Category: teaching

Getting the most out of peer instruction

Peer instruction is a powerful, evidence-based instructional strategy that supports active learning in all sizes of classes. Typically in peer instruction, every 15-20 minutes,

  1. the instructor poses a conceptually challenging, multiple choice question
  2. students think about the question on their own and vote for one of the choices using some kind of audience response tool (“clickers”)
  3. students turn to their neighbors and discuss the question and their answers
  4. students may vote a second time, depending on the nature of the question
  5. the instructor leads a class-wide discussion where students share their thinking, finishing with
  6. the instructor models expert-like thinking and confirms why the right answers are right and the wrong answers are wrong

This can take anywhere from 2 to 10 or more minutes, depending on the question, the answers, and the richness of the discussion.

There are many pieces needed to make peer instruction effective, including

  • creating time in class (often by using a “flipped” model for the class),
  • building peer instruction into the syllabus and grading scheme,
  • writing good questions, and
  • selecting and using some education technology.

Even with all those pieces in place, there is still plenty of opportunity for an instructor to “short-circuit” the activity  and lose whatever potential for learning may have existed by how they run peer instruction in class. What follows is not The Right Way To Run Peer Instruction With Clickers ™ but rather, some recommendations to reduce the risk of messing it up.

Credit where it’s due

My colleague, Beth Simon, and I came up with this particular “choreography” or “protocol” with input from

To click or not to click?

(Image: Peter Newbury CC-BY)I’m going to describe peer instruction using i>clickers but you can adapt these recommendations to other #edtech options if those alternative

  • allow each student to individually commit to an answer
  • allow the instructor to see the results of the votes WITHOUT the students seeing them

The i>clicker system does these. Other electronic polling systems like PollEverywhere, TurningPoint, REEF, and Learning Catalytics do these, too, though it might take some clever manipulation of your laptop and the display to prevent the results of the votes from automatically being projected. I have many colleagues who can pull this off using colored ABCD voting cards.

Peer instruction for 2 types of questions

I want to distinguish between 2 types of peer instruction questions because they have slightly different versions of the choreography or protocol I’m sharing here.

Questions where there is a correct answer

In these types of questions, more often found in STEM classes, have a choice that’s right and choices that are wrong. With this type of question, the instructor expects there will be an individual vote, peer discussions with neighbors, a second vote, and then the class-wide discussion.

This peer instruction question has one correct answer. The others are incorrect for known reasons. Question adapted from one by Derek Bruff (Vanderbilt University).
This peer instruction question has one right answer. The others are wrong for known reasons. Question by Derek Bruff (Vanderbilt University).

Questions for generating discussion

What’s special about these types of questions is that every choice is correct (well, there might be one choice that’s deliberately wrong) and the goal is the get the students to commit to one of the choices and talk about it with their neighbors. Each choice is a thought prompt or conversation starter. The instructor only expects one vote here because the peer discussion is to tell your neighbors about the evidence for your choice and then listen to their thoughts about a different choice, not to convince them your choice is right. They’re ALL right!

This peer instruction question has one correct answer. The others are incorrect for known reasons. Question adapted from one by Derek Bruff (Vanderbilt University).
All the answers are right here – the goal is to get the students to commit to one and share the evidence for that  statement with their peers. Question by Heidi Keller-Lapp (UC San Diego).

Questions where there is a correct answer

Here’s the full protocol for running this kind of question. I encourage instructors to print out the protocol, bring it to class, and put it somewhere visible like the podium or desk. There are a lot of steps, in addition to all the other parts of the lesson, so give yourself a break and keep this “cheat sheet” handy (especially on the first few days of class where everything is harder.) I go into detail about each step below.

Recommended peer instruction protocol for questions with a correct answer or answers.
Click to download a 2-page PDF with both protocols.

 


PI_correctanswer_1You work your way through your lesson and reach the peer instruction question. Say something that tells the students it’s time for peer instruction like, “And now, I’ve got a question for you…” or “Okay, let’s see what you think about this…” The slide with the question doesn’t need to be titled “Clicker Question”. The students know it’s time for peer instruction because they see the multiple choices on the slide. Why not give it a useful title related to the concept?

 


PI_correctanswer_2With the question on the screen, 2 things. First, do not read the question aloud:

  • the students don’t know if they’re supposed to listen to you or read the question – they can’t do both (especially students for whom English is a foreign language). Mary Jo Madda wrote a nice piece about cognitive load, Why Your Students Forgot Everything On Your PowerPoint Slides.

  • you might add extra information to the question or the choices that confuses the students
  • you might give away the answer by the tone of your voice (more enthusiastic on correct choice, monotone on incorrect) or your body language (nodding your head for correct choice, shaking your head on incorrect)
  • they’re going to have to carefully read questions like this on the exam so give them this chance to practice
  • (I’ve only heard of one good reason to read out the question, from my colleague Matthew Herbst. In his history classes, they encounter many foreign names of people and places and Matthew wants his students to hear how to pronounce those words.)

Second, remind the students to “Please answer this question on your own.” One of the key elements of peer instruction is that students first confront/confirm their own understanding of the concept. They need to know what they think so they’ll get something out of, and have something to contribute to, the upcoming discussion with their peers. If students don’t think on their own first, you’re inviting them to zone out, then listen to their loudest neighbor, and think, “Oh, yeah, that’s what I think, too.”

