The auditorium erupted. Students stood up, moved around the room, and were loudly and animatedly discussing…chemistry.
In that moment, my life changed. How, I had to know, did the instructor pull that off? The level of engagement I witnessed was unprecedented. I would end up dedicating my career to trying to help design those kinds of educational experiences for others. I didn’t know it at the time but was I was seeing the first part of a perfect implementation of Peer Instruction.
How does Peer Instruction work?
To use Peer Instruction in your class, the first thing you need to do is prepare a little differently than you would for a 45-minute lecture.
Start by selecting a concept, idea or topic you want students to learn and prepare a 2-5 minute mini-lecture on that topic. Then, prepare a set of questions or ConcepTests that will test students’ understanding of that content.
Here is an expert tip: Make sure your question does not ask students to simply repeat a verbatim response to something you said in your lecture. And most important of all, be very purposeful in using questions that are directly tied to the specific ideas, concepts, or skills you want students to develop. One theory I have about why Peer Instruction approaches don’t result in improved performance in some classrooms has to do with the kinds of questions posed. If Peer Instruction doesn’t work, I always ask - did I strategically direct students’ attention to the underlying concepts or skills that were tested on higher stakes assessments? (Read more about writing effective questions here.)
Next, you need to pick a method to collect student responses to your questions. You can use high-tech options, such as clickers or classroom responses systems, or low-tech options such as ABCD flashcards.
Since the 1990s, PI has spread across the globe and is practiced by thousands of educators across the disciplines in a variety of institutional types. For a more detailed protocol for implementing Peer Instruction, see our Quick Start Guide or many of the articles on Turn to Your Neighbor, the Official Peer Instruction Blog. You can also find other users in your field, city or possibly on your campus who are currently practicing the method at the Peer Instruction Network.
After that first experience with Peer Instruction so many years ago, I knew educational experiences of phenomenal quality were possible in science classrooms. I also knew that I wanted to spend my career designing them. So, I spent four years studying the approach as a fellow in Mazur’s group at Harvard University. I have implemented the method in my own classrooms at Columbia University and The University of Texas at Austin, I write a blog on the method, and facilitate a worldwide network of thousands of educators who use and love Peer Instruction. It is my favorite go-to method for driving off the charts engagement in any classroom.