Peer Instruction Network member Dr. Cassandre Alvarado’s graduate classroom at the University of Texas at Austin is so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. Her 18 students are sitting around a large oval table, silently staring at the front of the classroom, but not because they are listening to her lecture. Dr. Alvarado is implementing Peer Instruction for the first time this semester. She has just posed a ConcepTest (i.e. a clicker question) and has instructed her students to “take a minute to think about this question, and when you are ready, go ahead and commit to answer.” She catches two students who intuitively turn to talk to another and reminds them, “don’t talk to your neighbor just yet. This is your chance to tell me what you think on your own.”
According to physics education researchers, Chandra Turpen and Noah Finkelstein 2010, Peer Instruction implementation “varies widely”. One of these variants involves the process for administering ConcepTests. Turpen and Finkelstein report that most instructors at UC-Colorado, where Peer Instruction is widely used in science classrooms, do not ask students to commit to an answer individually before engaging in peer discussion.
On this point, Alvarado says “when I was writing my ConcepTests, before the semester started, I was really sure that as graduate-level scholars in education, my students would get the answers to these questions right the first time, on the first vote, so there would be no need for student discussion, and I could move onto the things I thought were important to focus on. I wanted to spend time in class working on how theory relates to practice. But then, when I got into the classroom and I posed ConcepTests that I thought were softball questions, it revealed some frightening patterns of misconception, that frankly shocked me. I realized the extent of my students’ individual patterns of misconception were so great about the theories in general, that we had to start from the drawing board. If I did not solicit a first vote first, I would never have known just how deep the misconceptions were or how they were developing, or not, through peer discussion.”
Is it necessary to ask students to commit to ConcepTests or clicker questions on their own first? We posed this question to Turn to Your Neighbor readers last week, with the results below. Most people said yes, the first individual vote, is an important step.
While it ultimately depends on the purpose of the ConcepTest or clicker question, we agree with our readers, especially if you are hoping to achieve in your classroom the statistically significant learning gains we have observed in our research (see Crouch and Mazur 2001 and Fagan, Crouch, and Mazur 2002). Our recommended, best-practices approach is outlined in the workflow presented in Figure 2. As in all flipped classroom environments, this in-class workflow is preceded by out-of-class activities and warm-up exercises, such as online reading assignments.
Why ask students to vote, on their own, first? From a learning sciences perspective, requiring students to vote first allows them to engage in some important activities we know to be linked to learning: 1) metacognition, or thinking about their own thinking or reflecting on their awareness of what they know and what they don’t know and 2) retrieval practice, the process of retrieving information in our memory for current use. Recent cognitive science research by Karpicke and Blunt 2011 suggests retrieval practice may improve longer term knowledge retention.
In a study of Peer Instruction in engineering classrooms, Nicol and Boyle 2003 report that students themselves (n=114) emphasize the importance of the first vote to their learning. Some of their students stated (see p. 468):
- By the time you discuss it you all have your own opinions so you are less likely to just agree with other people.
- You can see where you have gone wrong in your original answer and learn from it. It can help you identify misconceptions if you think individually first.
- It gives you different opinions rather than one group member knowing the answer and telling you.
- It makes you reason your point of view before explaining it to others.
As Dr. Alvarado suggests, facilitating an individual vote first, before asking students to turn to their neighbor, gives instructors critical information about how to proceed in their teaching. Peer discussion may not always be the most appropriate instructional decision and without a first vote, we have limited awareness of what students’ conceptual understanding is before peer discussion, or how much that peer discussion improved their understanding, if at all.
“Polling students first helps me accomplish several goals: the quiet reflection sets the stage for contemplative thinking that is so critical when discussing theory; it confirms what students understand for me and them; it reinforces for students the concept that they need to be able to defend their ideas with evidence; and it gives me an idea of what to listen for when I walk around during discussion. Students can no longer hide their misconceptions by simply participating in discussion or agreeing with classmates – they are forced to really wrestle with their own understanding of the material,” said Alvarado.