It’s important to remind them to think on their own every time because they soon learn that when you talk to your neighbors, you can usually figure out the right answer. And then when the students vote, almost everyone has it right. The instructor is happy (“Wow, great job everyone!”) and the students are happy (because they got it right and because they made the instructor happy) and…. Enough with the happy! You’re there to make their brains hurt, not to make them happy. Make them think! And if they insist on starting to whisper or talk with each other, try “Please answer this on your own. You’ll get a chance to talk to each other in a minute but right now, I need you to think. That’s how peer instruction helps them learn.” Another good line is, “You’re going to have to answer questions like this, by yourself, on the exam. Take this opportunity to practice.”


PI_correctanswer_3Open/start the poll. If you’re using i>clicker, try to keep the polling widget visible so the students see the timer counting up (not counting down – this isn’t a “Beat the Clock!” game show) and see how many other students have voted. Don’t announce that they have 30 or 60 seconds answer the question. How do you know it will take that long? The tricky part is deciding how long to leave the poll open to give students sufficient time to vote. What is “sufficient”? Here are some possibilities:

  • Let’s start with the best advice, courtesy of Ed Prather: Turn and look at the question on the screen – give it your full attention, just like your students should. Read each word as if you’ve never seen the question before, go through the thinking needed to arrive at the answer and (pretend to) click. That’s the MINIMUM amount of time your students need. By the way, if experts do something with their hands or bodies to answer the problem (like physicists do that hand-spinning thing for the right-hand rule) – do that, too, modeling what an expert does.
  • If you have a good idea how many students are in the classroom at that moment, keep the poll open until almost everyone has voted.
  • If this is your second, third, fourth question of the day, you know how many people voted on the previous questions so you have a target.
  • Watch the students. Typically, they read the question, think, click, and then sit back expectantly, waiting for something to happen. When almost everyone is sitting back, it’s time to move to the next step.
  • DON’T wait for every last student to vote. Who knows why the last few aren’t voting – maybe they stepped out of the classroom, maybe they just don’t want to answer. If you wait impatiently for Student #200 to click, all you’re going to do is piss off the other 199.

PI_correctanswer_4When you’re close to the target number of votes, get ready to close the poll. Don’t just shut it, unannounced. That will only invite groans and pleas from the few students who were just about to vote and you didn’t give them a chance. Instead, give them a countdown. I always say something like, “Okay, it looks like just about everyone so I’m closing the poll in 3… 2… 1…. Thank-you.”

The goal of the next step – peer to peer discussion – is to give the students an opportunity to “try out” their thinking about the question, in a low-stakes, just-between-friends conversation. Except for a few special cases I’ll give below,  you will short-circuit that conversation if you show the students the distribution of votes. Why? Because if there’s one answer that’s more popular than the others, students will try to convince each other that that answer is correct, even if it’s not.

Okay, there are a couple of special cases described below where showing the distribution of votes might – might – help. In order to make the decision whether or not to show the distribution, the instructor should glance at the i>clicker receiver to see the votes. You don’t have a lot of time, though: you closed the poll and the students are waiting. Make the decision. Make it now. Now. Make it NOW! Ack, too much pressure! My recommendation: keep it simple, especially if you’re new to peer instruction, and let your students talk to each other.


PI_correctanswer_5Here’s something that always works: You look at the distribution (so you begin preparing for the up-coming, class-wide discussion) and say,

Hmm, interesting. You’re not agreeing with each other. Please turn to your neighbors and convince them you have the right answer. Oh, and if you chose the same answer, check you chose it for the same reason.

Notice the prompt, “convince your neighbor you have the right answer.” Students aren’t experts in the field yet – that’s why they’re in your class – so  “discuss this with your neighbors” doesn’t mean much:

Student 1: What’d you pick?
Student 2: A
Student 1: Yeah, me, too.

Help them practice thinking and talking like experts by giving them the task of convincing their neighbors.

There are two alternatives here, depending on the distribution of votes in the individual vote. If you’re comfortable with peer instruction and able to react in real-time to the distribution of votes shown on the i>clicker receiver (remember, the students haven’t seen that distribution), you might consider these:

  • if the correct choice is overwhelmingly popular, your students have already solved this problem. You’ve got better things to do that spend 5 minutes going over the answer. Show the distribution, confirm the answer, perhaps give them a little praise (“Great to see so many of you got that.”) and move on. And after class, make yourself a note: DO NOT USE THIS QUESTION NEXT TIME: it’s too easy.
  • if there’s a roughly even split between the top 2 choices, you know there could be a  great discussion (especially if one choice is correct and the other is a common misconception.) Show the graph and say something like, “Wow, you’re really split between A and D [or whatever] on this one. Turn to your neighbors and convince them you’ve got the right answer.” By showing the distribution, you’re re-assuring the students that they’re not the only one thinking like that. If a student thinks other in the room are thinking the same things, they may be more confident to share their thinking with their peers.
  • remember, if you have any doubt that showing the distribution will hinder the peer-to-peer conversation, or if you’re not comfortable or quick enough to make the decision, you can always rely on the standard, “Hmm, interesting…” and not showing the graph.

