This is a continuation of last month’s post, summarizing the results of a recent literature review of Peer Instruction,  Research-Based Implementation of Peer Instruction: A literature Review. In this month’s post, I’ll review the results on how to use peer instruction effectively.

Peer instruction is the recommended use of clickers, following the following cycle:

  • Instructor lectures for a short time
  • Students vote individually using a clicker or other mechanism
  • Students discuss the question together (if the majority didn’t get it right)
  • The instructor explains the answer and holds a class discussion.

Here are the key questions addressed about peer instruction (PI) in this review.

1. Does it matter if students vote/think individually first?

Some instructors use a modified version of PI where the “vote individually” step is skipped. I’ve often wondered if this matters, since it seems really important for students to commit to an answer on their own before they can engage meaningfully in conversation. Students seem to agree with me: most students prefer having the individual time to think first, because (as summarized by the study authors), “(this) time forced them to think about and identify an answer to the question; they felt that this led them to be more active and engaged during the peer discussion,” letting them form their opinions without being influenced by others. Starting with the peer discussion led to more passivity. Only one study has directly measured some outcomes associated with students having time to think on their own (as opposed to asking student opinion): They found that, when students had time to think on their own, they spent more time arguing their ideas with their neighbors during peer discussion, suggesting that the conversation was of higher quality.

So, yes, it does seem to be important to give students time to think on their own before talking to their neighbors.

2. Does it matter if you show students the histogram (after the first vote)?

After students vote on their own, the instructor might show students how the class voted, or wait and have them discuss without knowing the class majority. I always advocate not showing the histogram, because I think it gives away the game and reduces the interest in discussion. The research on whether this is true is mixed: One study showed that students tended to converge to the more common answer when they saw histogram before their discussions, because they think that answer is correct. However, another study didn’t replicate those results. The current study authors suggest waiting until after discussion to show the results, to limit bias, but helping the confidence of those who got the correct answer initially.

3. When should you have students discuss the question?

When most of the students get the question right, it may not be worthwhile to have students turn to their neighbors to discuss. Several studies have confirmed this; students don’t learn as much from talking to their neighbors on easy questions, they learn the most when many students got the question initially wrong (during the individual vote). Even when the majority of the class get the question wrong (e.g. less than 35%), students still get benefit from talking about each other about the question. Above 70% correct in that initial vote, however, it may be best to skip the peer discussion.

4. Does peer discussion matter?

Some instructors might think that these gains can be achieved without having students talk to their neighbors; that it’s more efficient to explain the answer to the students rather than having them talk to each other. I have blogged about this before. Overall, the answer is yes, peer discussion does matter. Students are able to put together the correct answer through discussion, even if none of them knew the answer before. That suggests that the right answer isn’t spreading around the room, necessarily; students can construct their knowledge through discussion. Giving students more time to think about the question doesn’t get the same results; learning gains are highest when students talk to one another.

5. How much time should be given for voting?

This is not a very well-studied question, but one study suggested that students take longer to give an incorrect answer to an easy question than a correct answer, likely because those who know the answer can respond quite quickly. Difficult questions, however, take more time to answer, regardless of whether the student eventually votes with the correct or incorrect response. The authors of the current study suggest that when 80% of the students have voted, the instructor should give students a final countdown letting them know that they will end the vote soon.

6. How much does the instructor’s cues and explanation matter?

Since discussion is so important, what role does the instructor have to play? A lot! I’ve written about research on the instructor’s role before. Two studies have found that students learn the most when they discuss with their neighbors and the instructor gives their explanation for the answer; either one alone just doesn’t suffice. How the instructors cue students to discuss with their neighbor is also important; when students are told to discuss their reasons, rather than just their answers, students have much higher quality reasoning in their discussions.

7. Does grading matter?

I have written before about the pitfalls of giving credit for correct answers to clickers. This caution is mirrored in the current study; tying students’ grades to their ability to answer clicker questions correctly changes the dynamics of their conversation so that the discussion is dominated by one student, presumably the one that is more knowledgeable.

This research does have its limitations, such as little study of the relationship with student characteristics such as gender or underrepresented students. However, it can serve as useful guidance for instructors; the recommendations from the study are outlined in the graphic below.


Full reference:

Research-Based Implementation of Peer Instruction: A literature Review. T. Vickrey, K. Rosploch, R. Rahmanian, M. Pilarz, and M. Stains. CBE Life Sciences Education, 14(1), March 2015.

Reposted from my article on the iclicker blog.

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The history of Tutorials at CU Boulder

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 15, 2015

I’ve got a new short video to share, focusing on the history of Tutorials at CU, featuring our own Steven Pollock:

This is part of some work I’ve been doing for, which makes evidence-based resources available for physics instructors. All videos for the project, including our short introduction to Tutorials, can be found on the YouTube playlist.

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Everything you ever wanted to know about peer instruction: Part 1 (How PI Helps Students Learn)

June 2, 2015

Confused about what the literature recommends for best use of clickers? Want to have all the information summarized and synthesized for you in a nice, trustworthy reference? Well, I’ve certainly been hungry for such a reference, and now we have it: A team of scholars in chemistry education have just published a very comprehensive review across […]

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NSF 2015 Teaching and Learning video showcase – going on now!

