Posted by: Dave Moursund
Tagged in: Peer Instruction
We want students to understand what they are learning—not just memorize, regurgitate, and forget. Beth Simon and Quintin Cutts describe a successful approach in physics education (February, 2012):
Approximately 20 years ago, a physicist at Harvard read studies of students who had passed physics courses, yet showed little gain in their conceptual understanding of Newtonian physics. This “conceptual understanding” was measured by a newly developed test called the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). What this showed was that students could “plug and chug” using appropriate equations to solve standard problems on physics tests. But, when asked about a situation where a large truck runs into a small car, students could not correctly identify that the force exerted by the car on the truck was the same as that exerted by the truck on the car (applying Newton’s Third Law).
The physicist was Eric Mazur, who has since gained worldwide fame for his teaching at Harvard. Mazer found that his students were learning to solve the assigned problems but were not learning to think like a physicist.
I believe a similar type of problem exists throughout our educational system. Students take courses in a variety of disciplines, but relatively few make good progress in learning to think like an expert in the disciplines they study. A friend of mine used the analogy of learning to play the notes in a musical composition versus learning to play with emotion, feeling, and understanding of what the music is designed to communicate or achieve.
The key idea is that part of gaining an increased level of expertise in a discipline is learning how to think and communicate effectively in that discipline.
The Simon and Cutts article cited above discusses assessment designed to get at a deeper level of understanding and the use of peer instruction to help students gain this deep understanding. Peer instruction involves students attempting to explain to each other the core concepts involved in the material they are trying to understand. These discussions are facilitated by simple-looking but carefully chosen challenging problems. The article cites research indicating a substantial increase in learning via this approach:
In Peer Instruction, students gain preparatory knowledge before class (for example, through textbook reading) and complete a pre-lecture quiz to both incentivize their preparation and to give them feedback on whether they are ready to learn in a lecture format. During class, lecture is interspersed with or largely replaced by multiple choice questions (MCQs) and discussion....
This is instantiated via a four-part process:
1. Students individually consider a question and select an answer (typically reporting it via use of a clicker; see http://cwsei.ubc.ca/resources/ clickers.htm).
2. Students discuss in preassigned groups.
3. Students vote again on the same question.
4. Classwide discussion follows led by student explanations and the instructor modeling their way of understanding the problem.
The main idea being emphasized here is that students need to interact actively with the content to be learned. Passive reading or listening is not enough. Use of clickers has proven effective, as has small group and whole class discussion.
What You Can Do
Peer instruction has proven effective in many different disciplines. The research suggests that this type of "tutoring" is good for both the tutor and the tutee if each participates in both the tutor and tutee roles. I suggest that you read some of the research literature and then experiment with the ideas. You may find that it adds a useful new dimension to your teaching style.
Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications
You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.
Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.
Here are some examples of publications that might interest you.
A new kind of learner. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/a-new-kind-of-learner.html.
Brain-based strategies to build executive function. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/brain-based-strategies-to-build-executive-function.html.
Effective study skills. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/effective-study-skills.html.
Moursund, D. (July, 2012). Using brain/mind science and computers to improve elementary school math education. Eugene. OR: Information Age Education. Download Microsoft Word version from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/232-using-brainmind-science-and-computers-to-improve-elementary-school-math-education.html. Download PDF version from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/239-using-brainmind-science-and-computers-to-improve-elementary-school-math-education.html.
Moursund, D,. & Albrecht, R. (9/2/2011). Becoming a better math tutor. Eugene. OR: Information Age Education. A PDF file can be downloaded from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/208-becoming-a-better-math-tutor.html. A Microsoft Word file can be downloaded from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/209-becoming-a-better-math-tutor.html.
We need to give more power and responsibility to students. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/we-need-to-give-more-power-and-responsibility-to-students-.html.
Simon, B., & Cutts, Q. (February, 2012). Peer instruction: A teaching method to foster deep understanding. Communications of the ACM. Retrieved 1/30/2012 from http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/2/145404-peer-instruction/fulltext.