Peer Instruction in the Social Sciences

· ConcepTests
Bob at University of Luxembourg posted a fantastic question on relevant to the social sciences.
He asks, “How do you develop ConcepTests for knowledge domains where it’s less obvious what are the established theories, facts and opinions?”
First, for those of you who do not know, ConcepTests are short conceptual questions used in Peer Instruction. Once a teacher poses a ConcepTest, students are first given time to formulate responses and then asked to discuss those responses with each other. The process requires students to think through their reasoning first and then provides them with opportunities to analyze their reasoning with their peers, but does not require a correct answer.
There are many different types of ConcepTests. For example, discussion starters, opinion polling on gray area issues, outcome prediction questions (IF,THEN, etc), and even textual analysis. We find students are just as engaged in these questions as in questions where there are “right” and “wrong” answers.


Sam says:  I and my colleagues at Monash university have been using PI to teach philosophy for several years now and have found it to be just as useful and engaging for students as in science subjects.  Some suggestions about the kinds of ConcepTest questions you can ask can be found here:


Look under ‘Types of question you can ask in lectures’.


Even in a subject like philosophy where there are no generally accepted right and wrong answers, there are still theories, concepts, definitions and distinctions which you are trying to get students to understand and which you can ask useful questions about:


1) what a particular theory implies about a specific situation or context

2) which of a number of examples are instances of a given concept

3) ‘opinion poll’ questions that poll students initial opinions about a topic. After discussing a particular theory in a lecture, you can then ‘re-poll’ the students to see if their views have changed. Although such questions do not test student’s knowledge, they are still useful for keeping students engaged in the lecture. Students casn become more ‘invested’ in a topic after they have expressed an opinion about it.



Comments RSS
  1. Dr. Angel Hoekstra

    I gave a webinar titled, “Effective Use of Clickers in the Social Sciences” for the i-clicker corporation in February of 2012. My presentation was drawn from multi-method data gathered for my doctoral dissertation, “A Socio-Cultural Analysis of the Use of Clickers in Higher Education” (Hoekstra 2009; available in digital dissertations). I would be happy to share the PowerPoint slides that I used for this presentation, or the publication from which the data are drawn, with anyone in the PI network who is interested.

    Feel free to contact me at for more information.

  2. Alan Slavin

    One approach for answers that are not just right/wrong, but reflect a range of opinion as is relevant in the humanities, is used by a colleague teaching English (Mitch Champagne at Trent University, Canada). He posts a blog with questions on the pre-class
    readings, and displays this blog in class. There, students discuss these questions in groups, with a volunteer texting (by cell phone or wireless laptop) the group opinion to the blog. Everyone can read these responses as they arrive, and be thinking about them. When about 10 groups have responded, Mitch provides the synthesis to pull all the ideas together. This is a form of Peer Instruction with all its strengths of developing conceptual understanding, analytical skills and the ability to explain your point of view, but works in the humanities where there is often no single “right” answer. Amazingly, Mitch says that students respond as much AFTER class as during it. A similar approach can use software such as U. Waterloo’s “Top Hat Monocle” or Purdue’s “Hotseat”.

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