At this point, the room should get loud. There should be conversations going on all over the place. Take this opportunity to LEAVE YOUR STUDENTS ALONE. This is their chance to practice talking like experts. Take this opportunity to

  • wander back to the podium, get a drink of water, check your phone is silent, put down the keys that have been jingle-jangling in your pocket
  • circulate around the room. Get up close to your students, especially the ones towards the back of the room. Don’t walk up to them and look them in the eye, though. That’s a signal they should stop talking and look at you because you have something wise and important to say. Instead, just wander around, listening in on their conversations. One of my favorite tricks is to walk up the aisle, stop, and suddenly become deeply, deeply engrossed in the instructor’s remote I’m carrying. I give it my full attention, usually popping open the battery compartment. But I’m listening intently to the conversation going on next to me. Here are some things to listen for:
    • who’s giving the correct reasoning for the question?
    • who’s displaying the common misconception that you made sure you included as one of the choices?
    • who’s having the conversation(s) you want them to have?

    Try to remember where these people are sitting so you can invite them to speak up in the upcoming class-wide discussion. If you suspect those students might not be comfortable speaking up, consider talking to them (once their conversation is done) and say, “I really liked what you were saying in this group. Would one of you be willing to share that with the class during the discussion?” This little bit of praise and affirmation from the instructor might encourage students who normally don’t contribute to speak up.


PI_correctanswer_6When it sounds like the conversation is quieting down (they’ve said all they can say to each other) but before it starts to get loud again (when they’re bored and start to talk about movies, sports, next week’s essay,…) invite them to vote again. You have to be pretty loud to get their attention. If I’m wearing a lav mic, I tap it with my finger. I have a colleague who brings a big tuning fork to class and he bongs the tuning fork to get their attention. Usually it goes like this:

Okay, great conversations everyone. Please vote again. Yes, on the same question.


PI_correctanswer_7This vote shouldn’t take long, usually only 10-20 seconds since everyone is already familiar with the question and which choice they’re going to make. Watch the vote counter as it approaches the count from the first vote and, as before, give them a countdown.

You’re not done with peer instruction yet. The upcoming class-wide discussion is critical. You don’t want to waste a potentially rich discussion. If you show the distribution, you’re likely losing the the possibility that anyone will advocate for an unpopular choice. On the other hand, if there was a big swing from a split vote the first time to consensus on the second vote, you might show the graph and say, “Well, you were really split on the first vote but now it looks like most of you have chosen B. Let’s figure out why….” If in doubt, don’t show the distribution.


PI_correctanswer_8By now, the students have had a chance to think on their own, to practice explaining their thinking to their peers, and to get feedback from their peers. Now they’re ready to share their revised or reinforced thinking with the class and especially with you, their instructor. Don’t deny them that opportunity by having a “class-wide discussion” where you do all the talking. Your job now is to invite and welcome students into the discussion. Here are a few discussion-starters:

  • “It looks like almost everyone picked the correct answer on the second vote. Can someone tell me why C [say] is correct?”
  • “Even after two votes, you’re still split between A and B. Let’s figure this out together. Does anyone who picked A want to tell us why?” When the student starts to speak, be careful you don’t turn it into a 1-on-1 conversation that excludes everyone else. Signal to the student that they’re addressing the entire class, not just you. In large lecture halls, it works really well if you can get a couple of wireless handheld microphones from your Edtech Services team. When you identify the student who will explain choice A, your teaching assistant runs up the aisle and hands the student the microphone. When the student speaks and their voice booms out through the speakers, it’s clear that student is addressing the entire class.
  • Don’t be surprised if you ask for input about choice A, students put up their hands, you pick someone, and they say, “Well, we started with A but then we decided B is correct because….” If you interrupt and cut them off (“Sorry – uh, sorry – I’m looking for answer A right now. We’ll get to B in a moment”) that student probably won’t contribute much for the rest of this class. Or the next. They felt they had something interesting to say and were so confident about it, they took a risk and volunteered to talk to the entire class. THAT experience and success is way more important than your decision to go through the choices in a particular order. Just go with it, proving to your your students you value their contributions, and double-back to the other choices later.
  • If you’re hoping to get another student to advocate for a different choice, be careful to neither confirm nor deny that the first student has the right or wrong answer. Listen with a neutral voice and finish with, “Thank-you, that’s an interesting explanation. Now, who can tell us about choice B?” I worked with an instructor once who always started with one of the incorrect choices. As a student explained their thinking, the instructor would unconsciously droop his shoulders and slowly shake his head as he listened to an incorrect explanation. Then when he asked for someone to advocate for the correct answer, he’d straighten up and subtly nod his head. And when he asked the students which explanation they thought was correct, surprise surprise, they picked the second one.
  • If there’s an incorrect answer, and it’s incorrect for a good reason (for example, it’s based on a common misconception or a common error), after you’ve gone over the right answer, ask your students, “Can someone tell me why C is wrong?” Another really good follow-up like this is, “How could I change the question so C is the CORRECT answer?”
  • If you identified any group with an excellent answer while you were circulating around the room during the peer discussion, invite them to share their thinking with the class (especially if you spoke to them privately and they agreed to talk to the class. If you made that arrangement and then don’t ask them to speak, they’ll be pretty disappointed.)
  • If all else fails and you’re not sure how to drive the discussion, you can always ask, “What did your group talk about?” Notice it’s “your group” not “you” — students are likely to feel more confident about sharing their group’s thinking (“In my group, we talked about….”) Kind of like, “Well, I’ve got this friend and he thinks…”

 


PI_correctanswer_9Okay, almost done. First, you need to confirm the correct answer. You want to be absolutely sure that when you’re finished with peer instruction and you’re transitioning to the next part of your lesson, there aren’t students whispering to each other, “So, uh, what was the right answer again?” Second, if it didn’t happen during the discussion, model how an expert would answer the problem. I’ve heard colleagues say things like, “Those were terrific answers – I think you just about answered everything. Here’s how I thought about it…” or “Let me tell you how a physicist [or whatever] would approach this…”

 


And now you’re done with peer instruction. In those 2 to 5 to 10 minutes, your students have practiced expert-like thinking and behavior. Segue into your next mini-lecture by highlighting they’ve learned something that confirms they understood the preceding mini-lecture or something that prepares them for what they’re about to hear. Don’t forget: students can learn new things during peer instruction. It’s not just a way to test if they understand what you’ve been talking about.


