Tag: think-pair-share

Peer instruction workshop: the post-mortem

About a week ago, my colleague Cyn Heiner (@cynheiner) and I ran an all-morning-and-into-the-afternoon workshop on effective peer instruction using clickers. I wrote about preparing for the workshop so it’s only fitting that I write this post-mortem.

If “post-mortem” sounds ominous or negative, well, the workshop was okay but we need to make some significant changes. For all intents and purposes, the workshop we delivered is, indeed, dead.

This was our (in hindsight, ambitious) schedule of events:

Schedule for our workshop, "Effective peer instruction using clickers."

The first part, demonstrating the “choreography” of running an effective peer instruction episode, went pretty well. The participants pretend to be students, I model the choreography for 3 questsions while Cyn does colour commentary (“Did you notice? Did Peter read the question aloud? No? What did he do instead.”) The plan was, after the model instruction, we’d go back and run through the steps I took, justifying each one. It turned out, though, that the workshop participants were more than capable of wearing both the student hat and the instructor hat, asking good questions about what I was doing (not about the astronomy and physics in the questions). By the time we got to the end of the 3rd question, they’d asked all the right questions and we’d given all the justification.

We weren’t agile enough, I’m afraid, to then skip the next 15 minutes of ppt slides when we run through all the things I’d done and why.

Revised workshop: address justification for steps as they come up, then very briefly list the steps at the end, expanding only on the things no one asked about.

In the second part of the workshop, we divided the participants into groups of 2-3 by discipline — physics, chemistry, earth and ocean sciences — and gave them a topic about which they should make a question.

Topics for peer instruction questions. (Click to enlarge.)

We  wrote the topics on popsicle sticks and handed them out. This worked really well because there was no time wasted deciding on the concept the group should address.

We’d planned to get all those questions into my laptop by snapping webcam pix of the pages they’d written, and then have each group run an episode of peer instruction using their own question while we gave them feedback on their choreography. That’s where things went to hell in a handcart. Fast. First, the webcam resolution wasn’t good enough so we ended up scanning, importing smart phone pix, frantically adjusting contrast and brightness. Bleh. Then, the questions probed the concepts so well, the participants were not able to answer the questions. Almost every clicker vote distribution was flat.

One group created this question about circuits. A good enough question, probably, but we couldn't answer it in the workshop.
These are the votes for choices A-E in the circuits question. People just guessed. They are not prepared to pair-and-share so the presenter did not have the opportunity to practice doing that with the "students."

The presenters had no opportunity to react to 1 overwhelming vote or a split between 2 votes or any other distribution where they can practice their agility. D’oh! Oh, and they never got feedback on the quality of their questions — were the questions actually that good? We didn’t have an opportunity to discuss them.

We were asking the participants to create questions, present questions, answer their colleagues’ questions AND assess their colleagues’ peer instruction choreography. And it didn’t work. Well, d’uh, what were we thinking? Ahh, 20/20 hindsight.

With lots of fantastic feedback from the workshop participants, and a couple of hours of caffeine-and-scone-fueled brainstorming, Cyn and I have a new plan.

Revised workshop: Participants, still in groups of 2-3, study, prepare and then present a clicker question we created ahead of time.

We’ll create general-enough-knowledge questions that the audience can fully or partially answer, giving us a variety of vote distributions. Maybe we’ll even throw in some crappy questions, like one that way too easy, one with an ambiguous stem so it’s unclear what’s being asked, one with all incorrect choices… We’d take advantage of how well we all learn through contrasting cases.

To give the participants feedback on their choreography, we’ll ask part of the audience to not answer the question but to watch the choreography instead. We’re thinking a simple checklist will help the audience remember the episode when the time comes to critique the presentation. And that list will reinforce to everyone what steps they should try to go through when running an effective peer instruction episode.

The participants unanimously agreed they enjoyed the opportunity to sit with their colleagues and create peer instruction questions. Too bad there wasn’t much feedback, though. Which leads to one of the biggest changes in our peer instruction workshop

2nd peer instruction workshop: Creating questions

We can run another workshop, immediately after the (New) Effective peer instruction or stand-alone, about writing questions. We’re still working out the details of that one. My first question to Cyn was, “Are we qualified to lead that workshop? Shouldn’t we get someone from the Faculty of Education to do it?” We decided we are the ones to run it, though:

  • Our workshop will be about creating questions for physics. Or astronomy. Or chemistry. Or whatever science discipline the audience is from. We’ll try to limit it to one, maybe two, so that everyone is familiar enough with the concepts that they can concentrate on the features of the question.
  • We’ve heard from faculty that they’ll listen to one of their own. And they’ll listen to a visitor from another university who’s in the same discipline. That is, our physicists will listen to a physicist from the University of Somewhere Else talking about physics education. But our instructors won’t listen to someone from another faculty who parachutes in as an “expert.” I can sort of sympathize. It’s about the credibility of the speaker.

