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Developing Effective Questions for JiTT Exercises

The key to achieving success with JiTT is developing effective JiTT questions. Good JiTT questions are typically open-ended and leave room for multiple explanations and interpretations; often, they ask students to apply new concepts or ideas in ways that cannot simply be looked up in a textbook. From a pragmatic standpoint, JiTT questions should focus on key ideas to be discussed in the upcoming class and align with student learning goals for the course.

Some Practical Considerations

  • Before you write your questions, ask yourself: "What do I want my students to know, understand, apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate prior to class?" In answering this question, it is useful to work backwards from the in-class activity you plan to use. In other words, what do your students need to have thought about or done in order to be fully prepared for that activity?
  • JiTT questions should be relatively brief and take students only 15-30 minutes to answer.
  • The more involved the problems, the fewer questions should be given to the students. Three to four questions is a typical number, and sometimes they include both multiple choice and short response questions.
  • It is useful to include a question asking what was most important, interesting, or confusing about the reading. Responses to these questions help to target in-class teaching and can jump-start engaging classroom discussions.

Linking JiTT Questions to Course Learning Objectives

Starting with the question "At the end of this course, what do I want my students to know and be able to do?" focuses student and instructor attention on the most important concepts, ideas, and skills in the course, reinforcing course and program goals. For example, do you want to use JiTT exercises to:
  • develop and extend students' critical and analytical thinking skills?
  • improve students' quantitative reasoning skills?
  • increase students' facility using multiple representations (verbal, graphical, quantitative, and/or analytical) of models?
  • scaffold disciplinary thinking processes – e.g. the use of evidence in making causal claims?
  • enhance students' problem-solving skills?
The course learning objectives you have for your course will determine what kinds of JiTT questions will be most effective in achieving those objectives.

Linking JiTT Questions to Bloom's Taxonomy

Bloom's (1956) taxonomy, represented here as a hierarchical model of cognitive thinking processes, provides another useful guide for developing effective JiTT questions. This taxonomy classifies learning goals according to their complexity. The higher-order thinking required for goals in the more complex levels presupposes mastery of goals at the simpler levels. Keep in mind the level of cognitive thinking you want your students to practice and achieve in your course when creating JiTT questions.

How can JiTT exercises be used to move students from one level of Bloom's taxonomy to higher levels?

Before you write your questions, ask yourself: "What do I want my students to know, understand, apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate prior to class?" You may very well want to work backwards from the in-class activity you plan to use. In other words, what do your students need to have thought about or done in order to be fully prepared for that activity?
  • Knowledge and Comprehension
    The most fundamental learning goals fall into the categories of knowledge and understanding. If you want to focus students' pre-class preparation on content knowledge and the ability to explain important terms and concepts, your JiTT questions can target these cognitive levels. For example:
    • What are some of the biological effects of dam removal (good and bad)?
    • What are the three leading ideas for the cause of the Permian mass extinction? What is the evidence for and against each?
    • Describe Darwin's garden experiment and the significance of it.
  • Application and Analysis
    When students have mastered knowledge and understanding, you can ask them to apply their knowledge or to analyze relevant information. If your in-class exercise requires application or analysis, you may want to give your students time to practice those skills prior to class. For example:
    • Let's say I told you that I thought marine mammals evolved independently of land mammals (meaning, both originated on their own in separate environments with no linkages). What evidence would you use to argue that my viewpoint is incorrect?
    • Can human population growth impact biodiversity? Explain your viewpoint.
    • List the animals that have been uncovered in the La Brea Tar Pits that you didn't know were native to North America. Why do you think these animals are now extinct?
  • Synthesis and Evaluation
    The highest cognitive level requires students to synthesize information from multiple sources or to evaluate a situation. If you will be asking your students to think at this level during class, it's best to prepare them by asking them to complete similar tasks prior to class. For example:
    • What do you think it means for a fossil resource to be "abused"?
    • Describe at least two different solutions that have been proposed to combat the problem of the rising water table damaging Egypt's archaeological monuments. Which do you think is the better solution, and why?
    • There were many "costs" involved with constructing the Aswan High Dam. Identify some of these costs. Have the short-term and long-term impacts of the dam construction been worth it? Explain.
    • After reading both articles... SO WHAT if we find life on the Moon and Mars? What's the big deal? What will that mean to scientists and society if we find life currently alive on both the Moon and Mars?

Making use of Learning Sciences Research

Learning sciences research suggests the importance of helping students uncover (and confront) pre/misconceptions, develop expert-like thinking processes, transfer knowledge to new, unfamiliar situations, and build metacognitive skills. Intentionally linking JiTT questions to the principles summarized in How People Learn (2000) and Angelo and Cross (1993) increases the impact of JiTT pedagogy on student learning outcomes.
  • Making visible student pre/misconceptions about important course concepts and topics
    Students bring their own mental models of the world with them into our classes. As a result, what we think we are teaching them is not necessarily what they are learning. To address student pre/misconceptions, we first need to uncover them. JiTT questions like the following can help:
    • Explain what causes the seasons of the year.
    • Explain how prices are determined in a competitive market economy.
    • Is the Earth really warming? Who should we believe? What should we do?
  • Developing expert-like thinking processes
    Experts are able to quickly assimilate new information into structured frameworks, creating new knowledge. JiTT questions that help students organize new ideas or link new information to prior knowledge (either from their lives or earlier in the course) help to develop expert-like thinking. For example:
    • What are Neanderthals? Compare and contrast the characteristics of Neanderthals with those of modern humans. How do they differ and how are they alike?
    • What are the differences between deterministic and stochastic models for population growth? Which model best describes population growth over the last decade? Over the last century? Over the last millennium?
    • For each of the following human senses, list the organ involved, its location on the body, the sense's function, and why the sense is important for survival: (1) olfaction, (2) gustation, (3) hearing, (4) vision.
  • Improving transfer of knowledge from one learning environment to another
    JiTT exercises provide opportunities for students to apply concepts in new ways, helping to build a deeper and more durable understanding of concepts. For example:
    • Use an example from your own life to illustrate the concept of cause and effect. If you were graphing your example on a two-dimensional graph, what would be on the axes? What would the graph look like?
    • What is wrong with the thinking that if we were ever to clone a person like Einstein, a brilliant physicist, we would end up with another brilliant physicist?
    • A professor overheard a bar conversation between two Texans (true story). One claimed that the 1990 Formula 350 Firebird had a bigger engine than the 1995 5.7 L Trans Am Firebird because "back then" they didn't have to worry about fuel economy. The other argued that Pontiac increased the size from 350 cubic inches to 5.7 L in response to high sales of the 5.0 L Ford Mustang. Who is right? How do you know?
  • Promoting self-regulated, reflective learning
    JiTT can be used to build students' metacognitive skills, critical for life-long learning. Include questions like the following with each JiTT exercise.
    • After completing this exercise, what concepts or ideas are still unclear to you? Please provide a brief explanation.
    • Please use the space below to share your thoughts about today's assignment (what seemed impossible, what reading didn't make sense, what we should spend class time on, what was "cool", etc.).
    • In addition to determining the answer to the question, please explain the steps you used to arrive at your answer.

Using Questions Developed by Others
ConcepTests are conceptual multiple-choice questions that are used for in-class formative assessment, often incorporating classroom response systems and used in conjunction with Peer Instruction (references). ConcepTests often make good questions for JiTT exercises.