Questions to Generate Discussion

[Note: a lot of what follows is identical to the “correct answer” protocol above. It’s repeated so you get the complete story in one place.]

Here’s the full protocol for running questions where every answer is correct and you’re only expecting one vote, not two. I encourage instructors to print out the protocol, bring it to class, and put it somewhere visible like the podium or desk. There are a lot of steps, in addition to all the other parts of the lesson, so give yourself a break and keep this “cheat sheet” handy (especially on the first few days of class where everything is harder.)

By the way, this structured approach to generating a discussion seems to mesh well with Jay R. Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online as summarized by James Lang’s post Building a Better Discussion in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Recommended peer instruction protocol for questions where every choice is correct and you’re only expecting one vote. Click to download a PDF.

 


You work your way through your lesson and reach the peer instruction question. Say something that tells the students it’s time for peer instruction like, “And now, I’ve got a question for you…” or “Okay, let’s see what you think about this…” The slide with the question doesn’t need to be titled “Clicker Question”. The students know it’s time for peer instruction because they see the multiple choices on the slide. Why not give it a useful title related to the concept?


With the question on the screen, 2 things. First, do not read the question aloud:

  • the students don’t know if they’re supposed to listen to you or read the question – they can’t do both (especially students for whom English is a foreign language). Mary Jo Madda wrote a nice piece about cognitive load, Why Your Students Forgot Everything On Your PowerPoint Slides.

  • you might add extra information to the question or the choices that confuses the students
  • you might give away the answer by the tone of your voice (more enthusiastic on correct choice, monotone on incorrect) or your body language (nodding your head for correct choice, shaking your head on incorrect)
  • they’re going to have to carefully read questions like this on the exam so give them this chance to practice
  • (I’ve only heard of one good reason to read out the question, from my colleague Matthew Herbst. In his history classes, they encounter many foreign names of people and places and Matthew wants his students to hear how to pronounce those words.)

Second, remind the students to “Please answer this question on your own.” One of the key elements of peer instruction is that students first confront/confirm their own understanding of the concept. They need to know what they think so they’ll get something out of, and have something to contribute to, the upcoming discussion with their peers. If students don’t think on their own first, you’re inviting them to zone out, then listen to their loudest neighbor, and think, “Oh, yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too….”

If they insist on starting to whisper or talk with each other, try “Please answer this on your own. You’ll get a chance to talk to each other in a minute but right now, I need you to think. That’s how peer instruction helps them learn.” Another good line is, “You’re going to have to answer questions like this, by yourself, on the exam. Take this opportunity to practice.”


Open/start the poll. If you’re using i>clicker, try to keep the polling widget visible so the students see the timer counting up (not counting down – this isn’t a “Beat the Clock!” game show) and see how many other students have voted. Don’t announce that they have 30 or 60 seconds answer the question. How do you know it will take that long? The tricky part is deciding how long to leave the poll open to give students sufficient time to vote. What is “sufficient”? Here are some possibilities:

  • Let’s start with the best advice, courtesy of Ed Prather:: Turn and look at the question on the screen – give it your full attention, just like your students should. Read each word as if you’ve never seen the question before. Think about what kind of evidence you have for each statement and decide which one interests you the most. That’s the MINIMUM amount of time your students need. By the way, if experts do something with their hands or bodies to answer the problem (like physicists do that hand-spinning thing for the right-hand rule) – do that, too, modeling what an expert does.
  • If you have a good idea how many students are in the classroom at that moment, keep the poll open until almost everyone has voted.
  • If this is your second, third, fourth question of the day, you know how many people voted on the previous questions so you have a target.
  • Watch the students. Typically, they read the question, think, click, and then sit back expectantly, waiting for something to happen. When almost everyone is sitting back, it’s time to move to the next step.
  • DON’T wait for every last student to vote. Who knows why the last few aren’t voting – maybe they stepped out of the classroom, maybe they just don’t want to answer. If you wait impatiently for Student #200 to click, all you’re going to do is piss off the other 199.

When you’re close to the target number of votes, get ready to close the poll. Don’t just shut it, unannounced. That will only invite groans and pleas from the few students who were just about to vote and you didn’t give them a chance. Instead, give them a countdown. I always say something like, “Okay, it looks like just about everyone so I’m closing the poll in 3… 2… 1…. Thank-you.”

The goal of the next step – peer to peer discussion – is to give the students an opportunity to “try out” their thinking about the question, in a low-stakes, just-between-friends conversation. Except for a few special cases I’ll give below, you will totally short-circuit that conversation if you show the students the distribution of votes. Why? Because if there’s one answer that’s more popular than the others, students will try to convince each other that that answer is correct, even if it’s not.

