I’ll be talking about how to get your students thinking in expert-like ways by using peer instruction (“clickers”). Peer instruction is a powerful, versatile, evidence-based instructional strategy that lets you turn your classroom into, as Ken Bain says in What the best college teachers do, (2004) a place where “students encounter safe yet challenging conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again without facing a summative evaluation.” (p. 108)
In the terrific book, How People Learn,  the authors describe 3 key findings about how people learn, what teachers should do with those findings, and what it might look like in the classroom:
Students come to the classroom, each with their own pre-existing knowledge, experiences, skills, motivations, and resources, that the teacher needs to draw out and work with through student-centered activities.
Expertise in a field involves a deep foundation of facts, concepts, relationships, etc., organized in a conceptual framework that’s optimized for retrieval. Teachers help their students develop their own conceptual frameworks by deciding what needs to be taught and presenting the same concepts in more than one context so that students can make connections between concepts and to their existing knowledge.
Teachers need to teach their students a new skill: how to be metacognitive about the concepts being taught. Students need to learn how to take control of their thinking and monitor their own progress towards success.
Of these 3 key findings, I struggle most with the third. How do you teach students to think about thinking and give them opportunities to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again . I recently gave a number of presentations to my students and others at UC San Diego and asked this question:
Here’s how my audiences voted:
I asked this question in an episode of peer instruction so after they voted, I had them “turn to your neighbor and tell them which one you picked and why.” Through the class-wide discussions that followed, we arrived at these observations and conclusions:
Don’t just do stuff you’re supposed to do. No one picked E. I’m happy to see that no one is just doing things they’re “supposed to do” but instead, they’re thinking about why they do things in class.
Do you mean the intention or what actually happens? Quite a few students said they had trouble choosing because they weren’t sure if I’m asking about the instructor’s intention of asking,”Any questions?” or what actually happens in class. Many agreed that you most often hear, “Any questions?” in the last minute of class when the instructor is wrapping up (or trying to fill the last minute of class.) This is not the time to ask your students for questions: you just signaled the class is over (choice A above) and they’re all leaving to get to their next class. The room is noisy, no one is listening, and if someone does have a question, the instructor might be able to chat briefly but no one other than that one student hears anything.
It’s all about the instructor. Almost everyone picked B (“Can I continue?”) or C (“Do you understand, so I can continue?”) These are pretty good rationales. You have more to cover today and you don’t want to introduce new material if your students don’t understand this stuff. Excellent intentions. I asked my students how long the instructor typically waits after asking, “Any questions?”
as long as it takes to scan across the room once
We don’t give them enough time. Because standing at the front of a silent room for 3 seconds is uncomfortable. Waiting for 10 seconds is painful. Twenty seconds? By then, the voice in your head is saying, “C’mon, c’mon! I’ve got things to cover!” and you relieve your anxiety with an apologetic, “Okay, well, I’m not going force anyone to talk, so, uh, let’s keep going.”
First, establish that’s it’s okay to ask questions. Here’s what I believe about teaching: I believe it’s my job to make my students brains hurt a little bit. I want to build on what they know and push it further. I want them to have questions, dammit, because if they don’t have any, I wasn’t pushing hard enough. They’re capable of more than I offered. So let’s tell them it’s okay to have questions. Instead of “Any questions?” ask
What questions do you have for me?
Give them time to think. When I ask, “Any ques—“, uh, “What questions do you have for me?” I’m asking each of my students to
scan back over the last 15 or 20 minutes of notes
identify any holes in their understanding
formulate a question whose answer will fill that hole
build up the courage to put up their hand and ask
Guess what? That takes longer than 3 seconds! So give them time to think. Don’t just stand there getting uncomfortable. Walk around, get a drink of water, take the keys out of your pocket that have been jingle-jangling all class, make sure your phone is turned off. Look away so they don’t feel like you’re staring at them, daring them to interrupt your lecture with a question.
And finally, supporting metacognition. Imagine this: imagine changing your intention for asking, “Any questions?” or “What questions do you have for me?” It’s not about you and whether or not you can continue. It’s about your students. This is when you give them an opportunity to stop and think and monitor their own progress towards understanding (choice D in the question above.) That’s a key to learning. This pause is a critical element of the lesson. You plan for it, you initiate it, you give it the time it deserves. When students ask questions, they’re not interrupting your lecture or preventing you from getting through your slides. No, you are giving them an opportunity to practice their new metacognition skills.
