Feature Friday: Peer Instruction

#TeacherTips for Computer Science Teachers


If you are a university student, you have probably been asked at some point to buy clickers for use in one of your classes. 

Maybe your teacher used them for attendance. Or maybe a multiple choice quiz that they had everyday at the beginning or end of class. Either way, clickers seemed like a semi-useful thing to give teachers multiple-choice data from students without having to collect paper. 

But are they really useful???

Over the past ten or so years, I have worked with Dr. Beth Simon studying the effects of clickers in computer science classrooms - but when we use clickers we always associate them with Peer Instruction.

Peer Instruction is a pedagogy where lectures are broken up into small sections, and each section has 6 parts:

Image taken from Dr. Beth Simon

Image taken from Dr. Beth Simon

The instructor will spend significant time and effort to create a series of multiple-choice questions that will promote in-depth discussions about misconceptions, difficult concepts, and interesting points related to the topic of the class. 

For each question, the instructor will give students 2-5 minutes to answer the question individually. Then students will have a chance to discuss in groups of 2-3 students for 3-5 minutes. Students will then vote a second time, either required to come to a consensus (if there is one right answer to the question) or voting on their own based on the discussion with their peers. The instructor will then show both graphs; the one where students voted individually, and the one where students voted after discussing with their peers. Often times this will yield some interesting findings (e.g. a lot of people who originally chose D moved to A). A class-wide discussion begins, followed up by a wrap-up by the instructor. 

In between each question, the instructor might do 5-10 minutes of "mini-lecturing" to get students to the next question. 

The Individual Vote

It's very important to give students time to vote individually because it gives students the chance to make a decision and have reasoning for that decision. It primes the students to be able to discuss with their peers and listen to alternative thoughts. Without this chance, students are more likely to just vote based on the ideas of the most outspoken member of their group.

The Group Discussion

The group discussion is really important because it allows students to defend their answers, use the language of the discipline to explain their reasoning, and even work through problems on paper if appropriate. Furthermore, it allows peers to put the complex concepts into words that students can understand. As an expert computer scientist, I might throw words around that are unfamiliar to my students. By allowing students to explain to each other, the instructor gives more of a chance for concepts to be explained in simpler terms, allowing them to be understood more easily. 

The Class-Wide Discussion

Led by the differences in results between the individual votes and votes after the group discussion, the class-wide discussion will often highlight mis-conceptions and give students the chance to ensure their group discussions were accurate. Since students have already had a chance to discuss with each other, they are more likely to have the confidence to discuss in class, and even ask questions. If, for example, a large portion of the class got an answer incorrect, and they were able to discuss with their peers to find that no one in their group fully understood the concept, a student is more likely to have the confidence to ask the instructor to further explain AND the instructor will have more feedback to realize that they should probably further explain. 

Instructor Wrap-Up

Now that students have had a chance to fully discuss the concept, the instructor can take time to put the concept in the more expert terms, tie it back to the bigger picture, or tie it to the next concept. This allows the students to see why what they just discussed was important, and how they should be able to remember and apply it in the future. 

Let's Chat!

Tweet at as, Snapchat us, Instagram us, or Facebook us with questions you have about Peer Instruction, times when you have had a great peer instruction class, or times when it wasn't so great! We want to hear about your experiences and your thoughts/questions!

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