Can you use Peer Instruction with just one concept?


Can you use Peer Instruction with just one concept?

A biochemistry professor from Taibah University in Saudi Arabia raised this question during a recent virtual Peer Instruction training Professor Mazur and I worked on for 30 faculty.

This question, in various forms, comes up often among teachers trying to innovate in their classrooms across the globe.

“Do I have to flip my entire class for it to count as truly flipping?” is one common variation. “Can I just try this with one chapter, or do I have to do it the entire time?”

I have probably answered this question in one form or another more than 100 times. Poised in Austin, Texas to respond to our biochemist at Taibah U, I sat up in my chair and began to type enthusiastically in the chat window:

“Yes!,” I tapped out emphatically on the keyboard. And then I went on.

“In fact, I recommend that if you are new to Peer Instruction, trying the method for the first time, you should take an agile approach. Try it with one or two concepts first, to get the hang of it. Then you can make any adjustments you need instead of changing everything in your classroom all at once.”

Then something unexpected happened. My typing began to slow as I heard Professor Mazur’s voice simultaneously responding with the opposite advice.

“I wouldn’t recommend just using Peer Instruction with one concept,” he said.

Woah! What? Mazur interrupted my Peer Instruction auto pilot.

Fig 1. Peer Instruction Workflow

Fig 1. Peer Instruction Workflow

I stopped typing and paused to listen. Here is what he said:

“I would probably go against doing that [using Peer Instruction with just one concept]. By just using Peer Instruction with one chapter or concept, you may send students mixed messages that will make it hard to reach your goals. One message is: ‘For most of the time, just come to class and take notes.’ And then, with the more interactive method, you are saying, ‘come to class prepared, and be prepared to think in class, and work hard to learn from and with your peers.’

I had never thought about it this way. Mazur went on to explain that since students are so socialized to believe they benefit from (and in the case of college students, pay for) the lecture format, they may push back against any attempt to do something different. Consistency is the key to classroom transformation, he said.

“Rather than use Peer Instruction for just single chapter or concept, you could start by simply having one ConcepTest or Peer Instruction question every class meeting,” says Mazur.

He went on to give permission to faculty who are thinking about transitioning to Peer Instruction to lecture most of the time, and just go through the Peer Instruction sequence, outlined in Figure 1, once per class period.

“You will see that that part of the class period is the most engaging, where students are the most interactive, having the most fun, and engaging with the content in surprising ways.”

The bottom line: Peer Instruction is my favorite pedagogy because it is so flexible. You do not have to radically transform your teaching to implement it. As Mazur says, “one of the great things about Peer Instruction is that it is easily adaptable to your own needs, your own environment, and your own teaching philosophy: So if you want to start small, try doing one question, every class period.”

What do you think? Is it ok to try Peer Instruction with just one concept in a class period?


Comments RSS
  1. Fauzy Wan

    Interesting view, have been using PI for several of my lectures buy not for all of them. As I was “slowly easing” into using this approach and getting the students “used” to this method. I did not consider that this approach was not consistently “informing” the students the importance of this approach. Thanks Eric and Julie for presenting this perspective, I now have to rethink of this approach

  2. Julie Penley

    Interesting question! I tend to agree with Mazur that the consistency of the classroom environment is the more important factor. I’m at a community college, and I see many (many!) student comments regarding the “chaos” (my term, not theirs) that results when faculty frequently change expectations, class behaviors, etc. IMHO, better to create a stable environment — whatever that is — than to increase anxiety by frequently shifting the sand under students’ feet.

    Having said all of this, I do see Julie’s point and could see an instructor gradually introducing peer instruction say, after a week or two of introducing the concept and perhaps modeling what it would look like in the class. But once you shift ot PI, I think that shift needs to stay in place.

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