A great talk at the SSAT National Conference 2012 had Professor Eric Mazur provide an entertaining and thought-provoking keynote (1). Within this, he discusses the theory of learning and demonstrates a number of tools that can be used.
An interesting aspect of Prof Mazur’s talk was that, although still delivering mass lectures within his courses at Harvard University, he tries to utilise certain techniques that take the emphasis away from him delivering information to the students. One such method is that he gets the students to teach each other instead of the lecturer “teaching”, using a method named Peer Instruction.
The example he used was to present a question with multiple answers, which he knew would result in the majority of students selecting one of two specific answers. He would then allow a period of time where students had to seek out a peer who had selected a different answer and try and persuade them to change their minds. From using handheld devices in the audience (similar to asking the audience in Who Wants to be a Millionaire), Prof Mazur was able to demonstrate a massive improvement in students selecting the correct answer; all without him talking!!!
Using peer instruction to gain interest
I have used peer instruction once at the beginning of a lecture recently. With the session focused around a current debate in sport, I began by asking the students to decide which side of the debate they sat. Following this, I told them to find someone who sat on the other side of the fence, and then try and persuade them to change their minds (without bullying them!!!!). What followed was amazing, 10 minutes of listening to them try to argue their side of the story and try to break down the opposing argument.
When I asked if anybody had been successful, I was a little disappointed. Only one person had been successfully converted. Naturally, I was hoping for something a little more significant (what scientist doesn’t?), but no, only one. Right. OK. Onwards and upwards. So I carried on with the session as I planned, presenting the science behind the debate.
HOWEVER…what I found was that following that introductory task, the focus of the whole class was amazing throughout the lecture. It was as if they were ACTUALLY interested in what I had to say and show them. And at the end, they were eager to find out which side of the debate I sat on.
When reflecting on this session, I really feel the peer instruction actually was a success, but for different reasons. It developed a personal investment into the topic by the students. When we debate, argue, try to persuade someone else’s mind, we always get emotional. We want to be right. We want to prove others are wrong. And I think because of this personal investment that was garnered during the introductory task, the students were more focused and driven within the lecture.
Have you used peer instruction? How did you employ it?