May 11, 2015

This week there’s a great opportunity to learn more about lots and lots of NSF-funded STEM education projects.  Check out this showcase of more than 100 videos. The videos offer a 3-minute glance into the variety of innovative work being funded by the National Science Foundation in education. You can do stuff during this week: […]

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Free Webinar: ClickerStarter for College Faculty

April 28, 2015

I’m giving another free webinar for i>clicker next Tuesday, May 5th, at 3pm ET.  This is called “ClickerStarter for College Faculty” and is intended as a quick primer on the effective use of clickers for those who want an overview of the benefits and best uses of clickers. Have you heard about using clickers in class, […]

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Reacting to their votes: Instructor agility

April 10, 2015

You don’t know how your students will vote on a clicker question, but you can anticipate and prepare yourself for the likely outcomes. It’s really important to use a clicker system which lets you have a sneak-preview of student responses – as i>clicker does, shown below. This lets you “hold back” the histogram from students […]

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New meta-analysis: Active learning improves student performance

March 27, 2015

It’s not quite so new anymore, but still exciting! While we have more and more data that active learning techniques improve student learning, this field has been sorely needing a systematic review of the evidence on active learning. Recently, a crackerjack team of education researchers stepped up to the plate with just what I’ve been […]

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Tutorials in Introductory Physics at CU

March 24, 2015

I just finished a short video on the use of Tutorials in Introductory Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, and wanted to share it with you all.  It gives a good overview of Tutorials and why you would want to use them. You can find out more about Tutorials here. Here is a link […]

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Using clickers in small classes

March 14, 2015

As more instructors are trying clickers and peer instruction in their courses, I get more questions about how to use them in small classes. I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned through talking with faculty who teach courses of various sizes. The first question I ask is, “what do you mean by small?” […]

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Student motivation to engage with clicker questions

February 27, 2015

I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the educational psychology literature lately, to better understand what the learning sciences has to tell us about student motivation – and how that might relate to what we should do as instructors to motivate students to engage in clicker questions. I wanted to share what I’ve found […]

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Learn the latest advances in physics education… from your living room

January 22, 2015

I’m excited to announce that the New Faculty Workshop videos are online! This is a project that I helped with, doing the filming and editing of the presentations.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, the Workshop for New Faculty in Physics and Astronomy is a 3-day workshop for new faculty in physics and […]

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Videos on scientific teaching

January 9, 2015

I wanted to make a pitch for a very nice set of videos on research-based teaching methods:  the  iBiology Scientific Teaching Series.  This is a series of videos about Active Learning in undergraduate biology education, but is applicable across STEM.  They are looking to publicize their videos, and get feedback! From the producers:   The videos include […]

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Feedback codes: Giving student feedback while maintaining sanity

January 5, 2015

One of the most important things in learning is timely, targeted feedback.  What exactly does that mean?  It means that in order to learn to do something well, we need someone to tell us… Specifically, what we can do to improve Soon after we’ve completed the task. Unfortunately, most feedback that students receive is too general […]

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Learning, and assessing, collaboratively: Group Exams

December 29, 2014

I am one of many who are convinced that people learn better in collaboration with others.  However, there’s always this somewhat disturbing schizophrenia when it comes to assessment — we spend all this time emphasizing group work and collaboration, but come exam time — it’s everyone for him or herself. So I was very excited […]

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Free webinar, December 11th: ClickerStarter

December 5, 2014

I’m giving another free webinar for i>clicker this coming Thursday, December 11th, at 10 am ET (7 am PT).  This is called “ClickerStarter for College Faculty” and is intended as a quick primer on the effective use of clickers for those who want an overview of the benefits and uses of clickers. Have you heard […]

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Clicker Q&A

December 4, 2014

As some teachers are just getting things rolling with clickers and peer instruction for the Spring, I thought I would share some questions that faculty have asked me about clickers and peer instruction. This is something I’ve added recently to my workshops, and am really liking it – I ask participants to share their questions in advance, […]

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Why NOT to grade clicker questions for correctness

November 15, 2014

One thing that faculty really struggle with is whether or not, and how much, to give students credit for their clicker question answers. You want to give students some incentive to participate, but grading opens a whole can of worms. One of my faculty workshop participants explained the dilemma very astutely: “If I do not […]

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Measuring and improving students’ engagement

November 2, 2014

I’ve been working over the last year or so to better understand how to promote student buy-in to interactive techniques such as clickers and group work.  That work resulted in a set of resources on how to “frame” students’ roles in the class, especially in the first week. Now I’ve been delving deeper into this […]

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What is effective feedback? And how do clickers provide it?

October 2, 2014

Another re-post from my work on the iclicker blog. Last time I wrote about how clicker questions fit into a theoretical framework of assessment, and some considerations for aligning your clicker questions with your goals for your course. This week I want to review some of the literature on what features and kinds of feedback are most […]

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Backwards design: Where clicker questions fit into a framework of assessment

September 14, 2014

This is a repost of my work on the iclicker blog.   Lately, I’ve been thinking about the purpose and approach that we take in various forms of assessment. Today I’d like to step back into a little bit of theory-land, and consider a broader framework of assessment, and the ways that clickers fit into […]

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