This is another repost from an article I wrote on the great i>clicker blog.

As a follow-up to last month’s post, on research showing that peer discussion helps students learn I’d like to share a variety of the messages that are coming out of the research on clickers and peer instruction – with particularly pertinent implications for instructors.

1. Peer discussion versus instructor explanation of clicker questions

In last month’s post I shared research on why it’s important to have students talk to each other during a clicker question, because this is where much of the essential learning takes place. But what is the role of the instructor explanation? The authors of that last study set out to answer this question as well, by again using matched pairs of questions to assess student learning from clicker discussions; each question testing the same concept, but appearing different to the students. All students answered the first question in the pair individually, but then different groups of students experienced different forms of instruction:

  • Group 1 discussed the question with their neighbors, and were given the answer after discussion 
    (but the instructor did NOT explain the answer)
  • Group 2 did NOT discuss the question with their neighbors, but the instructor gave them their 
    own explanation
  • Group 3 had a combination of the two: They discussed the question with their peers, and then heard the instructor give an explanation of the question.

Then, all students answered the second, similar question on their own, which acted as a test of their learning of the concept.

The last, the combination approach, is how Peer Instruction is designed, but what this study does is to allow an empirical testing of the hypothesis that this will help students learn. 

What they found was very interesting.

  • BOTH peer discussion and the instructor explanation helped student learn (i.e., perform better on the second question)
  • However, the combination mode (where peer discussion was combined with peer discussion) resulted in the greatest student learning.
  • This combination mode was helpful for students, regardless of their ability level.
  • However, the situation where instructors only offered an explanation (without an opportunity for peer discussion) was particularly UNhelpful for stronger students, seeming to turn them off from the process.
  • In a non-majors’ course, the addition of peer discussion to the instructor explanation did not have as large of an effect as in the majors’ course – suggesting that perhaps non-majors do not see their peers as helpful learning resources.

Take-home message: Have students discuss clicker questions with their peers, but give them your explanation as well.

Source: Smith, Wood, Krauter and Knight, “Combining Peer Discussion with Instructor Explanation Increases Student Learning from In-Class Concept Questions,” CBE-Life Sciences Education, 10, 55-63 (2011).

2. The impact of instructor’s cues 

The same research team, headed by Jenny Knight, is currently investigating the impact of the cues that instructors give to students when they introduce a clicker question. Their research question is: “Do students engage in higher quality reasoning when instructors provide models of, and reminders to, use reasoning in their discussions?”

For this study, they have recorded, transcribed, and analyzed 72 different student conversations in introductory biology classes. When giving students a clicker question, instructors were told to either instruct students (a) please discuss this question, or (b) to tell students to discuss the question and remember to focus on reasoning in their discussion. In the latter group, students also viewed a short video demonstrating what is meant by “quality” reasoning in a conversation. 

They found a significant shift in the type of reasoning that students used in their conversations, such that students who got the cue to use reasoning were more likely to use reasoning, more likely to have both partners in the conversation use reasoning, and more likely to use evidence in that reasoning. They were also more likely to ask questions during their conversations to confirm their own reasoning, or express doubt about their partner’s reasoning.

I have also written previously on the importance of framing your use of clickers for your students, so that they know what is expected of them during your use of clickers: Getting students on-board with clickers and
peer discussion

Take home message: Remind students to use reasoning in their discussions, to prompt higher-quality conversations.

Source: Jenny Knight and Sarah Wise, University of Colorado. Unpublished work.

3. The impact of course credit

In my workshops, I often counsel instructors to give what I call the “whiff of credit” for participating in clickers – give students participation-only credit for clickers, with perhaps some small amount of extra credit (often offsetting a poor homework score) for the correct answer. I base that recommendation in large part on an interesting study by Shannon Willoughby. One caveat: The findings of this study are a little less clear than the others in this post. 

In this study, in an astronomy classroom, clicker questions were graded differently in two different sections, as below:

  • High-stakes: Clicker points given for correct answers (1 point for the correct answer only)
  • Low-stakes: Clicker points given for participation only (1 point for any answer)

Clickers were worth 4% of the student grades. They recorded and analyzed student conversations in these sections, and categorized the nature of the conversations. They also collected data on student performance on the clicker questions and on a conceptual test on the content.

Both groups of students got similar grades in the course, and similar scores on the conceptual test, suggesting that the grading incentive didn’t affect their learning of the material. They found that the type of conversations varied quite dramatically based on the type of credit given, such that the low-stakes groups were more likely to:

  • Have longer discussions (i.e., make more statements)
  • Say what they thought the answer was
  • Ask for clarification on the answer
  • Restate the question and ask a new question

So, giving students credit for getting the right answer to a clicker question doesn’t actually serve the purpose that instructors might hope that it would: to prompt student discussion. It appears to have the opposite effect, shutting down conversation to some degree.

Take home message: Use credit for participation-only in order to create a productive atmosphere for frank discussion.