Oh, it will sound exactly the same as choices B and C — you’ll stop lecturing and ask, “What questions to you have for me?” — but your intentions, expectations and reactions will be different. Ditto for your students.
And after class, when you ask yourself if you addressed the 3 key findings about how people learn, you can declare with pride and satisfaction, “yep, yep, aaaand yep!”
I’ll do it (I think)! If you’re still anxious about asking, “What questions do you have for me?” and waiting long enough, have a look at these posts I wrote about the 2-minute pause, think-pair-share, and peer instruction. If you’ve got other approaches to asking questions and/or supporting metacognition, I hope you’ll share it with us in the comments.
No matter what course you teach, one of your course-level learning outcomes should be that students will think more like experts in your field. They won’t be experts yet, not after one course or even an undergraduate degree, but they can think in more expert-like ways.
More than anything else, the best teachers try to create a natural critical learning environment: natural because students encounter skills, habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating—authentic tasks that arouse curiosity and become intrinsically interesting; critical because students learn to think critically, to reason from evidence, to examine the quality of their reasoning using a variety of intellectual standards, to make improvements while thinking, and to ask probing and insightful questions about the thinking of other people.
The big idea, then, is to pick instructional strategies that give students practice thinking like experts, in a natural and authentic way.
The Slippery Slope to Peer Instruction
My colleague Beth Simon and I have come up with a strategy we call, “The Slippery Slope to Peer Instruction.”
2-minute pause: The 2-minute pause procedure is really easy to implement in a class because you literally don’t do anything. Every 15 or 20 minutes of lecture, when you sense your students’ brains are full, you stop lecturing and invite the students to take 2 minutes to
review their notes
consult with neighbors to fill in missing points
check with neighbors if anything is confusing
formulate a question(s) that will clear up confusion or fill in a gap (this is very expert-like behavior!)
When conversations dies down (wait longer than 2 minutes if there’s good stuff happening) lead a brief, class-wide discussion to answer questions and resolve confusion. They’ll probably have questions you haven’t thought about (because if you did think about them, you’d have covered it in the lecture.) Answer by “thinking-aloud”, that is, sharing aloud that voice in your head as you figure it out. When everyone is back up-up-to-speed and has had a chance to hang some knowledge on their conceptual framework, you can pick up where you left off.
2-minute pause Pro™: Maybe when you pause, your students
don’t have anything to talk about
don’t know how to have expert-like conversions
Then “seed” the pause with a question. You could get them to reconsider what you’ve just covered:
Okay, everyone, that’s a lot to think about. Take 2 minutes to look over your notes. If you’re confused about something, check with your neighbors. If everything’s okay, think about this: what do you suppose would happen if they run that experiment with adults instead of children?
Or prime them for what’s coming:
Okay, everyone, that’s a lot to think about. Take 2 minutes to look over your notes. If you’re confused about something, check with your neighbors. If everything’s okay, think about this: How do you think this result will change when we apply it in 3 dimensions instead of 2?
Peer Instruction: Don’t just stop lecturing and don’t just seed the discussion with an interesting question. Direct the discussion between students by giving them a few conversation starters. That is, ask a conceptually-challenging, multiple choice question with choices that activate expert-like thinking and/or common misconceptions. Here’s one of my favorites, from an introductory #astro101 class
How many of these are reasons for the season?
the height of the Sun in the sky during the day
Earth’s distance from the Sun
how many hours the Sun is up each day
one of them
I like this question because it activates a strong misconception (that the seasons are due to Earth’s distance from the Sun) and it requires students to think and talk like astronomers.
Yes, requires! Even if every single student correctly chooses B, the instructor can drive the next few minutes of astro-goodness with, “Excellent. Which two?!”
You’re only a 2-minute pause away from peer instruction
That’s our “slippery slope” strategy. Instructors looking to move away from traditional lecture are often reluctant to jump right to peer instruction, citing the technical overhead — software and hardware — and the cost to students for clickers. What could be easier than a 2-minute pause, though? It gives instructors a taste of the incredible feedback and interaction that students will contribute, given the chance. After that, it’s just baby steps to seeding the discussion and then driving the conversations.
Acquiring knowledge. Attaching it to a framework. Retrieving it to support discussion. In my book, that’s expert-like thinking.