Okay, there are a couple of special cases described below where showing the distribution of votes might – might – help. In order to make the decision whether or not to show the distribution, the instructor should glance at the i>clicker receiver to see the votes. You don’t have a lot of time, though: you closed the poll and the students are waiting. Make the decision. Make it now. Now. Make it NOW! Ack, too much pressure! My recommendation: keep it simple, especially if you’re new to peer instruction, and let your students talk to each other.


Here’s something that always works: You look at the distribution (so you begin preparing for the up-coming, class-wide discussion) and say,

Hmm, interesting. Please turn to your neighbors and explain to your neighbor why you chose your choice. Use evidence from the [readings, textbook, etc.] to support your position. Oh, and if you chose the same answer, compare your evidence and reasoning.

Notice the prompt, “use evidence from the readings.” My colleagues in History, for example, remind me they’re not interested in memorized names, dates, or facts. Learning history is about making a statement and then supporting it with evidence. That’s what this kind of peer instruction is about – giving students opportunities to practice finding and sharing evidence.

There are two alternatives here, depending on the distribution of votes in the individual vote. If you’re comfortable with peer instruction and able to react in real-time to the distribution of votes shown on the i>clicker receiver (remember, the students haven’t seen that distribution), you might consider these:

  • if there’s a roughly even split between the top 2 choices, you know there could be a great discussion (especially if one choice is correct and the other is a common misconception.) Show the graph and say something like, “Wow, you’re really split between A and D [or whatever] on this one. Explain to your neighbors why you selected your choice.” By showing the distribution, you’re re-assuring the students that they’re not the only one thinking like that. If a student thinks other in the room are thinking the same things, they may be more confident to share their thinking with their peers.
  • if one choice is overwhelmingly popular, for some reason, no one feels confident about explaining and/or supporting the other options. Why not? Was the popular choice to easy or obvious? Are they unable to support the other choices? Whatever the reason, there won’t be much opportunity for students to discuss different aspects of the question. You’ve got better things to do that spend 5 minutes going over the answer. Show the distribution, ask one or two people to explain their choice and the evidence. And after class, make yourself a note: DO NOT USE THIS QUESTION NEXT TIME: it’s not rich enough, doesn’t have enough flexibility to support multiple conversations, the students are unable (unprepared?) to answer it, etc.
  • remember, if you have any doubt that showing the distribution will hinder the peer-to-peer conversation, or if you’re not comfortable or quick enough to make the decision, you can always rely on the standard, “Hmm, interesting…” and not showing the graph.

At this point, the room should get loud. There should be conversations going on all over the place. Take this opportunity to LEAVE YOUR STUDENTS ALONE. This is their chance to practice talking like experts. Take this opportunity to

  • wander back to the podium, get a drink of water, check your phone is silent, put down the keys that have been jingle-jangling in your pocket
  • circulate around the room. Get up close to your students, especially the ones towards the back of the room. Don’t walk up to them and look them in the eye, though. That’s a signal they should stop talking and look at you because you have something wise and important to say. Instead, just wander around, listening in on their conversations. One of my favorite tricks is to walk up the aisle, stop, and suddenly become deeply, deeply engrossed in the instructor’s remote I’m carrying. I give it my full attention, usually popping open the battery compartment. But I’m listening intently to the conversation going on next to me. Here are some things to listen for:
    • who’s giving the correct reasoning / evidence for their choice?
    • who’s displaying the common misconception that you made sure you included as one of the choices?
    • which students are having the conversations you want them to have? (This can be a good way to create the question and choices in the first place: what conversations do you want to hear about this concept/content? Create choices that direct students into those conversations.)

    Try to remember where these people are sitting so you can invite them to speak up in the upcoming class-wide discussion. If you suspect those students might not be comfortable speaking up, consider talking to them (once their conversation is done) and say, “I really liked what you were saying in this group. Would one of you be willing to share that with the class during the discussion?” This little bit of praise and affirmation from the instructor might encourage students who normally don’t contribute to speak up.


PI_manyanswers_6 You’re not done with peer instruction yet. The upcoming class-wide discussion is critical. You don’t want to waste a potentially rich discussion. If you show the distribution, you’re likely losing the the possibility that anyone will advocate for an unpopular choice. On the other hand, students are more likely to share their understanding / interpretation if they see they’re not the only one who made that choice. If in doubt, don’t show the distribution.


PI_manyanswers_7 By now, the students have had a chance to think on their own, to practice explaining their thinking and evidence to their peers, and to get feedback from their peers. Now they’re ready to share their revised or reinforced thinking with the class and especially with you, their instructor. Don’t deny them that opportunity by having a “class-wide discussion” where you do all the talking. Your job now is to invite and welcome students into the discussion. Here are a few discussion-starters:

