Spotlight, February 2012
Students in Professor Brian D’Onofrio’s P324 Abnormal Psychology class were certainly interested in the topics in the course. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders – these are topics with which many young adults have personal experience. But D’Onofrio’s undergraduates were largely unprepared for the intellectual demands of the class. Few students had much previous exposure to the terminology and disciplinary thinking of the course. And most students relied on course lectures to provide the basics covered in the textbook. Students were overwhelmed by the amount of information involved and, according to D’Onofrio, were “surprised by my expectations as a teacher of what would be required of them…I wanted them to ask questions in class and have more of a dialogue in the actual classes. The students weren’t really prepared to do that.”
Furthermore, D’Onofrio was not satisfied with his own “average” ratings as a teacher. As an accomplished scientist and clinical psychologist, he wanted his teaching approaches to be just as scientific as his research.
The Just-in-Time Teaching method provided some solutions to D’Onofrio’s teaching challenges. As part of the weekly textbook reading assignments for each chapter, students respond in writing to three questions that are submitted to Oncourse (via Assignments 2) the evening before class. Two of the questions require integration of content across a chapter or application of content to a problem. The third question asks students to identify questions or concerns they still have about the content. The morning before class, D’Onofrio and his teaching assistant prepare the day’s lecture based on response themes and common questions.
Assured that most students in his large lecture course (85-100 students per semester) are prepared with the basics, D’Onofrio “flips the class” so that lectures can focus on more advanced skills. “I was responsive to the students in class instead of regurgitating information…I’m assuming you know the definitions because you’ve read the book, I’m then going to answer your questions, and I’m then going to go into more complicated information, more problem-solving, [and] more critical thinking issues.” D’Onofrio now devotes a substantial portion of class time to critical thinking topics, such as case study analysis. In a typical class, D’Onofrio’s students refer to textbook content to suggest appropriate assessment tools for a case, conduct a differential diagnosis, and recommend empirically supported interventions. Because of the practice students receive in class with higher order skills, D’Onofrio has aligned his exams accordingly. “Since instituting [Just-in-Time Teaching]…I’m asking more difficult questions. I’m asking them to take their knowledge and apply it to new situations…instead of ‘what is the definition of this term?’” And students are performing just as well on these more difficult exams that focus on the skills he really wants them to learn.
For both the students and the instructor, Just-in-Time Teaching presented some time investments that have paid off in more efficient practice. D’Onofrio noted that students were shocked at first with the amount of work required. By the end of the semester, however, most students found Just-in-Time Teaching to be helpful to their learning. An overwhelming majority of the students reported that the Just-in-Time assignments were helpful, and several students appreciated how their learning process became more efficient and wished that other classes had employed this technique. For D’Onofrio, Just-in-Time Teaching required some up-front outlay in identifying questions and in tailoring lectures to students’ responses.
Using technology to support Just-in-Time Teaching, D’Onofrio spreads out student learning over the semester, engages students in metacognitive processes through active reading and reflective writing, and delivers student-centered lectures that emphasize student questions and misconceptions. D’Onofrio has been able to move both himself and his students beyond “average” with teaching practices that are grounded in sound cognitive science and that encourage advanced thinking skills among his students.
Brian D’Onofrio is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. He earned his PhD from the University of Virginia and studies developmental psychopathology, behavior genetics, and family systems.