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 FAQ page) 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.

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