Just-in-Time Online Materials Boost Student Engagement in Lecture

Just-in-Time Online Materials Boost Student Engagement in Lecture

Instructors:  Russell Berman and Mark Zoback
Department/School: Thinking Matters / VPUE
Course: Sustainability and Collapse (THINK 8) Autumn 2013

Course Description: Lecture, Blended
Audience: Up to 100 students
Schedule: Mondays and Wednesdays, 1:15 - 2:05 p.m., plus two discussion sections

Goals: One of the ultimate goals for the class was for the students to understand the complexity of global issues and sustainability through readings and discussion. “For example,” Zoback says, “[in regards to] energy, we can argue about the different kinds of energy sources, but the reality is that energy is about choices and having strategies: from going from sources of energy that are particularly harmful to the environment to those that are more beneficial. You can argue that we have to stop doing something and start doing something else. We may have to, over some period of time, and using some blueprint, stop doing something and transition to something else; but that can only be done if we’re respecting peoples’ right to national security and environmental protection. We’re just not free to make arbitrary choices. It is complicated but there are options.”

Berman also emphasizes his co-teacher’s goal of having the students understand the complexity of global issues: “We want them to understand that environmental issues elude simplistic answers,” he explains. In addition, Berman wants them to be able to look at the issue of climate change in the realm of larger global issues and assess that issue through both scientific and humanistic approaches.

Teaching & Learning Strategies:  Just-in-Time Teaching, Small Group Discussion, Papers, Projects, and Presentations

Mark Zoback and Russell Berman’s class is taught in a lecture style that, for the most part, is fairly traditional. The class meets twice a week for lecture and once more a week for section led by a teaching fellow. As Zoback says, the lecture style is his preferred strategy for teaching students because it allows him to get an idea of what his students are thinking and learning. “It’s good to hear from the students,” says Zoback. “They have a lot of preconceived ideas about these things and it’s important to hear what those ideas are. “

Berman adds that the class has evolved to be something he calls “partially flipped.” Each week he sends out “preparation slides” to the students via Coursework, Stanford’s learning management system, in a strategy also known as Just-in-Time Teaching. These slides anticipate the topics in the lecture to direct students to some of the specific material, include quotations that will be discussed, and pose questions to be presented in lecture. The “partial-flipping” method, Berman says, has so far been a success. “I will spend sometimes the first twenty or twenty-five minutes of the fifty-minute session in that kind of Q&A discussion,” he says. “I’ve found that this really amplifies the willingness of students to speak up.”

Out-of-Class Activities:  Students are expected to participate in group presentations made up of about four students each, to be presented to the class about a certain region of the world, and the challenges that global change is going to bring them. The students will also assess multiple strategies for fixing those challenges, says Zoback. The presentations, which will act in lieu of the class’ final exam, will allow the students to communicate those strategies in a multimodal tactic. “It’s kind of an interdisciplinary and sort of a topical approach and then we have this kind of idea of using multiple ways of communicating what the issues are,” explains Zoback.

In addition the final presentation, Zoback and Berman also make themselves available outside of class by encouraging students to sign up to have lunch with them at the Faculty Club. This offers a chance for students to not only engage in the class in a small-scale dynamic with their section leaders, but also makes the professors themselves more readily available for discussion outside of class. A field trip to Jasper Ridge, a biological preserve near Santa Cruz, is also tentatively being planned for the class.

In-Class Activities: 

Section: In addition to lecture, students attend weekly sections with their teaching fellow. This is a standard approach because it allows students to take in information during the larger lectures and focus on questions, answers, and small group discussion during section.

Q&A: The Question and Answer session that Berman spoke about offers a chance for students to pose questions directly to the professors, as well as offer up their own insights and responses to the preparation slides.

Lessons Learned: “’Less is more’ is the important lesson,” says Berman. In his past two years of teaching the class, he has found that there is simply no time to exhaustively cover everything in lecture that he would like to. And despite more material being covered in section, he adds, he has had to learn to condense as well as he can to make his fifty-minute class period as effective as possible. “I have to learn to focus on the key message, the key points,” he says. “But there’s lots in these very rich texts that just won’t be able to be discussed.”

Plans: There don’t seem to be many large changes on the horizon for the Sustainability and Collapse course. Although Zoback mentions that they are always looking at the curriculum, he and Berman only mention looking at possibly changing the current readings. Other than that, Bernam says, the course seems to be working very well. “We’re pretty happy with [the course],” he adds. “It’s really come into its own, it’s very successful.”


Prof. Russell BermanRussell A. Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, is a member of both the Department of German Studies and the Department of Comparative Literature.  He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.  He studies literature as part of cultural differences, especially between Europe and the United States, including different understandings of the environment and environmentalist politics.




Prof. Mark ZobackMark Zoback is the Benjamin M. Page Professor in Earth Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.  He does research on earthquakes and active faulting, optimizing recovery of natural resources, and minimizing the environmental impact of resource development.





Watch Berman’s AWTT talk on IHUM (the predecessor of Thinking Matters) and challenges in UG education.