I’m excited to return to Cal State University Los Angeles (CSULA) to give a couple of workshops on peer instruction. My thanks to Beverly Bondad-Brown in the Center for Effective Teaching and Learning for the invitation.
My first workshop is about writing good peer instructions. Actually, it’s about helping students learn to think more like experts, and effective peer instruction with clickers is a versatile tool for all kinds of skills and all kinds of disciplines. The participants looked through a collection of good and bad peer instruction questions and had to judge the questions on their clarity, context, learning outcome, distractors, difficulty and if the question could stimulate thoughtful discussion (hat-tip to Stephanie Chasteen for this list of what makes a good peer instruction question.)
It’s not enough to through clickers at the students, though. To get more out of peer instruction, instructors need to do everything they can so students waste no precious, cognitive load trying to figure out what to do. “Is this when we vote?” “Are we supposed to talk now?” “What is the answer, anyway?” Those questions distract them from thinking like experts.
My colleague, Beth Simon, and I have worked out a “choreography” that keeps the students focused on content, rather than the tool. These are 2 variations. One is for classes emphasizing analytical skills like you’d typically see in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes. Here, students vote on their own, convince a neighbor they have the right answer, vote again, and the participate in a class-wide discussion. The other choreography is for classes where argumentation is more important. Here, all the choices to the question can be supported – the goal is to give students practice supporting their choice. They vote once, justify their choice to their neighbors, and then contribute to a class-wide discussion. There are no right or wrong answers so it doesn’t make sense to “convince your neighbor you’ve got the right answer.”
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.
It’s when people attribute causation that my blood starts to boil. “My students aren’t learning because they’re on their phones. What can we do about it? How can we get them to pay attention? It’s for their own good…” Yadda yadda yadda.
Here’s what I think:
Don’t ban phones and laptops from class.
Do make what happens in class more interesting and worthwhile than what they can find on their phones. Or find activities where they can use their mad searching, tweeting, texting, drawing, instagramming skills.
Don’t show them a graph of student marks vs phone use (Learning to interpret graphs is, itself, a learning objective of many instructors. It’s a skill that takes a lot of instruction and practice. Slapping a graph on the screen and saying, “See!” even if you try to explain it, is unlikely to have much impact.) or do some other phone-y demonstration to prove to them they’re not learning.
Do help them learn by getting them engaged with your content. Like a lifeguard that says, “Walk on the pool deck, please!” instead of “No running!”, show them what they can do, don’t tell them what they can’t.
Don’t start from the assumption that students will be on their phones and the instructor needs to find ways to get students to “put away their phones.”
Do with start with the goal of engaging students so that they have neither the time nor the desire to pull out their phones.
Is it naive to think it’s possible to keep them engaged? No. Instructors using peer instruction with clickers can keep their students’ attention. And, yes, these instructors still lecture: for a maximum of 10 minutes after they’ve used some clicker questions to ensure the students are “prepared to learn,” as Dan Schwartz would say.
Is it easy to keep students engaged for 50 minutes? No, but no one ever said teaching is easy.
* the title is my portmanteau of the expression, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” and the “carrot and stick” approach to driving your ass, er, mule.