How do you group students for productive conversations?

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While lecture is still the mainstay in most classrooms, many instructors across the disciplines are onto the power of peer-to-peer learning. The typical cue for students to engage in peer discussion is usually something like, “get into groups of two or three and discuss” or specifically in Peer Instruction the prompt is, “Turn to Your Neighbor.”

An article featuring PI in the New York Times Education Life section July 18, 2012 emphasizes that without some kind of guidance, students tend to self select into their out-of-class peer groups. We know from pilot studies of PI over the past year, this natural pairing may not always be the most productive for learning.

The article suggests Learning Catalytics (LC) may offer a “novel solution” to this problem. LC is the new question database and classroom response system developed by Mazur Group  at Harvard University. LC can intelligently pair students for productive discussions. “Professors can use…Learning Catalytics…now used at various campuses, to force students to defend their ideas by matching them with classroom partners who have different opinions,” reports Marc Parry in the article. Parry provides screen shots of students using LC and having a discussion in the classroom of Peer Instruction Network member Dr. Cassandre Alvarado from the University of Texas at Austin. Alvarado wrote a guest blog post in June for TTYN, Confessions of a Peer Instruction Rookie. 

How can you encourage fruitful discussion, without using LC?

When using clickers, flashcards, or just trying to get students to engage in conversation about concepts, we always encourage them to try to find someone with a different answer. Because students do tend to sit next to their friends and may be reticent to discuss their logic with strangers, it is important to introduce students to the benefits of different pairings at the very beginning of a course.  And most importantly, explain why you are asking them to learn in this new way, versus just listening to the expert lecture.  Explain to your students the rationale behind asking them to find someone with a different answer.

The reasoning is related to the benefits of peer discussion in general. In a PI class, peer discussion helps students build conceptual understanding, develop awareness about gaps and strengths in their knowledge, and gives students who already understand the concept the opportunity to practice teaching it. For students who are just learning the concept, it may be easier to learn it from a peer who has just developed that basis of that understanding than from an instructor who may suffer from an expert blind spot that makes it hard to fathom the variety of misconceptions students have. Refer to an article in Science by Smith et al., Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions. As instructors we are constantly reminded of the truism–you never really know something until you have to teach it to someone else. If they take the task seriously, students will immediately realize the value of teaching to their own learning.

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