Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy

Table of Contents

Just-in-Time Teaching and Peer Instruction

Bryn Hughes, The University of Miami

We’ve all been there. Our students have just turned in a lengthy homework assignment, or completed a difficult midterm exam. On the schedule for the day is an entirely new topic. You’ve dutifully suggested a reading from the textbook in preparation for the day’s lecture. You’ve carefully selected musical examples and part-writing exercises that perfectly complement your lecture. Nevertheless, your students view this as a “free day.” They come to class, sure, but they haven’t read their textbooks. They’re not even planning to fully engage with what you’re about to discuss until they try the homework assignment, which is due two days from now.

Try as I might to be the most charismatic “Sage on the Stage” in my classroom, I’ve come to realize that lecturing in this situation is a remarkably inefficient way to facilitate my students’ learning of material (especially new material). I began to incorporate flipped pedagogy in my teaching in an attempt to give my students the opportunity to make the most efficient use of our time together in class. Just-in-Time Teaching and Peer Instruction are two techniques that I’ve used to achieve this.

Just-in-Time Teaching

Although laden with a title that sounds like business jargon, Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT) is simply a way of priming your students in preparation for an upcoming class. Students are given an exercise, usually an online quiz, pertaining to the topic to be discussed in the subsequent meeting. Prior to class, the instructor reads through the students’ responses and tailors the lesson according to any problems and/or questions raised on the quiz. This creates a “positive feedback loop” between the teacher and the students, and it forces students to become active learners.

How does Just-in-Time Teaching benefit students?

Students are more prepared

By engaging students outside of class, JiTT forces students to be more prepared for an in-class lesson. As a result, students take more ownership of their learning experience. When students complete JiTT tasks, they have a better idea of what’s going to happen in class and will be more invested because they’ve already invested their own time. Interestingly, even when students know they are going to be quizzed immediately following a lecture, and therefore highly motivated to pay attention, some studies have shown JiTT quizzes given before class to have a greater impact on actively engaging students.

Cyclic reinforcement of concepts

When JiTT exercises are given routinely, students are given consistent practice and conceptual reinforcement. This is particularly useful for subjects that require cumulative knowledge and fluency with material, like music theory.

Student-teacher feedback is more efficient

A good teacher will use students’ homework as a means of guiding future lessons. However, there are a few differences between JiTT exercises and regularly assigned homework. Typically, homework is collected at the start of a class and returned during the following class, at the earliest. While issues with the homework may be addressed upon its return, this still leaves several days between students’ initial attempts and the resolution of any difficulties encountered in these attempts. Because JiTT exercises are submitted and graded between classes, student-teacher feedback is much more efficient.

Students become exploratory learners

The nature of the material covered on JiTT exercises also tends to differ from traditional homework. Most people who use JiTT use it as a way of introducing a topic; the exercises are therefore exploratory and deal with things that students have likely never encountered. Students are encouraged to make their best attempt, but they are also reminded that it is OK to fail, because their difficulties will be addressed in the upcoming class meeting.

How does Just-in-Time Teaching benefit teachers?

Lesson planning is more efficient and (eventually) takes less time

Carefully planned JiTT assignments allow the teacher to prioritize the most difficult tasks and concepts based on student responses. Moreover, JiTT tasks can free up time for more complex in-class tasks by moving simpler tasks outside of class. If your JiTT exercise responses indicate that all of your students are clearly fluent with the basics, you can design your lesson around more challenging material.

Course and instructor assessment

Frequent JiTT exercises keep the teacher consistently abreast of how well students understand the course material. Not only does this allow teachers to tailor future lessons to specific student needs, it provides them with a measurement of student preparation, and in turn a measurement of their teaching effectiveness. Taking this further, some teachers will give the same JiTT quiz twice: once before class, and once immediately following the lecture. The difference in scores gives some indication of the success of the class on that day. This kind of measurement could also be useful for coordinators of courses that use multiple instructors to teach several sections of the same class. Course coordinators could closely monitor section instructors and address problem areas. With a constant stream of assessment data, instructors can more accurately gauge the effectiveness of their course design and classroom teaching.

What are JiTT’s drawbacks?

JiTT tasks don’t necessarily correlate with student learning

While JiTT seems to positively impact students’ class experiences and enjoyment, as Kyle Beidler and Lauren Panton report in their summary of empirical work done on this topic, its impact on students’ success on higher-level, higher-stakes tasks such as tests and exams is less tangible. Studies by David B. Daniel and John Broida, and Mark G. Urtel et al suggest that there is no significant correlation between JiTT and exam scores. Conversely, studies by Jonathan Kibble, John L. Dobson, and Kibble again, argue that there is a much stronger link between JiTT-style quizzes and more formal types of assessment. My experience, which corresponds with those reported by Scott Simkins and Mark Maier, and many of the authors cited throughout this essay, suggests that JiTT is worthwhile solely for its positive impact on students’ excitement and interest, and its usefulness as a class organizing tool, regardless of its measurable correlation with things like exam grades.

JiTT tasks aren’t necessarily well-suited for certain subjects

JiTT was born out of instructors becoming fed up with the antiquated pedagogy used in large, lecture-driven classes. In my experience, very few music theory classes are taught in this way; most good music theory teachers already recognize the importance of an active classroom. Furthermore, JiTT tasks typically involve relatively low-level assessment, such as multiple choice questions and short prose responses. The music theory teacher may find that these response modes lack sophistication and usefulness, especially those without the ability to incorporate music notation and sound.

