Teaching students to think like experts – CSUgrit Symposium

I have the pleasure of facilitating a pre-conference workshop at the Cal State University LA Symposium on University Teaching. My thanks to Beverly Bondad-Brown, Cat Haras, and Adrienne Lopez at CSULA’s Center for Effective Teaching and Learning.


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)

Students need opportunities to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again before facing a summative evaluation (Ken Bain, 2004). (Graphic by Peter Newbury)
Students need opportunities to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again before facing a summative evaluation (Ken Bain, 2004). (Graphic by Peter Newbury)

Workshop Resources

  • Here’s a summary (PDF) of the key findings from How People Learn
  • This is a collection of peer instruction questions to critique during the workshop. Watch out – some of these are good and some are bad!


  • Here are the workshop slides.

PI in LA

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.)

Effective Peer Instruction

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.”