peer instruction

At his recent presentation in the Michigan League ballroom, Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur engaged the 250-person audience in an active learning exercise. An expert on the use of peer instruction in college courses, Mazur wanted the many teachers present to experience the power of this pedagogical strategy from a student perspective. So, using an example of question-based instruction from his own field, he provided a very brief explanation of thermal expansion, posed a multiple choice question that required application of the concept, and then guided those present through a 4-step exercise:

  1. Think silently about the question
  2. Commit to an answer (in this case, by using clickers)
  3. Find another 'student' who had a different answer and discuss the thinking behind each answer 
  4. Answer the question again.

The second set of answers was significantly more accurate than the first. Such a result generally follows such a peer instruction protocol, as much research has shown. Why? Through discussion, students shift their focus away from the answer itself and toward the thinking behind the answer, and those with the more accurate logic are generally able to make a more persuasive case. The demonstration also powerfully illustrated how such a technique can engage students emotionally as they become personally invested in learning and understanding the correct answer. The discussion created remarkable buzz in the room about thermal expansion--a topic that Mazur noted would unlikely generate such excitement if simply explained in lecture format. (You can get a sense of that buzz by watching a video of the event.)

In discussing the peer instruction technique, Mazur highlighted several strategies that can help engage all students in active learning, even in a very large course. These included: Read more »