Ripples & Reflections

"Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong." Elkjaer.

Experiments & Challenges in Peer Instruction

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I heard this talk from Dr. Eric Mazur earlier in the academic year, when thinking about getting back into Physics teaching. I gave it a listen again this morning, while tidying up and reminded by a post by Ed Hitchcock*. I thought about it in light of my last post and the experience of the year so far, in my Grade 10 Physics and Environmental Science course (and to some extent my Intro Chemistry and IBDP Biology classes). It is well worth watching, and nicely sums up some of the issues I’ve been experiencing at this stage in my teaching career.

Some of the comments and insights he makes are uncanny to my own experience:

  • Students can do well in the class and give positive feedback, but not necessarily engage with the subject or achieve a level of understanding deeper than simple memorization
  • Once you master the content, your mind doesn’t work like the beginning learner anymore – it is harder to see the misconceptions that trip students up
  • When discussions move from [science] into education, we tend to abandon the scientific method and rely on anecdotes: “The plural of anecdotes is not data.
  • Why in the sciences does information transfer wait until class time, where in literature students are expected to read before class? We should flip the content.
  • I always thought it was my teachers who taught me everything, but really a lot of it happened outside the classroom when I tried to figure it out for myself.” So why doesn’t this hard part happen in the class.
  • The source of good questions is not necessarily the mind of the instructor, but the mind of the student.
  • A syllabus defines a course by content. It should really be defined by outcomes.
  • You cannot change the way you teach without thinking about the way you assess.

What have I tried to implement so far in trying to shift more into peer instruction?

In the move to Canadian Academy, I went from a lab with a SMART Board to a school with 1-1. This was a good thing, I think, in terms of generating a more collaborative working environment and getting students to work within class time on assessed tasks and simulations. It has always been important to me to minimise the volume of homework for students and to try to make their use of time effective.

It is true that IWB’s can enhance engagement in the class, but without enhancement they pull the focus to the front, back to the ‘old school’ of sit-and-get. There are devices available to get into Mazur’s peer instruction and clicker-assesssment, but these are expensive. I have been enjoying the use of Socrative as a free and easy method for modeling the clicker-assessment, and it makes great use of students’ own devices. I think now we have the best of both worlds, but it needs to be optimised.

I have poured a lot of effort into building GoogleSites and as portals for resources. I develop online presentations, note sets, links to animations, tutorials, videos and quizzes for students to use to support their learning. I aim to have the key notes for students who need structure.

In my IB Biology class, I have set up individual GoogleSites for students, based on the subject guide and with space for reflection and additional notes on content. This takes a lot of administrative work (even with a class of 12), but students find it a valuable personal tool. They do not need to take notes. Their study guide and my site provide these. Instead they focus on self-assessment and providing evidence of their understanding and record of their weekly extended response answers.

I was heavily influenced (and introduced to Mazur’s work) by Frank Noschese’s post on the $2 Interactive Whiteboard. Since then, especially in Physics and IB Biology, we have used these methods extensively. It makes for a noisy and collaborative classroom, though management needs careful attention to keep students on task. Noschese has become quite well known through his blog and Twitter and has some good resources on modeling instruction, as well as criticisms of lecture and the Khan Academy model.

I often pair the use of whiteboards (and more recently Socrative clicker quizzes), with self-made concept cartoons. I love these as a way to highlight misconceptions and get students to analyse the thinking of themselves and others. At the end of my class presentation documents, I have a generic concept cartoon slide, so that it can be used to quickly make up a cartoon for discussion based on things I’ve heard in class. An example is below, but I’ll do a separate post on it later.

Example concept cartoon: students make a decision and use peer-discussions to check and justify their answers.

Similarly, I love the use of Derek Muller’s Veritasium science videos – essentially concept cartoons as live-action video clips. Short and sweet, with opportunities to pause and question students. Here’s an example:


What challenges do I face in implementing these methods?

Now I find I am more careful in questioning and resource choice. However, this can take a significant amount of time, and occasionally we end up back at old ‘trusted’ methods. The shift needs to be consistent if the learners are to buy in completely.

Some students can be very resistant to the idea of peer instruction, formative assessment or simply being questioned and asked to defend their ideas or reveal their misconceptions. Some are used to receiving the lecture and feel that they are only being ‘taught’ if they are given direct instruction. Others can be real extroverts who dominate the group work, yet are not necessarily steering their partners in the right direction, while the introverts would rather be left alone to work it out or read about it for themselves. Differentiation to suit all these learning styles has to be a focus for future practice.

Despite cultivating a lot of resources for students, chosen or made carefully to guide students and to have ‘vetted’ them for quality, I don’t think they get used as widely as I’d like. I still see students Googling information and deferring to sites like wikianswers instead of working through problems or reading reliable resources. This goes hand-in-hand with some students’ resistance to the idea of a class without a printed textbook.

I also find a conflict between the content demands of our standards or IBDP/ university prep, and principles of constructivist/ discovery learning. In the fast school year we want students to have an authentic experience of science and how it works, yet we also need to be sure to address each of the six MYP sciences criteria on multiple occasions, as well as covering enough content to adequately set a foundation for future courses.

I would love to get to the point where I could differentiate not only by learning style and ability, but also by destination – stream the class within the class to make sure that accelerated learners heading for more advanced IBDP study in Chemistry or Physics are pushed to cover more content, while the remaining students master the most fundamental ‘science for life’ content. The challenge here is in the set-up of the MYP Sciences descriptors: to achieve the top level, students need to be exercising more in-depth and analytical skills.

Redesigning labs so that they become more authentic and effective in helping students learn takes a lot of work. This is definitely an area to read up on in more depth.

What actions will I try to implement in my next cycle? 

  • A greater emphasis on pre-testing as a diagnostic tool and tuning-in exercise.
  • Emphasise the role of misconceptions, problem solving and reliable resources on learning, as opposed to quick-asnwers from Googling or jumping to the solutions.
  • More effective differentiation to the different learning styles that are the room, whilst maintaining the need for decent formative assessment.
  • More effective differentiation of content by ‘destination’ – could the expectations on students heading for more advanced study in the topic
  • Work to develop a better ‘flip’ of the classroom. Make students build ‘mental models’ of the content before class and use class time to address misconceptions and get through work.
  • Review the unit plans for our courses and make sure the command terms (the list of content they ‘need’ to know) are appropriate and assessable. We need to make sure that content does not become the enemy of understanding.
  • Ability to reason well in peer instruction and to ‘appear’ to be learning does not always translate well to test proficiency (although generally does). This must be an area for further focus.

*One of the great things about being on Twitter is constantly discovering and re-discovering ideas and resources and connections. Give Ed’s blog a go at or follow him @SciTeacherEd.


Author: Stephen

Director of Learning & MYP Coordinator at Canadian Academy, Kobe, Japan. Formerly MYP HS Science & IBDP Bio teacher and missing it terribly. Twitterist (@sjtylr), dad and bloggerer.

One thought on “Experiments & Challenges in Peer Instruction

  1. Pingback: How NOT to be ignorant about the world. Should a fact-based world-view be the goal | i-Biology | Reflections

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