned. Offering "extra credit" answers both of these concerns, while simultaneously improving student morale.

Lastly, the information and the communication pages contain the electronic edition of traditional handout material such as the syllabus and the course calendar as well as the electronic version of the course bulletin board.


At IUPUI, one of the clearest quantitative indicators of the effect of the JITT strategy is in the calculus-based introductory course attrition rates, which have fallen from 47% to 32% in the first semester course and from 37% to 18% in the second semester course, averaged over the three semesters of JITT implementation.

Preliminary assessment of the USAFA use of JITT falls into three general areas: GPA comparisons, student responses to a standard attitudinal survey, and anonymous end-of-course survey responses.

The preliminary comparison of incoming and outgoing GPAs in course sections in which the JITT strategy was not used at all, used sometimes, and used consistently in our second semester course is:

GROUP incoming GPA outgoing GPA
no JITT 2.693 2.719
some JITT 2.748 2.800
consistent JITT 2.796 2.967

We administered the Maryland Physics Expectations (MPEX) survey [18], designed to measure student attitudes toward physics courses, as a pre- and post-course survey of the "consistent JITT" students in our second semester course. Our preliminary analysis shows that, in each of the attitude dimensions measured by the survey, there was either a small improvement or essentially no change in student attitudes in the "consistent JITT" course sections. This is in contrast to data from other institutions which show declines in student attitudes among students taking the first semester physics course[7]. Further, broader work with the MPEX survey is on-going and is needed in order to set the context and determine the significance of our results.

The student responses to an end-of-semester voluntary anonymous survey about the use of the JITT strategy were overwhelmingly positive; 94% of the students indicated they thought preflights were a good idea. Students commented repeatedly that preflights helped them to learn rather than memorize, be prepared for class, and keep up throughout the semester.


The preliminary JITT assessment data are very encouraging. We are pursuing more extensive qualitative and quantitative assessments at both institutions. The effectiveness of the "Just-in-Time Teaching" strategies at IUPUI and at the USAFA, despite the many diffeences between the two institutions, suggest that JITT may well be applicable in a variety of other settings. For example, Wolfgang Christian at Davidson College, a highly selective liberal arts institution, is exploring the use of JITT materials which include "physlets," java applets designed for interactive physics problems[8]. Over the last two years, physics faculty from a wide variety of institutions across the United States have attended JITT-related talks and workshops we have given at national meetings. We plan to continue in our JITT implementation, adding more features and integrating it more fully into our courses (including advanced courses), while continuing to assess its impact on our students.


[1] A. B. Arons, Teaching Introductory Physics, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997).
[2] E. F. Redish, Implications of cognitive studies for teaching physics, Am. J. Phys. 62 (9), 1994, 796-803.
[3] S. Tobias, They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier (Tucson, AZ: Research Corporation, 1990).
[4] R. Cope, R.&W. Hannah, Revolving College Door: The Causes and Consequences of Dropping Out and Transferring, (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1975).
[5] R. R. Hake, Interactive-engagement vs traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses, Am. J. Phys. 66 (1), 1998, 64-74.
[6] P.C Peters, Even honors students have conceptual difficulties with physics, Am. J. Phys. 50 (6), 1982, 501-508.
[7] E. F. Redish, J. M. Saul, and R. N. Steinberg, "Student Expectations in introductory physics," Am. J. Phys. 66 (3), 1998, 212-224.
[8] W. Christian, Physlets,