Not all bad news…

Cyn and I are pretty excited about the new workshop(s). Our bosses have already suggested we should run them in December, targeting the instructors who will start teaching in January. And I got some nice, personal feedback from one of the participants who said he could tell how “passionate I am about this stuff.”

And, most importantly, there’s a physics and astronomy teaching assistants training workshop going on down the hall. It’s for TA’s by TA’s and many of the “by TA’s” were at our workshop. Now they’re training their peers. These people are the future of science education. I’m proud to be a part of that.


Preparing for our peer instruction workshop

It’s Sunday morning. On Tuesday, I’ll be running an all-morning-and-maybe-into-the-afternoon workshop in my department, Physics and Astronomy, at UBC. My science education colleagues and I, all part of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, are working hard to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to transforming the way we (that is, my teaching colleagues, faculty, university, WTH go for it, post-secondary educators) teach science.

The workshop I’m running with my colleague Cynthia Heiner (@cynheiner on Twitter) is about effective peer instruction. Er, think-pair-share. No, clickers. Or…

That’s the first thing I thought carefully about before putting this workshop together (originally for the CWSEI end-of-year conference last April): the title.

This learner-centered instructional technique of posing a multiple-choice question, getting students to individually choose an answer and then pairing up to discuss with each other why they made those choices, most of the world calls it think-pair-share (TPS). Eric Mazur branded it, or at least popularized it, as peer-instruction (PI). My university, like many others, runs these episodes using clickers. So, what to call this workshop? I made a choice and have diligently stuck with it:

Effective Peer Instruction using Clickers

i>clicker classroom response system

My colleagues are calling this a “clicker workshop” but I don’t want to give it that label. You see, about half of 20 people who have registered are grad students. I’m thrilled! One way to transform science education is to train the next generation of instructors. And when they head off into the rest of the world after graduation, some will get academic jobs that include teaching. And some won’t have clickers: they’ll be forced to use – gasp! – colored voting cards.

Many instructors use these coloured ABCD cards instead of clickers.

Like a lot of instructors do. Successfully. I don’t want these eager new faculty members to ever think, “Oh, I can do clickers but you guys don’t have them, so I guess I’ll just lecture.” So, this workshop is about effective peer instruction. Sure, it’s customized to using i>clickers to collect and assess the students votes, but the goal of the workshop is how to “choreograph” an episode of peer instruction so it maximizes student participation, engagement and learning.

To be honest, I’m pretty confident about content of the workshop. I’ve spent a lot of time with, and talking to, Ed Prather and his team from the Center for Astronomy Education at the University of Arizona. And I consider myself fortunate to have regular conversations, 140 characters at a time, with @derekbruff, @RogerFreedman, @RobertTalbert, @jossives, @Patrick_M_Len, @etacar11, @astrocarrie and other tweeps using peer instruction and other learner-centered instructional strategies.

If there’s one aspect of the workshop, and peer instruction, that I don’t feel I have a good handle on, it’s clicker points. With i>clickers, the system records who voted, not just how many chose A, B, C, D or E, so it is simple to reward clicks with points that contribute to each student’s marks. There are lots of options: a point for any click, a point for picking the right answer, both, points only if there is a second vote, no points,… It’s an over-constrained problem with too many competing and complementary factors:

  • students will participate if they get marks
  • unless they perceive the marks are simply for attendance
  • giving too many (any?) marks for right answers inhibits students from listening to their own ideas, relying instead on their supposedly “smarter” neighbours
  • if students engage and contribute to the class, shouldn’t they be rewarded?
  • effective peer instruction promotes learning and success on exams – isn’t that reward enough?
  • what about the voting card people? They can’t give points but they’re successful.
  • Or are they? Everyone in the field is well-aware of “card fade”, the drop in participation throughout the term as students (and the instructor?) loose their enthusiasm for voting.
  • a million other reasons and arguments…

Yeah, I’m struggling. But I took a big step towards clarity last week because of a post by my friend @jossives, “So long clicker participation points“, and a comment by @brianwfrank

I think, for an instructor who is new to running discussions among and with students in lecture, it’s pretty much fine to use points for “clicking”, espceially as a safety net….Ultimately, I think the direction an instructor should likely head is away from points for clicking

I really like that, and it’s the approach I’m going to promote at the workshop. What Brian says echoes my conversation with Ed Prather last week when he said, roughly, if you’re really worried about your policy for handing out clicker marks, you’ve already missed the boat. You have to convince your students that peer instruction promotes learning and success, and keep reminding them, and then “walk the walk” by putting nearly-identical assessments on their homework and exams. Ed, never one to mince words, concluded, “If you’re unwilling to do that, then you can worry about points.” I added, “unwilling, or unable…” Ed can get full participation of his 800 (yes, eight zero zero) student astronomy classes because he has incredible “presence” in the room. Some instructors, especially new ones, struggle with keeping their students focused. Throw in a new teaching technique that the new instructor is still learning, and you can’t blame the students for disengaging. So, clicker points to reward their effort for a few terms, until you are so confident with peer instruction, you don’t need that “safety net.”

