The power of peer instruction

When Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard University, first developed peer instruction back in the 1990’s, it accelerated the shift throughout higher education toward active learning in the classroom. In the intervening years, study after study, including a recent one from Mazur himself, has shown the many advantages of this type of pedagogy.

Another physics instructor, Georgia Tech’s Manager of Introductory Laboratories Eric Murray, likewise rejected pure lecture and embraced peer instruction more than a decade ago. Like many instructors, he was reluctant to change the way he had always taught for a new method, but the research simply proved too compelling.

“I’m going to start over from scratch, prepare all new classes,” he decided. “I’m going to do this because I know it’s right.”

What made that transition possible? Audience response technology

Integrating peer instruction

Peer instruction is a multi-step process that starts with polling a question. Students then discuss their answers with their peers, and try to arrive at a consensus on the right answer. After this discussion period, the instructor typically re-polls the question and reviews everything with the class as a whole.

After nearly 15 years of peer instruction, Murray has the technique down to a science. He typically asks between 10 and 20 TurningPoint questions during each class. The results determine what happens next.

If the more than 100 students in his class mostly get the answer right, he will move on quickly since it is clear that the class understands the concept. If a vast majority of students respond incorrectly, he will likewise eschew peer instruction in favor of a more detailed lecture explaining the concept, since “you’re going to wind up with 80 percent of the groups with people who are wrong talking to each other.”

It has changed the way I see and approach the course. It makes me feel better about my class.

Peer instruction is perfect, in his opinion, when the students are instead mostly split between two answers. Then, he asks them to break up into groups and try to persuade the others that their answer is correct. After a few minutes, he re-polls.

In almost every case, the correct answer triumphs and the students have a better understanding of why. Even in the unusual instances where the wrong answer prevails, it still provides the opportunity for a memorable learning experience.

“It goes badly rarely enough that when it happens I make a big deal of it. Like, ‘What have you done!’” he said. “But all the more reason to talk about why this is an attractive wrong answer. What makes this answer attractive and how do we know better?”

A new outlook on teaching and learning

Murray appreciates that the interactions in his class let students explore ideas for themselves and become more engaged in physics than they would have otherwise been with traditional lecture. Because most of the TurningPoint questions are focused on drilling down into important concepts, rather than simply solving equation after equation, students also get a broader and deeper understanding of the subject.

“If they have the ideas down, they can solve the problems in their homework,” he said. “If you don’t have the ideas, then what are you doing when you solve a problem? You’re just juggling equations around.”

In addition, the pedagogy shift has affected the way that he thinks about his own teaching and how he builds lessons. No longer is he worried about speeding through every single concept, secure in the knowledge that his students have done the necessary readings. He can also track their grasp of ideas through their daily answers to interactive questions, so that he is able to address any knowledge gap long before a major exam.

“It has changed the way I see and approach the course,” he said. “It makes me feel better about my class.”