Peer Instruction and Clickers

A trip up the motorway this week and I was in Manchester for the Turning Technologies User Conference. I had high hopes for the day but was also prepared to be disappointed (sorry) as these events are often really only people talking about what they, and others, already do … and I’ve heard a great deal about TurningPoint and the uses of clickers in classrooms before.

Thankfully, I was disappointed. It was better than I expected. The sessions were a careful mix of experience and theory, case studies and chat. More than this, the opening from Prof. Eric Mazur helped me formalise some previous thoughts and discussions, and put a name to what I’d being doing … Peer Instruction. 

So, what is Peer Instruction, and how can it be used with question / answer clicker handsets? Firstly, forget the concept that the use of clickers must test knowledge in a right / wrong, either / or question format. Yes, they can, but that is not the be all and end all. You ought to think about using the clickers to poll ideas or opinions, question backgrounds or morals, and use the questions as a before / after method to monitor debates and the changes of opinions or thoughts.

With Peer Instruction, and using the clickers both before and after the debate, you use the clickers to pose the ‘question’:

  • The question may or many not have a right / wrong answer, but this is not actually the point of it. Pose the question and ask the class to keep their answers private, for the moment.
  • Ask the class to turn to their neighbour and find out if they had the same answer. If not, find out what they had and why, and see if you can convince them that you are right (if you know the right answer, or, if you’re unsure, be convinced or a different answer). If your neighbour has the same answer as you find someone else who had a different answer, and find out why.
  • Yes, it’ll get noisy, so be prepared for it, and allow (even embrace) it.
  • After a set time (2-5 minutes) see if the class was able to change each other’s mind. Re-poll the same question to the class and then compare the results.

Prof. Eric Mazur uses the 70/30 rule for the questions and answers – the questions should be easy enough that 70% of the class can get the answer right first time, and hard enough that more than 30% can get it right. You also know the questions are aimed at the right level when the second attempt shows an improvement in scores.

What happens in the class is that the students spend less time trying to share the right answer and more time and effort trying to convince their neighbour about the reasons why they think they’re right. Students who have just made the journey, for the first time, to gain that specific learning point are more passionate about how they gained that knowledge, and more likely to share the journey than the actual point.

Amazing! And to prove it we did an example question about thermal dynamics of a steel plate (of which none of us were experts, or even remotely interested). With a hole in the middle. If you heated the plate up uniformly would the hole increase in size, decrease, or stay the same. We were polled (not shown our results) and then asked to talk to our neighbours about what we chose and why. Then the ‘ah ha’ moment … lots of talk, noise, and passionate waving of arms as we tried to demonstrate and convince our neighbours about the change in the hole size

What we did was engage each other, completely and utterly, in something we had no knowledge of. We immersed ourselves in the process, and this was the point of the exercise. Not the actual result of whether the hole in the steel plate grew or shrank under heating It grows!), but the ability to question, query, and engage the class in critical discourse, and provide the opportunity for learning through directed peer instruction.

Another book to add to my (growing) list of books to read is Prof. Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction, A Users Manual, and another blog to add to my feed (if I managed one properly) is the blog for the Peer Instruction community.

Image source: tanakawho (CC BY-NC 2.0)