Peer Instruction For Computer Science – The Neighborhood



The Neighborhood is a special  Turn To Your Neighbor series where we invite innovative educators from around the globe to discuss a variety of education topics. 


Drs. Lee, Porter, sand Simon

Drs. Lee, Porter, sand Simon

In this post of The Neighborhood, three computer scientists who are leading the charge to transform Computer Science (CS) eduction with Peer Instruction (PI) answer common questions they get about Mazur’s method and weigh in on why PI is a good fit for CS.  Join Drs. Porter, Lee, and Simon for a free workshop on Peer Instruction in San Diego from July 21-23, 2014 and check out their incredible website for PI in CS here.

Turn to Your Neighbor Asks the CS Neighborhood: What is the most common question you get about Peer Instruction in Computer Science and how do you answer it? Also, Peer Instruction was developed in the early 1990s for Physics students. Why should people teaching Computer Science use it? Finally, what is the most exciting thing you are working on right now?

Dr. Cynthia Lee, Lecturer, Stanford University. Teaches CS1, C++

The question I get most often is: “Wouldn’t it be more efficient if you just told us [the answer] the right way from the beginning, rather than have us work in groups where we are sometimes confused?” I respond, “I’ll start teaching that way if you can show me a yoga or aerobics class that works that way–where the students sit and watch the instructor demonstrate it perfectly the first time. Classes like that don’t exist! Even though a student’s plank might be much “messier” than the instructor’s, it’s the process of trying it that helps the students learn to do it for themselves. Practice *is* the most efficient way to learn, and PI facilitates that. The most exciting thing I am working on right now is adapting PI to work with distance learning students.  

Dr. Leo Portner, Assistant Professor, Skidmore College, Teaches Computer Science 

A common question I am asked about PI is: “If you spend so much time on students answering questions, how do you still cover the same amount of material?”

This is really a question of depth versus breadth. I spend more time on the critical concept which I need my students to understand deeply. I do this recognizing that I can’t cover as much breadth. But if students understand the core concepts well, I believe much of the breadth (which appears in the textbook) will be understandable to them on their own.

Research on PI in CS has shown PI to improve student scores on final exams, dramatically reduce student failure rates, and contribute to increased retention of majors. Moreover, at large research universities and small liberal arts colleges alike, students report valuing PI in their classes and wish more faculty would use it. Links for research on PI in CS as well as materials for a wide range of classes are available at:

I am most excited about a paper we just published showing that student performance on Peer Instruction questions can be used to predict outcomes on the final exam. What was particularly interesting was that the prediction power was stronger in the first 3 weeks of the term than it was later in the term. We also looked at which questions were especially predictive of student outcomes and found these questions were on interesting concepts—potentially identifying key student misunderstandings. (Leo Porter, Daniel Zingaro and Raymond Lister. Predicting Student Success with Fine-Grained Clicker Data. In the 10th Annual International Computing Education Research Workshop, August, 2014.)

Dr. Beth Simon, UC San Diego, Faculty, Teaches Computer Science 

The question I get most often is: “But how do you find time to cover all the material?” Covering the material isn’t the goal — uncovering how to *think* like a computer scientist is the goal. After all, did the programming language you use most today even exist when you were in school? Peer Instruction is a good fit for CS because it helps students think like computer scientists, not just “do” like computer scientists. Additionally, it supports development of teamwork and communication –skills.

Drs. Lee, Porter, and Simon are hosting workshop on Peer Instruction in Computer Science at UCSD in San Diego, CA from July 21-23, 2014. Faculty who are interested in adopting Peer Instruction can see it in practice in summer session classes at UCSD and discuss Peer Instruction with workshop leaders who have both published the core research on the method in CS and have been using Peer Instruction in their classes for many years. For more information, see:



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