  • “Every one of these is a possible interpretation so let’s work our way through them. Who can tell me about choice A?”
  • When the student starts to speak, be careful you don’t turn it into a 1-on-1 conversation that excludes everyone else. Signal to the student that they’re addressing the entire class, not just you. In large lecture halls, it works really well if you can get a couple of wireless handheld microphones from your Edtech Services team. When you identify the student who will explain choice A, your teaching assistant runs up the aisle and hands the student the microphone. When the student speaks and their voice booms out through the speakers, it’s clear that student is addressing the entire class.
  • Don’t be surprised if ask for input about A, students put up their hands, you pick someone, and they say, “Well, I started with A but then switched to B because….” If you interrupt and cut them off (“Sorry – uh, sorry – I’m looking for answer A right now. We’ll get to B in a moment.”) that student probably won’t contribute much for the rest of this class. Or the next. They felt they had something interesting to say and were so confident about it, they took a risk and volunteered to talk to the entire class. THAT experience and success is way more important than your decision to go through the choices in a particular order. Just go with it, proving to your your students you value their contributions, and double-back to the other choices later.
  • You should have an idea of the evidence / reasoning behind each choice. If you didn’t get enough about choice A from that student, ask if anyone has anything new to add before moving onto the next choice.
  • If you identified any group with an excellent answer while you were circulating around the room during the peer discussion, invite them to share their thinking with the class (especially if you spoke to them privately and they agreed to talk to the class. If you made that arrangement and then don’t ask them to speak, they’ll be pretty disappointed.)
  • Sometimes a question can have a choice that sparks an important discussion but no one picked it because they don’t want to be seen as supporting that choice. For example, I once heard someone discussing a question about the roles and responsibilities of the guards in the Nazi concentration camps. One choice was, “they were just doing their jobs.” Few students would pick that choice because they don’t want others to think that’s what they believe. But it’s an important conversation to have. In a situation like this, the instructor can ask, “What might someone be thinking if they selected this choice?” This way, students can talk about a hypothetical person without any appearance that they agree with the statement.
  • If all else fails and you’re not sure how to drive the discussion, you can always ask, “What did your group talk about?” Notice it’s “your group” not “you” — students are likely to feel more confident about sharing their group’s thinking (“In my group, we talked about….”) Kind of like, “Well, I’ve got this friend and he thinks…”

Okay, almost done. You created this question and gave the students this list of thought prompts because every prompt was important (and if there was a choice that was superfluous or off-track, well, there shouldn’t be.) Before you move onto the rest of your lesson, decide if everything you wanted covered was, in fact, covered. My colleague Heidi Keller-Lapp has an excellent approach here. The next slide in her presentation is a bullet list of all the things that should have been discussed via the peer instruction question. She goes down the list, “Yep, yep, yep we talked about that, yep, yep, oh wait, we didn’t mention this: recall such-and-such because of this-and-that. Then yup, yep, yep, okay, great conversation everyone!”


And now you’re done with peer instruction. These “generate discussion” questions can take 10 minutes or more. That’s not a waste of class time, though, it’s time when your students practice expert-like thinking and behavior. With your help, they discuss important aspects/interpretations, not (just) you. It’s not that peer instruction reinforces concepts/content you’d already discussed – peer instruction replaces the mini-lecture you used to give. Now segue into your next mini-lecture by highlighting new content or skills they’ve acquired and prepares them for what they’re about to hear. Don’t forget: students can learn new things during peer instruction. It’s not just a way to test if they understand what you’ve been talking about.


Whew, this is a long post, isn’t it? Honestly, it’s a way for me to get my understanding and recommendations for peer instruction into a format I can share and reference.

As I wrote way, way up there, these recommendations are not The Right Way To Run Peer Instruction With Clickers ™. I’d be really interested to hear your variations and rationale. Hmm…

Engage EVERY student with a jigsaw

(This is a long, detailed post about creating and running a “jigsaw” activity. Mostly, I wrote it for myself before I forget all the details. Reinventing the wheel is bad enough – reinventing your own wheel is even worse!)

The other day, I ran a jigsaw activity in my teaching and learning course. Jigsaw’s are a great activity if you have a lot of content to cover in a number of contexts. My colleague, David J. Gross at UMass Amherst, explained it to me this way: Suppose your lesson is about 5 National Parks. A traditional lecture about those 5 Parks, with N PowerPoint slides giving the details about each Park means 5N slidezzzzzzz.

Here’s how a jigsaw activity works. In Step 1, you group students together, with each group exploring one National Park. They become the local experts on that Park, working together to bring themselves up to shared, higher level of knowledge:

In Step 1 of the jigsaw, these 20 students work in 5 groups to become experts on 5 different National Parks. (Figure by Peter Newbury CC.)
In Step 1 of the jigsaw, these 20 students work in 5 groups to become experts on 5 different National Parks. (Figure by Peter Newbury CC-BY.)

In Step 2, you take it all apart and put it back together, like a jigsaw puzzle, so that each group has an expert about each of the 5 National Parks. In each group, they teach each other about each Park. In the end, every student has learned about each Park.

Jigsaw_Step2_PeterNewburyCC
In Step 2 of the jigsaw, the students re-arrange themselves so each group has an expert about each National Park. (Figure by Peter Newbury CC-BY.)

Did you notice how much lecturing about National Parks the instructor did? Zero. Zippo. Zilch. Instead of a single long exposition by the instructor, there are 4 student-centered conversations happening in parallel. It might even take less class time, or, if the time is already allocated, it gives more time for each National Park.

Cool, huh? Instructor gets to do nothing!

Well, nothing except a whole lot of planning and choreographing so students can stay engaged in concepts and not wondering what to do or wandering around looking for a group.