Source: Willoughby and Gustafson, “Technology talks: Clickers and grading incentive in the large lecture hall,” American Journal of Physics, 77 (2) (2009). 

Other articles of interest:

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Do students learn by talking to each other?

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 30, 2014

Here is another re-post from an article I wrote on the i>clicker blog.


This month I’d like to highlight a study which I think is crucially important in cementing the value behind peer instruction. It’s not new work anymore, but it so elegantly answers a key question – “do students learn by talking to each other?” – that it’s worth revisiting.

Peer Instruction is a method of using clickers to help deepen students’ understanding of material by asking students a question to consider on their own, they vote, and then they talk to their neighbors. After this peer discussion, students vote a second time, and the instructor holds a whole class discussion about the results. This method was popularized by Eric Mazur, who showed that students converged to the right answer after discussing with their peers, as in the following graph of student responses, adapted from his book Peer Instruction:

Before Discussion After Discussion
Results chart before discussion Results chart after discussion

Students converge on answer “B” after discussion (which is the correct answer). But this begs the question, are they learning, or is the right answer just spreading around through discussion?

Some of my colleagues at the University of Colorado came up with an elegant way to test this. This paper was published in Science magazine in 2009 (Smith et al., Science, 323 (5910): 122, 2009;). The researchers reasoned, if students learn from discussion, then they should be able to apply that new understanding to better answer a similar question. They developed 16 pairs of questions – each pair of questions looked different to students (they had a different “cover story”) but actually tested the same idea. The authors showed these question pairs to two independent experts, who agreed that these “isomorphic questions” indeed tested the same content.

The study went like this: First, they showed the first question (Q1) to students, who thought about it and answered it on their own. Then, they asked students to turn to their neighbors to discuss the question, and they voted again. Finally, students were shown the isomorphic (Q2) question, and asked to answer it on their own. Thus, Q2 served as a ‘test’ question, to determine how much students learned from their discussions. Data was gathered from 350 students in this study. The study design is outlined below: 
StudyDesignOutlineSo what did they find? Students were better able to answer Q2 than they were able to answer Q1, showing that (most) students learned from discussion with their peers – see the graph below.

Chart results
So, 20% more students, on average, were able to answer Q2 correctly after having talked to their neighbors. Even more compelling, if we look at the students who got the first question wrong when answering on their own, 77% of those students got Q2 right (caveat; this was true only for those students who got Q1 right after discussion). So, students were able to apply new understanding, gained through discussion with peers, to answer a novel question correctly.

Another compelling part of the study shows that students can piece together the right answer even when nobody in the group originally has the right answer. It’s very interesting to look at student responses to the question by difficulty level (see graph below). You can see that, for easy and medium questions, about 10-15% more students get Q2 correct than Q1, showing modest gains in understanding. But results are rather surprising for the most difficult questions – where only about 20% of the students get the answer to Q1 right on their own, so very few students know the answer in advance. There is a proportionally huge gain for these questions, with 50% of students answering them correctly after discussion. Statistically speaking, on these difficult questions, it was impossible for every student group to have a student who had the correct answer to start with – but these groups were able to arrive at the correct answer. Students are able to construct their own knowledge through discussion.Chart2On end-of-semester surveys, students also indicated that they don’t need a student with the correct answer in order for their group to make sense of the question. One example quote: “Discussion is productive when people do not know the answers because you explore all the options and eliminate the ones you know can’t be correct.” 

So, the take-home message is:
1. Students learn through discussion with their peers, as they are able to synthesize and make sense of a 
question together
2. Peer instruction does not work primarily by transmitting the correct answer from student to student

Therefore, it’s important to include peer discussion of questions – and to use challenging questions – in your use of clickers.

In future posts, I’ll look at some more of the research behind the effective use of clickers.

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New videos on undergraduate biology instruction

May 20, 2014

I’m happy to share the news about a new set of Creative Commons videos on undergraduate instruction – the Scientific Teaching series from iBiology:  These videos are all Creative Commons licensed so you can use them in your workshops, etc.  They have a newsletter you can sign up on to find out about new releases, […]

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How can you make a “good” clicker question GREAT?

May 16, 2014

This is another re-post of a blog post at the i>clicker blog. —- Sometimes we can be lucky enough to have access to a great set of clicker questions (see, for example, the list at But often a good set of questions for our course doesn’t exist, or another instructor’s questions don’t quite fit. Or, […]

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Getting students on-board with clickers and peer discussion

May 2, 2014

I have been blogging recently for the i>clicker blog (which has a lot of great articles on clicker use).  With their permission, I am reposting some of my articles here. —- I work a lot with faculty who are considering using clickers and peer instruction. Many faculty confide in me that they are concerned that students […]

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Free #clicker webinar: Facilitating Peer Instruction Effectively

January 25, 2014

I’m giving two free webinars this coming Wednesday on the use of clickers in the classroom to promote student discussion.  I’ve given a lot of these and they’ve always been very well received, come join us, it should be a good time!  Each is one hour long. 11 am PT / 2pm ET:  Recording  (I […]