There’s one last component of the workshop that I’m nervous about: getting the participants to authentically participate

  • veteran clicker users: I don’t want them to just fall back into their usual routine. I want them to genuinely try new things, like not opening the clicker poll until the students are prepared or, and this one has had the biggest backlash already, turning to the screen and modeling how to answer the questions, perhaps by “acting out” some of the concepts.

    Theatre of Dionysus (by nrares on flickr CC)
  • newcomers: effective peer instruction choreography take some “performance”. You’ve got to put yourself out there and lead the episode. I have to create an environment where the grad students don’t feel like they’re making fools of themselves in front of the faculty.

This will take some gentle yet firm cajoling at the beginning of the workshop. To the veterans, I think I’ll ask them to model our choreography for the benefit of the others, especially the newcomers, so they can get a clear experience of the workshop.

Alright, T-45 hours until the workshop. Tomorrow will be full of last minute details and working out the choreography of our choreography workshop with my co-presenter, Cynthia. Those of you following me on twitter at @polarisdotca will be the first to hear how it went. The rest of you, 1) why aren’t you on twitter? and 2) you’ll have to wait for a follow-up post.

Why should I use peer instruction in my class?

Image: "Lecture Hall," uniinnsbruck, Flickr (CC)

[Update (June 16): Lead author Zdeslav Hrepic pointed me to a follow-up book chapter [PDF] where he and the study co-authors describe using tablet-PCs to counter the problems uncovered in their study. Thanks, Z.]

I’m sure we’ve all heard it from skeptical instructors: Why should I use peer instruction in my class? In response, we often cite Hake’s 6000-student study or the new UBC study by my colleagues Louis, Ellen and Carl. These are still pretty abstract, though: If you use interactive, learner-centered instruction, you can expect your students to better grasp of the concepts.

“Sure, but why?” the instructors ask. “Why does it work?”

I just read a paper that can help answer that question. I ran across it while following a discussion about the Khan Academy videos and whether or not they are good tools for learning. This paper by Hrepic, Zollman and Rebello (2007) asks students in an introductory physics course and physics experts (with M.Sc’s and Ph.D’s) to watch a 15 minute video of a renowned physics educator presenting a topic in physics.

The researchers do a series of pre- and post-tests and interviews with the students and experts to compare their understanding of the concepts covered (or not) in the video. There were some significant differences. A couple that stick in my head. (1) students recalled learning about concepts that were not presented in the video. (2) Only students who knew the correct answers on the pre-test were able to infer the concepts from the video (that is, the questions were not explicitly answered in the video.) The students who did not know the concept before were unable to make the inferences. Like I said, there are significant differences between what the instructor thinks a lecture covers and what the students think is covered.

The paper nicely gives us some suggestions to counter this problem.

And my thoughts about how to use peer instruction to do that.

Making inferences: Experts make more inferences than students. And only students who already know the concepts can infer them from the lecture. Therefore, instructors need to be cautious about relying on students to fill in the blanks.

Some of the best peer instruction questions are the conceptual questions where the answer is not simple recall. No traxoline here, please. Questions that rely on students making inferences are excellent for promoting discussion because it’s likely students will interpret the question differently, make different assumptions and come to different conclusions. <soapbox> All the more reason that students need to first answer clicker questions on their own so they’re prepared to share their inferences. </soapbox>

Prior knowledge: Students’ prior knowledge influences what they perceive and can “distort” their recollection of what the lecturer says. Therefore, it’s essential that the instructor has some idea of what the students already know (particularly their misconceptions) before presenting new material.

A few, introductory clicker questions will reveal the students’ prior knowledge. Sure, maybe these are simple recall questions that won’t generate a lot of discussion. But the students’ responses will inform the agile instructor who can tailor the instruction.

Continuous feedback about students’ understanding: The trail the instructor blazes through the concepts and the path the students follow often diverge during a lecture. The instructor should be continuously gathering and reacting to feedback from the students about their understanding so the instructor can shepherd the students back on track.

Observant instructors can gather critical feedback from the discussions that occur during peer instruction or the students answers on in-class worksheets like the Lecture-Tutorials popular in introductory “Astro 101” classes and other hybrids of the Washington Tutorials. Rather than waiting weeks until after the midterm or final exam to find out students totally missed Concept X, the instructor can discover it within minutes of introducing the topic. Minutes, not weeks! The agile instructor can immediately revisit the difficult concepts. Immediately, not weeks later or never!

I’m much more confident I can answer the skeptical instructor now. “Why should I use clickers in my classroom?” Because they give the students and you to ability to assess the current level of understanding of the concepts. Current, right now, before it’s too late and the house of cards you’re so carefully building come crashing down.