My jigsaw: Formative assessment that supports learning

In my teaching and learning class, we were discussing practice and formative feedback that supports learning. Following Chapter 5 of How Learning Works, instructors should ensure

  • practice is goal-directed
  • practice is productive
  • feedback is timely
  • feedback is at the appropriate level

To help explore these characteristics, I decided to use two tools:

analogy: How People Learn advises us that “students come to the classroom about preconceptions about how the world works” (p.14) and therefore, “[t]eachers must draw out and work with that preexisting understandings that their students bring with them.” (p.19) I wanted my students to think about those 4 characteristics first through their experiences of a sport or hobby and then in the context of teaching and learning.

contrasting cases: Again from How People Learn, “[t]eachers must teach some subject matter in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge.” (p. 20) Contrasting cases are a way to present the same concept twice. And sometimes, the a good way to figure out what something IS, is to figure out what it’s NOT.

For each characteristic, like timely feedback, I wanted students to come up with scenarios of

  • untimely feedback in a sport/hobby experience (“bad, sport/hobby”)
  • timely feedback in a sport/hobby experience (“good, sport/hobby”)
  • untimely feedback in teaching and learning (“bad, teaching and learning”)
  • timely feedback in teaching and learning (“good, teaching and learning”)

That’s 4 characteristics x 4 scenarios each = 16 different scenarios in total. There’s NO WAY I’m going to make 16N slides and flick through them.

Let’s jigsaw, I said to myself. But how? How do I choreograph Step 1 (prepare expertise) and Step 2 (share expertise)? I started from the end and worked backwards.

Here’s what I wanted the Step 2 conversations to look like:

Jigsaw_final
Each group has an expert about each characteristic, and they teach and learn from each other. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Each group would have one student sharing expertise about one of the characteristics

  • practice is goal-directed (green)
  • practice is productive (blue)
  • feedback is timely (purple)
  • feedback is at the appropriate level (orange)

and each student would be prepared to share 4 scenarios

I. “bad” in sport/hobby
II. “good” in sport/hobby
III. “bad” in teaching and learning
IV. “good” in teaching and learning

I have about 20 students in each session of the class, so that means I’ll have 5 groups at the end. If there are additional students #21, #22, and #23, they can double-up in some groups. As soon as I have 24 students, #21 thru #24 can form their own discussion group.

Look back at the picture of the final discussion groups showing Step 2 of the jigsaw activity. To create that (5 times), in Step 1 I’ll need 5 people teaching each other about green, 5 blue, 5 purple, and 5 orange.

Choreographing with Colored Paper

There’s a lot of “structure” that needs to be built into this activity

  • each student is assigned to a characteristic / color
  • each student needs to know what their Step 1 discussion is about
  • students need to sit in a one-color groups for Step 1
  • students need to move to an every-color groups for Step 2
  • probably more…

I can’t waste a lot of time making this happen during class. What tools do I have at my disposal for structuring this activity? COLORED PAPER (As simple as it sounds, colored paper is one of my favorite pieces of education technology.)

I created 4 worksheets, one for each characteristic, and copied them onto colored paper. I interlaced the worksheets and put the stack at the classroom door. I arranged the tables and chairs into 4 stations with 5-6 chairs each, and placed a colored sheet of paper on each station [Oh yeah, I forgot about that! That’s why I’m writing this.] When the students entered, they took the top worksheet and sat at that color’s station.

I copied 4 worksheets onto 4 colors of paper and interlaced the copies. As students grabbed the top sheet, they were perfectly divided into groups.
I copied 4 worksheets onto 4 colors of paper and interlaced the copies. As students grabbed the top sheet, they were perfectly divided into groups. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

The ultimate goal is for us to have a class-wide discussion of good teaching practices to support learning. The jigsaw activity should prepare every student to contribute to that conversation but I didn’t want students to spend too much time in Step 2 sharing their experiences and ideas about sports/hobbies and about “bad” teaching practices. I also wanted students to discover how intertwined those 4 characteristics are: to provide productive practice, you need it to be goal-oriented, and so on.

I needed a way to slice and re-mix the scenarios so the students discussed them by scenario (“bad” in sport/hobby,…,”good” in teaching and learning) rather than by characteristic (practice is goal-directed,…, feedback is at the appropriate level). So that’s exactly what I did: I sliced. Well, they sliced.

If you look at the picture of the worksheets above, you’ll notice some dashed lines. At the end of Step 1, I instructed the students to tear their colored worksheets into quarters along the dashed lines. (Notice, also, each quarter has a I, II, III, IV label.) Then I invited them to re-organize themselves into groups so that each group had a representative of each color. That was easy for them to do because they could easily see what colors were already at each table. Since there were equal numbers of each color (because the worksheets were interlaced in the stack at the classroom door) there was a place for everyone and everyone had a place.

Students sliced their worksheets into quarters so they could share by scenario (I, II, III, IV) rather than by characteristics of assessment. This emphasized how good formative assessment combines all the characteristics. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)
Students sliced their worksheets into quarters so they could share by scenario (I, II, III, IV) rather than by characteristics of assessment. This emphasized how good formative assessment combines all the characteristics. Note: I scribbled over the students’ names on their name badges. (Photo by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Settled in every-colored groups, they worked their way through the 4 scenarios I, II, III, IV of practice and assessment that supports learning. I could easily see what scenario they were discussing and could nudge them towards the important, scenario IV discussion if they were lagging behind.

Darn, I forgot to keep track of the time while I ran this jigsaw but I seem to remember it taking about 20 minutes for Step 1 and Step 2, and then another 10 minutes or so for the class-wide discussion about the characteristics of formative assessment that support learning (scenario IV).

