Confessions of a Peer Instruction Rookie


This week we have a guest Blog post from Peer Instruction Network Member, Dr. Cassandre Alvarado. Turn to Your Neighbor readers will recognize her name  – we have been following Dr. Alvarado this semester, as she taught a graduate education class at The University of Texas at Austin using Peer Instruction for the first time. -JAS 

I am writing to make a confession:  I’m a Peer Instruction (PI) Rookie.

What business do I have writing a blog post about PI? Not only have I never before written a blog post, I’m not a person who typically bares my soul to strangers, let alone on the Internet. Then again, Turn to Your Neighbor isn’t your typical Blog, and PI isn’t your typical teaching method.

I am not athletic by nature, but I approached my first semester teaching with Peer Instruction with the excitement I imagine a professional baseball player has when called up from the minor leagues to play in the majors.  I was full of excitement and wonder and was a little anxious about how I would perform.  I had been through my “Spring Training”

Wrigley Field, image from Wikipedia

– attending workshops and engaging with the experts at the Mazur Group in preparation for my first season.  I learned a lot, and here are a few highlights from my rookie year:

1. Even bad questions can stimulate good Peer Instruction discussion

There was a post about this a few weeks ago – but I think it is worth repeating.

It took me awhile to get good at writing questions. During my first few rounds of PI, it seemed like my students spent more time arguing about the meaning of the words I chose rather than about the core concepts in the question.

While at first frustrated, I soon realized that getting my students to think critically about anything during class, even word choice, was more engagement than I had observed in my course before.  Their discussions about word-meanings provided me with an eye opening experience about my own expert blinders: I had forgotten that precision in language and checking for meaning when communicating are key to explaining complex concepts to novice learners.

This experience challenged me as an instructor and forced me to acknowledge how students may interpret words, ideas and concepts in ways I never intended or imagined and make more explicit for my students the core aspects of the concepts I wanted them to learn.

2. Students perform better at PI when they understand that learning and discussion are the goals, not keeping tabs on their correctness

Students’ faces seemed to reflect great anxiety on the first day of class when I explained I would be teaching in a new way. They knew from their peers that they were the rookie class – I had never used Peer Instruction or the new classroom response systems, Learning Catalytics.  I noticed, by listening to their conversations during PI, that several students were focused on getting the “right” answer and not in the understanding that I was really seeking.

A few weeks into the semester, I spent about 10 minutes at the beginning of class explaining WHY I was using PI.  Once students understood that I was trying to get them to discuss, to defend their ideas with evidence and to really understand, the tension in the room lifted and their discussions seemed to improve. Next time, I’ll explain this on the first day of class. Screen Shot 2013-01-09 at 3.51.10 PM

3. PI is worth the effort

After describing the changes I made to my teaching to a few of my colleagues, one remarked, “I would love to do that in my class, but I’m just not sure it is worth the effort.”

It is true: there was extra work for me as the instructor to shift my approach, but I think it was worth every minute of effort.  By that I mean, I never before observed  such a high level of in-class exchange of ideas, defending arguments, and command of subject matter as I did this semester.

In this course, we don’t have valid conceptual inventories like the FCI. I wanted to take a scientific approach to this, however, so I worked with Julie Schell to develop a pre- and post-course survey to assess my students’ development. Early analysis is promising, especially pertaining to high gains in self-reported confidence in their knowledge of educational theory. I have more analysis to do in order to really measure how students’ learned theory in this course,  but I am proud of my batting average for this rookie year in PI.

This was the most challenging and rewarding semester of teaching in my career. – CGA

Readers – What are your confessions from your rookie season with PI?


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