Just in Time Teaching Primary Source Pre-Class Activity

This is an idea adapted from a presentation done at the Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium on Just-in-Time-Teaching (JiTT) from Jeff Loats, a professor of physics at MSU Denver. Essentially, the idea is to get students interacting with content before class-time so that they are intellectually prepared for when they actually come to class. This helps to be able to modify lesson plans based off of the student’s pre-existing knowledge of the subject.

Treat it like a mini primary source analysis activity before class.



Choose a primary source that goes along with the section you are teaching and has enough conceptual meat in it to spark some discussion. The Puck Political Cartoons are great for this because they are usually packed with historical allusions and information. Give it to students before the beginning of class – online, email, hand-out after prior class, etc.


Classroom Activity

When thinking about teaching a section on the labor struggles in the early 1900s, for example, before class, give students a small set of questions, usually one lower-level (multiple choice), one high-level (2-3 sentence essay), and one metacognitive question (open ended). Some sample questions could be:

  • Who is the focus of the primary source? (multiple choice)
  • Why is this political cartoon relevant? (2-3 sentence essay)
  • How does this primary source relate to our discussion of…? (open-ended)

The important thing with this activity is to ensure that students actively participate and it won’t take them too much time to complete. Reinforce to them that it is OK if they don’t know the answers to the questions, and encourage them to try to answer the question to the best of their abilities. Remember, you aren’t grading them based off of their prior knowledge, you are simply using these responses to guide classroom discussion.


Key Questions

  • To go along with the pre-class activity questions, you can ask them questions in class that relate to the primary source and the discussion.
  • How does the primary source relate to today? Does it have any relevance for some policy or issue that is prominent in our current culture?



  • Why regurgitate information that students already know? Take the information that you gather from the JiTT primary source activity and teach the students something new.
  • These pre-assessments don’t have to be graded (perhaps only on participation); they are only meant to assess student’s prior knowledge and inspire thoughtful discussion.
  • When analyzing primary sources, always keep in mind the Observe, Reflect, Question tool from the Library of Congress.
  • Tie the pre-class primary source in with the in-class discussion, and/or use another primary source that relates in some way to help guide the discussion.


Grade Level Recommendation

  • High School and Middle School


Skills Used

  • Preparation and Organization
  • Critical Thinking and Analysis
  • Visual and Content Literacy


Helpful Links

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