JiTT tasks need to be incentivized in order for students to take them seriously

JiTT’s linchpin is, of course, that students must complete their JiTT task in order for it to be successful. Failure to do so could potentially make class even less engaging for students than a traditional lecture, which could lead to a decreased incentive to attend class at all. Since students are rarely motivated to complete work without receiving credit, teachers implementing JiTT must allocate a portion of the overall grade to JiTT tasks. Without receiving some kind of “tangible” grade, students become increasingly apathetic towards JiTT tasks, perhaps even to the point of carelessly guessing answers. More open-ended question formats, such as short prose responses, will prevent random guessing, but these are more difficult to grade.

The problem is compounded by the fact that JiTT tasks are meant to be exploratory. Often, the content covered on JiTT tasks has yet to be encountered in class. Students are asked to make their best effort, and are not to be discouraged if they can’t find “the right answers.” This makes it difficult to assign quantifiable grades to JiTT tasks. Students may find it unfair if JiTT tasks are graded on accuracy, and justifiably so. Conversely, the teacher could base grades on JiTT tasks entirely on effort; however, this may eventually also lead to student apathy, or at least decreased focus during the process of completing the tasks.

One solution to this problem is to include some drill-based review in addition to exploratory questions on JiTT tasks. These questions could be graded for accuracy, while other questions could be graded based on effort alone. Alternatively, one could grade JiTT tasks on effort alone, but offer “bonus credit” for correct answers. Another somewhat draconian possibility would be to use JiTT tasks as “entry tickets” to class; if you don’t have a ticket, you’re not given admission.

None of these solutions are perfect. In my classes, I differentiated JiTT tasks from in-class quizzes, assignments, and projects when calculating the final grade. The tasks were graded for accuracy automatically through our school’s LMS. Acknowledging that this was mildly unfair, to compensate I allowed students to retake the quizzes after the lesson, provided that they made an honest first attempt before class. Thankfully, our LMS tracked every attempt, so this was relatively easy to discern. I counted the highest grade, however, in the future I may choose to average all attempts in order to further encourage students to do their best on the first try.

Workload can potentially get out of control

JiTT is most successful if tasks are done routinely so that they can impact day-to-day class preparation. Instructors must be careful, though, not to let JiTT tasks grow into full-fledged homework assignments. This could potentially cause both student and instructor workload to grow out of control. We can’t use JiTT as a means of turning a class that meets three times per week into a class that meets five times per week.

Using JiTT for teaching music theory

As I mentioned before, music theory doesn’t immediately seem like a subject well-suited for implementing JiTT tasks that are restricted to the most basic of response modes (multiple choice, short prose answer, etc.). I initially only used JiTT tasks for simple conceptual questions that students could easily answer by reading the textbook. As long as I put a considerable amount of thought into how the questions were asked, the limited question formats were not restrictive. The questions allowed students to get acquainted with a new topic so that we could dive into more complicated, hands-on material in class sessions.

When my class started to deal with longer and more complex music, I found that JiTT worked particularly well as a means of encouraging students to listen closely to the pieces we planned to discuss in class. I am always hesitant to allocate 10-15 minutes of class time solely for passive listening activities. When students listen to and begin analyzing a piece outside of class, we can spend in-class time focusing on close analysis of the most interesting and difficult passages.

Peer Instruction (PI)

Like JiTT, Peer Instruction (PI) creates a “positive feedback loop” between teacher and students; although unlike JiTT, PI occurs during class. PI is an interactive in-class pedagogical method pioneered by Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard University. His presentation “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer,” provides a history and overview of PI, much of which is discussed in more detail in his 1996 book and on his work group’s website. Essentially, PI hinges upon the notion that a new concept is most effectively explained by someone who has recently assimilated that concept. PI classes are structured around “ConcepTests”: brief, conceptual quizzes completed during class, targeted to identify difficulties and promote student discussion.

Following a brief introduction, students in a PI class session are presented with a question that they must answer relatively quickly (within 1-2 minutes) using a “clicker” or other appropriate software.  The instructor peruses the summary of answers (provided by the clicker software) and moves the class forward in one of three ways: if very few students answered the question correctly, the concept is revisited in a mini-lecture; if most students answered correctly, the instructor confirms the answer and moves on.  If the results are mixed, students are told to “turn to their neighbors,” explain their respective answers, and then re-submit their responses. This cycle repeats until the instructor is confident that the majority of students are ready to move forward.

PI and JiTT are often used in combination, with PI class sessions preceded by JiTT tasks that are due before the class meeting. The JiTT tasks allow the instructor to prepare appropriate ConcepTests that will be used for PI. Likewise, the results drawn from a PI class session can inform the instructor’s decisions about assigning out-of-class work.

Peer Instruction in the music theory classroom

Like JiTT, questions used for ConcepTests need to be very carefully constructed. Music theory instructors must be especially prudent when designing questions, given that the topic itself is not necessarily well-suited to the response modes afforded by most clicker platforms. If ConcepTests are too easy, too difficult, or simply involve the regurgitation of facts, students will have little to talk about during class discussions, which are the central focus of Peer Instruction.

Music theory topics such as cadences, phrase structure, and form are easily delivered through PI, and in fact, I’m sure many of us have been using this pedagogical method, perhaps without giving it a name, for many years. Recently, Kris Shaffer has written about his experiences using PI while teaching music theory and aural skills. Likewise, Philip Duker’s use of clickers for teaching could also be adapted to use PI.


I am not overly concerned about demonstrable correlations between PI or JiTT and exam scores. Exam scores are only one “piece of the puzzle,” and ultimately, our means of assessment should not be the guiding force on our pedagogy. JiTT and PI seem to encourage my students to have a more positive attitude and active engagement with the class. I have a more consistent line of communication open with my students, and I’m able to routinely evaluate my own teaching and lesson planning. These reasons make JiTT and PI beneficial enough for me.

(Part 1: The Basic Flip)
(Part 3: Inquiry-Based Learning)

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This work is copyright 2013 Bryn Hughes and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.