The classroom was loud with expert-like discussions about teaching and learning. Twenty brains were engaged. Twenty students left knowing a lot about practice and assessment that supports learning. And knowing that their own experiences and knowledge played a critical role in the learning of their classmates. They can ask themselves,”Did I contribute to class today? Was the class better because I was there?” Yes and yes.

Big question: why bother?

If it took me this long to write down on these steps, you know it took even longer to design (and re-design) the materials, plan and rehearse the choreography, prepare the materials, re-arrange the classroom furniture, and more. It would have a been a helluvalot easier for me to present 4 slides, one on each of the characteristics of formative assessment (or easier still, one slide with 4 bullet points.)

But that’s not what we do.

Of course there are practical considerations but how easy it is for ME is not what drives how I design my lessons. Rather, I challenge myself to create opportunities for EVERY student to practice thinking about and discussing the issues and concepts. One thing I love about these jigsaw activities is that every student has a well-defined job (share their expertise in Step 2) that gives them the opportunity to make critical contributions to the discussion. The steps of the jigsaw and all the colored-paper-driven activities prepare them for that discussion.

I’m happy to share the resources shown here, talk through any points that are unclear, chat about how to adapt it to your learning outcomes – leave a comment, email me at peternewbury42 at gmail dot com, or hit me on Twitter @polarisdotca.

Everybody gets a whiteboard!

One of the key findings about How People Learn is that teachers need to draw out and work with students’ existing knowledge and skills. Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do, emphasizes students need to encounter a safe environment to try, fail, get feedback, and try again before facing a summative evaluation. The challenge for instructors is to find ways to draw out knowledge from EVERY student and create opportunities for EVERY student to practice.

Small, portable whiteboards (aka dry erase boards if you’re searching your institution’s suppliers’ catalogs) can achieve both of these.

Let me save the kinds of whiteboard-related tasks you can give to students for a future post. Here, I want to describe the class sets of whiteboards we put together. Each set contains 12 whiteboards which, when used for collaborative activities in groups of 3-4 students, can handle classes of 40-50 students. The key components are

  1. light-weight whiteboards that are small enough to carry and manipulate in class but large enough to let multiple students collaborate
  2. getting dry erase markers into EVERY student’s hand
  3. a convenient way for the instructor to get the kit to class and then carry it away afterwards

1. Portable whiteboards

Size and weight are the biggest concerns. Oh, and cost. You can cut way down on weight by foregoing magnetic whiteboards. We found these 18″ x 24″ light-weight whiteboards by Universal available through CDW. They’re only $15.99 retail (and even cheaper through our institutions purchasing system). These boards are so light, it’s very easy for students to pass them around, rest them on their knees, and hold them up for others to see. The only drawback to these particular boards is an inch-wide pen “tray” along the bottom of the board — the boards are made to be mounted on the wall — but it makes a good handle for students to grab.

2. Dry erase markers.

To create opportunities for EVERY student, it’s important to have enough dry erase markers that EVERY student gets one. Otherwise, he who holds the marker, holds the final say. I also like to give each student a different colored pen so they (and I) can easily see their contributions. We went with EXPO fine tip dry erase markers that come in boxes of 12 for $23.92 at Grainger. Four boxes – black, blue, red, green – gave us four markers for each board. We also included an eraser in each kit ($3.99 each by Universal from CDW) and a container of EXPO cleaning wipes ($14.99 at Grainger) we use to give the boards a once-over every now and then.

You can’t waste a lot of time handing out pens and erasers, collecting them again at the end of class so we put each set of 4 markers and an eraser into a pencil case, one per board. This works beautifully – quick to distribute, quick to collect, quick to reset for the next class. We found these canvas + mesh (mesh was great because you see what was in the kit without having to open the zipper) at our university bookstore for $2.29 each.

Each whiteboard comes with a pencil case containing 4 different-colored markers and an eraser. (Picture: Peter Newbury)
Each whiteboard comes with a pencil case containing 4 different-colored markers and an eraser. (Picture: Peter Newbury)

3. Carrying case

University instructors very rarely have a classroom where they can leave things. Instead, you arrive at the classroom 5-10 minutes before your class starts, bringing everything you need – computer, video adapter thingy, notes, water bottle, hand-outs, WHITEBOARDS – and then carry it all away after class. So, portability of these whiteboards is a critical.

We totally lucked out searching our universities suppliers’ website for “carrying case” when we stumbled onto this carrying case made for a retractable TeleSteps ladder ($74.90 from Grainger.) The bag easily holds twelve 18″ x 24″ whiteboards, with enough room to toss in the pencil cases. I’m not saying the strap doesn’t dig into your shoulder after walking halfway across campus but the case keeps everything in one place and you can dump on the ground when you get to class and deal it once you’ve got everything else ready. Heck, ask one of those enthusiastic students in the front row to distribute the boards and pencil cases for you.

Total cost per set of 12 whiteboards

Item Ea. Total
12 18″ x 24″ whiteboards $15.99 $191.88
dry erase markers (black, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (blue, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (red, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (green, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
12 dry whiteboard erasers $3.99 $47.88
12 pencil cases $2.29 $27.48
1 container cleaning wipes $14.99 $14.99
1 TeleSteps carrying case $74.90 $74.90
Total $452.81

There’s taxes and delivery. And prices will vary if you buy these directly from the supplier or through your university’s purchasing website. You’ll have to keep buying more markers and cleaning wipes but everything else is a one-time purchase.

Overall, that’s a lot of learning for $500 🙂

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