Peer Instruction

Overview
Implementation Guide

Common challenges

  • My students aren't talking to each other.
    Effective implementation of Peer Instruction requires carefully setting up expectations. This style of peer discussion may be unlike anything your students have encountered in a science class before, and may take some getting used to. Explaining why you are implementing this method and what you expect them to do will help. During ConcepTests, you (and your teaching assistants and/or learning assistants) can try walking around the class and facilitating discussions if students are not talking. One way to do this is to ask one student what they think, then ask another if they agree or disagree, and why or why not.
  • My students complain that they don't like Peer Instruction.
    Students may initially be uncomfortable with teaching methods that are unfamiliar and require them to engage in new (and often more difficult) ways.  Instructors who have implemented these methods report that explaining what you are doing and why can help make students more comfortable, and that students can eventually get used to and come to appreciate interactive engagement methods.

    For ideas about how to explain the benefits of interactive engagement methods to students, see Steve Pollock's FAQ page on Tutorials in Introductory Physics and Peer Instruction for his students, or this suggestion from Eric Mazur in Peer Instruction:

    "I argue that it would be a waste of their time to have me simply repeat what is printed in the textbook or the notes. To do so implies that they are unable to read, and they ought to be offended when an instructor treats them that way. I explain how little one tends to learn in a passive lecture, emphasizing that it is not possible for an instructor just to pour knowledge in their minds, that no matter how good the instructor, they still have to do the work. I challenge them to become critical thinkers, explaining the difference between plugging numbers into equations and being able to analyze an unfamiliar situation."

    Many instructors also find that there are only a few vocal students who dislike the new methods, while a less vocal majority actually appreciate them.  If this is the case, you can help bolster your own confidence, silence the vocal minority, and get useful feedback by giving students a survey about their impressions of your teaching methods early in the semester.  Sharing the results in aggregrate can help the vocal minority realize that they are a minority, and help everyone realize that you are taking their feedback seriously.
  • I can't get through all the material I need to cover.
    It is certainly true that you can't "cover" as much content when you take the time to have students actively work through it as you can when you simply explain it.  A good rule of thumb for Peer Instruction is that you will probably need to eliminate about 10% of your content.

    Since research suggests (see our Arguments for skeptical colleagues) that students don't learn much from lectures, simply covering the content may not be doing your students much good anyway.  Some advocates of interactive engagement argue that in order to achieve the more important goal of students actually understanding anything in your class, you need to give up on the goal of covering a lot of content.  Others recognize that institutional constraints often do not allow such a radical stance, and suggest that it is possible to use interactive engagement and still cover just as much content.

    One strategy that allows you to cover just as much content in your course, while still covering less in lecture, is to shift some of the content into out-of-class reading and/or homework.  One way to do this is with Just-in-Time Teaching.

Frequently Asked Questions

Other sites with lists of Frequently Asked Questions about Peer Instruction:

More Frequently Asked Questions:

  • Should I use clickers, flashcards, or show of hands?
    See our recommendation on Which polling method should I use for Peer Instruction? for tips on the advantages and disadvantages of clickers, flashcards, and show of hands.
  • Should I grade ConcepTests?
    If you use clickers, it is possible to grade student responses, either for completion or for correctness.

    Most advocates of peer instruction suggest that student responses to in-class questions count for some small percentage of their grade (2-15%) to encourage participation, attendance, bringing clickers to class, and taking clicker questions seriously. (However, for a dissenting view, see this blog post by Joss Ives.)

    Most advocates suggest grading only for participation, not for the correct answer, in order to emphasize that the goal of clicker questions is to help students learn, not to evaluate them. Research supports this view: James 2006 audio-recorded student conversations in two introductory astronomy classrooms with different grading techniques for Peer Instruction questions. They summarize their results as follows:
    "In the high stakes classroom where students received little credit for incorrect CRS responses, it was found that conversation partners with greater knowledge tended to dominate peer discussions and partners with less knowledge were more passive. In the low stakes classroom where students received full credit for incorrect responses, it was found that students engaged in a more even examination of ideas from both partners. Conversation partners in the low stakes classroom were also far more likely to register dissimilar responses, suggesting that question response statistics in low stakes classrooms more accurately reflect current student understanding and therefore act as a better diagnostic tool for instructors."
    If you do grade clicker questions for correctness, it's important to grade only those questions for which students can reasonably be expected to know the answer. Thus, questions that are intended to introduce students to a new topic, elicit student thinking, or help students engage with ambiguous ideas should not be graded.
  • Can I use Peer Instruction in small classes?
    Peer Instruction is often used in large classes because there are not many other ways to be sure of engaging every student in a large class. Instructors may be reluctant to use Peer Instruction in a small class because it seems artificial in an environment where you know all your students and it is possible to engage them in other ways. However, Peer Instruction has many benefits even in small classes. Joss Ives, in his blog post Why I use clickers in small courses, says:
    "Even in a class of 10, I find that there are usually some students that often do not feel comfortable discussing their understanding with the entire class. The clickers facilitate the argumentation process for these students in a smaller-group situation in which these students feel more comfortable, but are still help accountable for their answers. They help establish a culture where on most questions each student is going to be discussing their understanding with their peers. Clickers are not the only way to accomplish this, but are the way I do it."
  • Can I use Peer Instruction in upper-division classes?
    Peer Instruction was originally developed for introductory physics classes, but it can also be used in upper-division classes. The University of Colorado has implemented Peer Instruction in their upper-division E&M and Quantum Mechanics courses, and found that it is effective for student learning (Chasteen and Pollock 2009), and both instructors (Pollock, Chasteen, Dubson, and Perkins 2010) and students (Perkins and Turpen 2009) value it.

    Stephanie Chasteen, one of the leaders in the implementation of Peer Instruction at CU, describes how it works in several blog posts (part 1: What does it look like?, part 2: What kinds of questions do we ask?, part 3: The critics speak, and part 4: Tips for success) and several videos (Upper Division Clickers in Action, What Kinds of Questions Do We Ask in Upper Division?, and Writing Upper Division Clicker Questions).

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