What is Peer Instruction?

Peer Instruction is a simple way to make lectures more interactive and engaging. It works in the following way. After lecturing on a topic for 15-20 minutes, the lecturer stops and asks a multiple-choice format ‘quiz question’ that tests students’ understanding of the topic under discussion. These questions are often designed to test common misunderstandings of the topic. All the students in the class then ‘vote’ on the answer to the question. This can be done in a number of different ways; using an electronic response system (‘clickers’), flash cards, or simply by show of hands.

If most students have the right answer, the lecturer can confirm it and move on. If most have the wrong answer, the lecturer can explain the topic again and then try again with the same (or a different) question.

If there is a mixture of answers, students are given a few minutes to discuss the question with their neighbours and try to persuade them that their answer is correct. The whole class then gets to vote a second time. Typically, more students give the correct answer the second time around; students with the right answer usually convince others of it. The lecturer can then confirm the answer and move on, either to another question, or to the next topic in the lecture.

Why use Peer Instruction?

The advantages of these interactive lectures over the traditional format are many and varied:

  • The questions provide the lecturer with instant feedback about how well students have understood the material, allowing him or her to adjust the pace and content of their teaching accordingly.
  • The questions provide valuable feedback to the student on how well they have actually understood the material and how they are progressing relative to the rest of the class.
  • The “convince-your-neighbour’ sessions allow for valuable peer interaction between students. This promotes active engagement: students have to do more than passively assimilate material, they must think about it and try to explain it to someone else.
  • The convergence on the correct answer following these student-student discussions suggests that brief one to one discussion is an invaluable learning tool. Students who have understood the topic are able to explain it effectively to students who have not, perhaps at times more effectively than the lecturer.
  • The anonymous nature of the voting system encourages participation by not just some, but all students. This is most apparent when an electronic response system is used, but also holds to a lesser extent when flashcards are used, especially in very large lectures. This makes it much easier for students who would not normally participate by publicly answering questions to engage with the material being taught.
  • The monotony of the traditional lecture is avoided by breaking up the lecture into short segments interspersed with a sequence of questions in which students must actively engage with the material. In this way, student concentration is increased.

By now a fairly substantial body of research exists on the effectiveness of Peer Instruction. Studies on the use of PI in physics and other science subjects have consistently shown impressive gains in conceptual understanding and problem solving. Student surveys show that student satisfaction is also increases. (See the References section for further details).

Our own research on the use of PI in philosophy, logic and critical thinking courses suggests that the method can also be used in these disciplines, to great effect. The response from students to the use of the method in philosophy, critical thinking and logic lectures has been overwhelmingly positive. Many students commented on the positive effects of the method on attention, the provision of feedback and improved understanding.

A study carried out in 2006 also measured a significant improvement in critical thinking skills over the course of a single semester; a gain of 0.4 standard deviations, or 15 percentile points. See the Evaluations section for more details.

Peer Instruction in Philosophy and the Humanities

Since its introduction by Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur and others in the early 1990s, Peer Instruction has become widely used in undergraduate science and mathematics teaching. The potential of PI in the humanities however, remains largely untapped. Given the importance of conceptual understanding and critical thinking in many humanities disciplines, it is clear that the PI method has enormous potential in this context.

With this in mind, the School of Philosophy and Bioethics at Monash University has set up the Peer Instruction in the Humanities Project, to encourage the use of PI in philosophy and other humanities disciplines throughout the higher education sector.

It might be thought that PI could only work in subjects such as physics and mathematics, where there are clear-cut right and wrong answers and that its use in subjects such as philosophy or politics would therefore be inappropriate. Such worries are misplaced however. Firstly, it is entirely possible to construct useful conceptual questions with clear right and wrong answers in these subjects. Examples are questions that ask how a particular concept or theory would apply in a particular case; questions about the logical relationships between concepts or theories; questions about the correct definition of a concept and questions that elicit well known student misconceptions about a particular theory or idea.

Secondly, the opportunities for student discussion and active engagement offered by PI can be achieved even with open-ended questions which do not have a unique correct answer. For example, questions which elicit from students one of several conflicting intuitions in response to a particular situation or case-study can be used to introduce and motivate general theories or principles. Such questions can generate lively discussion and interest.

Thirdly, the opportunity to discuss the ideas and concepts being taught provides students with invaluable practice at actually doing (for example) philosophy. That is, students gain real experience with the actual practice of the discipline they are studying.

Our own experience and research on the use of PI in philosophy and other humanities subjects certainly supports the view that PI has great potential here. For a summary of our findings, see the Evaluations page.