Peer Instruction

Students Teach Each Other

Peer instruction is an interactive teaching method in which students discuss underlying concepts with each other during the lecture. Peer Instruction was originally invented by Eric Mazur, professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard University, in the early 1990's. Since then, the principles have been used, more or less systematically, in hundreds of university lecture halls. The underlying assumptions that this method builds on are:

  • Regular lectures seldomly allow students to practice critical thinking and will tempt students to take a surface approach to learning.
  • When students don't see the connection between different topics and have difficulties solving new/unknown problems, it is often because they lack a clear understanding of the underlying concepts in the curriculum.
  • Formative assessment and feedback are important parts of the learning process - but they are not a part of the design of a traditional lecture.
  • Using concept questions can improve students' understanding and ability to apply learning to new situations, enhance their critical thinking, and increase their enthusiasm for learning.

To address the issues mentioned above, Mazur made some rather radical changes to how he tought and still teaches his introductory physics classes, which have been shown to be successful within a range of different topics. The process is as follows:

  1. Instructor poses a multiple choice question (called ConcepTest in PI) based on students' responses to their pre-class reading
  2. Students reflect on the question
  3. Students commit to an individual answer (using a digital voting tool)
  4. Instructor reviews student responses
  5. Students discuss their thinking and answers with their peers
  6. Students then commit again to an individual answer
  7. The instructor again reviews responses and decides whether more explanation is needed before moving on to the next concept.

In this video, Eric Mazur explains his motivation for this method. 

How to Implement Peer Instruction in your Teaching

Teachers often find writing good concept questions (ConcepTests) to be time consuming and challenging. Some tips for writing good multiple choice questions are:

  • Be sure to make all answers realistic (e.g. use typical misconcpetions). This helps the student to think instead of just guessing.
  • Formulate questions succinctly and accurately.
  • Avoid negative phrasing, using words like 'not' as it is often overlooked or misunderstood.
  • Avoid making the correct answer significantly longer or in other ways notably different from the wrong ones.
  • Formulate incorrect answers that distinctly differ from one another.
  • Make sure that incorrect answers are on your students' knowledge level of knowledge.
  • Ask more questions that urge students to use higher order thinking skills than retrieving facts from memory.

You find more references on how to write multiple choice questions in the Readings and References below.

Supporting Peer Instruction with Learning Technology

  • Clickers – tangible student response devices you hand out to your students for Peer Instruction
  • PollEverywhere – student response web app that provides a code for voting. Free for up to 25 students/responses. Read pricing plan
  • CampusNet Polls – poll feature in your CampusNet group 
  • Adobe Connect Polls – poll feature if you’re teaching through Adobe Connect for Peer Instruction in distance teaching
  • Proprofs Quizmaker - web based tool for setting up quizzes and tests.
  • Wondershare QuizCreator - an application used to create Flash-based quizzes, tests and surveys.
  • Socrative - a student response system web app for computerbased voting. Free for up to 50 students/responses

Reading and References

Peer Instruction

How-To Peer Instruction

Step 1 - Pose a question based on what the students have studied and prepared at home – give them a few minutes to think

Step 2 - Students answer (vote with a clicker/CampusNet/mobile code) individually, thus making a commitment to your question and subject matter

Step 3 - The lecturer presents and summarizes the different answers - without giving the correct answer!

Step 4 - Now the students have to pair up and discuss their answers with one or more fellow students who have answered differently than themselves (or just with the ones nearby)

Step 5 - The students reply (vote) again – still individually

Step 6 - The lecturer elaborates on the answers and subject if necessary and corrects misassumptions.

- The lecture continues with the next question (start at 1 again!)