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Making Peer Instruction Work

Contributed Article - October 2009

Dr. Eric Mazur
Author: Dr. Eric Mazur
Chairman of Turning Technologies' Instructional Strategies Advisory Committee


While learning activities have proven to be very effective, students may not accept a change in lecture format with open arms. They are accustomed to traditional lectures and might not be convinced that the new format will help them achieve more. Because full student collaboration is essential to the success of Peer Instruction, it is important to motivate students early on and create an environment that encourages student interaction and collaboration. Here are four tips for making Peer Instruction work in your class.

1. Introduce the new format.
On the first day of class, I announce that I will not lecture straight out the textbook or from my notes. To do so would imply that they are unable to read — they should be offended when an instructor treats them in such a manner. I challenge students to become critical thinkers and explain the difference between plugging numbers into equations and the ability to analyze an unfamiliar situation, a skill that will benefit them in their future careers. To drive the point that memorization is fruitless, I announce that they can use the book or a formula sheet on examinations.

At the end of the first lecture, I give a questionnaire to survey their attitudes toward learning and toward the subject. Usually, the results of the questionnaire show that a sizable portion of the student still expect to be lectured in the traditional way. It is vital that students’ expectations conform more closely to what will actually happen in class. Therefore in the second lecture, I hand out the results of the questionnaire and use fifteen minutes of class time to discuss it with students.

2. Set the stage for cooperation, not competition.
It is important to create a classroom atmosphere of cooperation rather than competition. In my opinion, the best way to diffuse a competitive environment is to use an absolute grading scale. I issue worksheets that allow students to track their progress and determine their final grade. No student’s grade will drop because others have done better.

The same atmosphere of cooperation is required for the convince-your-neighbor discussions that occur between polls using Turning Technologies’ response system. I therefore tell students that their performance on the ConcepTests, short multiple choice questions that focus on a single concept, will have no bearing on their final grade. I want the learning environment completely free of any pressure or competition. Although students are required to participate in the ConcepTests, the correctness of their answer does not factor into their grade.

3. Encourage preparation for class.
A key success factor is to get students to complete their reading assignments ahead of the lecture. Although I strongly recommend using Just-In-Time-Teaching rather than reading quizzes to motivate students to prepare for class, I have used reading quizzes in the past using student response systems and paper forms. For those instructors not ready to implement Just-In-Time-Teaching, reading quizzes administered electronically (using TurningPoint) allow for automated grading. From these quizzes, students earned 10 bonus points toward their final grade, which is based on a 100-point scale. The overall effect of the bonus points is minor. The students, however, gladly take advantage of the opportunity to earn additional points.

4. Mix assessment types.
I include both conceptual essay questions and conventional problems on examinations. This mix is essential because exams determine the way students study. Each problem carries the same weight because giving conceptual problems less weight would favor those who manage to solve problems by rote. At the beginning of the term, I issue a number of review exams pointing out the conceptual problems.

The goal is to change the student’s attitude right from the beginning. Better learning outcomes are reached when students are encouraged to participate in Peer Instruction and believe these modifications to traditional instructional techniques and assessment items enable them to learn more and perform better.


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