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George Washington U. clicker workshop – Dec 10th

December 10, 2013

I am giving a workshop at George Washington University on the effective use of clickers, along with my wonderful colleague Stefanie Mollborn from Sociology.  This is a four-part half-day workshop, including information on facilitation, question writing, and tips for success. Do you want to learn how to use clickers – or any student voting technique […]

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Why I donated to PhET for #GivingTuesday

December 3, 2013

When I first came to CU from the Exploratorium — the premiere hands-on, “tinkering” science museum in the world — I was pretty disdainful about the idea of spending a lot of resources creating interactive simulations.  These aren’t hands-on, I thought, they’re fake, they’re missing the point.  Then I got to know the PhET simulations ( […]

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PhET is looking for a K12 specialist!

October 30, 2013

I work part-time with the PhET Interactive Simulation project (, which many readers are familiar with.  They have a rare position open, focusing on simulation design and use at the K12 level, and I wanted to share with you all!  Please share this announcement with others who might be interested. The online posting can be found […]

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Getting students to buy-in to non-traditional instruction

August 26, 2013

As the new semester is starting up, many of you are considering how to best promote student engagement in your course  – especially if you use non-traditional, research-based forms of instruction such as clickers, student discussion, or group work. We have a compiled set of approaches and materials, representing how instructors around the country help to […]

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PhET Simulations: Now on tablets! And a new logo!

August 21, 2013

Two big announcements from the PhET Interactive Simulations project! New!  Now for touch screens! First, PhET has been working their techie little butts off for quite a while to port their simulations over to HTML5.  No, I didn’t know what HTML5 was before this project started either.  It doesn’t really matter except that (a) it’s […]

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Clickers 101: Free webinar on Weds

August 19, 2013

Are you a college faculty member interested in clickers?  Come to our free, introductory webinar on Wednesday, 10:00 PT / 1:00 ET. To register, and for other webinars in this series, see (Note the session on October 30th geared towards humanities and social sciences, by my colleague Angel Hoekstra at CU Boulder). Handouts and slides […]

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Series of workshops on clickers and learning goals

August 19, 2013

I just completed a series of workshops on writing learning goals and using clickers to help with student achievement of those learning goals. You can find all the workshop materials on our website at the Science Education Initiative.  (Look for Past Workshops).  Includes handouts and slides, and you can download a zip of all materials. […]

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Postdoc job to transform UG courses at Colorado + STEM Center Director in Boston

July 26, 2013

Looking for a postdoc position in science educational research and course transformation?  Two exciting opportunities here at CU Boulder; these are fairly similar positions to my work here in the Science Education Initiative.  I get a lot of queries about where to find such positions, so hopefully this announcement will get out there to the […]

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How math anxiety affects performance (#PERC2013)

July 24, 2013

My other favorite talk at AAPT/PERC was by Sian Beilock (University of Chicago, Psychology), titled “Academic Performance under stress.”  Who would have guessed that from such an innocuous title would spring an intensely interesting, well-researched, sparklingly-clear exposition.  It is so refreshing to find a speaker who has clearly worked hard to communicate her field, and I’m […]

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Transformative experiences in science education (#AAPTsm13, #PERC2013)

July 23, 2013

One of the better talks at AAPT/PERC last week was one by Kevin Pugh of the University of Northern Colorado (Psychology dept).   Kevin discussed the psychology of a phenomenon that we are probably all implicitly familiar with as instructors, but wouldn’t generally consider to be the topic of scholarly work:  Under what conditions does […]

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Moving beyond telling faculty about educational innovations #aaptsm13

July 18, 2013

This post details a talk by Chandra Turpen about how faculty decide to adopt new instructional methods. A lot of previous work by Charles Henderson and Melissa Dancy has shown that the “develop and disseminate” model doesn’t work.  This is business-as-usual for educational innovators:  We develop innovations, share them at conferences and in papers, explain […]

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The history of Physics Education Research (PER) #aaptsm13

July 17, 2013

One session at AAPT is focusing on the history of physics education research (PER).  Karen Cummings (Southern Connecticut) was commissioned to write a report on the history of Physics Education Research (PER), along with others in biology, chemistry, earth science, etc.  All these papers were compiled into a book on the status of Discipline Based […]

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Feist and frustration in science #aaptsm13

July 17, 2013

I’m having a great time at the AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) summer meeting, and I have had so many people mention helpful blog posts from previous conferences that I thought I should try to sharpen my blogging-pen and do a little live-blogging from the sessions. An interesting talk just now from Jennifer Richards […]

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Postdoc available: Transform biology courses at CU Boulder

May 30, 2013

Are you a biologist looking for a good way to get into education and education research?  This is a great opportunity.  My program, the Science Education Initiative at CU Boulder is seeking a candidate to assist with undergraduate course transformation efforts. —- The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EBIO) and the Science Education Initiative […]

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