Think-Pair-Share meets Peer Instruction

This Summer, my center is supporting a cohort of 24 graduate students who are teaching for the first time. They’ve participated in our teaching and learning class, The College Classroom, and we strongly encourage them use evidence-based, student-centered instructional activities in their classes.

We work a lot on peer instruction (PI) with clickers so that’s a natural choice. We’re thrilled that 12 of the 24 chose to use peer instruction with i>clickers, in physics, linguistics, engineering, philosophy, marketing, psychology, cognitive science, math, management, and economics.

There were some instructors in visual arts, communications, anthropology and other disciplines who wanted to use PI but didn’t want to use clickers. Their reasons were understandable:

  • it’s a small class (8-10 students) so the instructor didn’t need the reward of participation points to get students to engage. The instructor can just “look ‘em in the eye” when they’re not participating.
  • the students’ cost of buying a clicker
  • the overhead of having to learn the software (and how to make it play nice with the UCSD course management system). They’re teaching for the first time, creating all content from scratch, without a TA to mark essays, in a compressed, 5-week course that meets twice a week for 3-hour classes.
  • the desire to pose more open-ended questions where there is neither a right answer nor 3-5 common responses. Questions like, “Do you the person who painted this picture was a woman or a man? Why?” (Sure, you could make that a clicker question “Do you think a woman or a man painted this? A) woman B) man” but that’s just a survey and you don’t need clickers for that.)

I met with each instructor before they started teaching to talk about their plans. One instructor in Visual Arts suggested using think-pair-share. That’s got a lot in common with peer instruction. Actually, since TPS has been around for ages, peer instruction has a lot to thank TPS for. In TPS, recall

  1. the instructor poses a thought-provoking question
  2. students think on their own
  3. students pair with neighbors to discuss their thoughts
  4. students and the instructor share the thoughts in a class-wide discussion

Let’s compare that to a good episode of PI in a discussion-based class. That’s one where every choice in the question is plausible and the goal of the activity is to get students to pick a prompt they’re comfortable with and explain it to their neighbors, citing evidence when possible. That is, there’s no “convincing your neighbor you’re right” because all the answers are right. Okay, so here’s what PI looks like:

  1. the instructor poses a thought-provoking question with 2-5 conversation starters for choices
  2. students vote using their clickers
  3. instructor says, “Hmm, really interesting to see you choosing different prompts. Please turn to your neighbor, tell them why you picked the choice you made. Support your choice with evidence from the readings.”
  4. the students pair and discuss
  5. there is NOT a 2nd vote – no one is expected to change their minds. The discussion was a chance to summon the evidence and practice putting together an argument.
  6. the instructor leads a lively, class-wide discussion drawing out the students’ evidence for each of the prompts

My colleague and historian, Heidi Keller-Lapp, adds one more step. When she’s preparing the class, she adds a slide after the PI question with a list of all the points she wanted to cover via the PI question. After step 6, Heidi

  1. flips to the discussion points slide, goes down the list, “Yep, we talked about this and this and this and, oh, we didn’t mention this. Okay, remember…. Good, and this and this. Great! Terrific discussion, everyone.” This can take 20  minutes in Heidi’s class. That’s 20 glorious minutes of students thinking critically and making arguments with evidence.

What makes peer instruction effective?

There are a couple of necessary, though not sufficient, components of effective peer instruction.

  • students must think on their own and commit to an idea. That’s critical for learning because they need something to talk about, something to contribute to the “turn to your neighbor” and something to XOR their neighbor’s thinking against.
  • students engage more when they know they’re accountable. Participation points – points for clicking – are a good way to support this. A few points go a long way.

And that’s what is often missing in TPS unless the instructor has the presence and respect of the students to get them all to engage each time. In TPS,

  • students don’t need to commit: they can look at the prompts and think, “Hmm, a couple of those look plausible,” wait until their neighbor starts talking, and then respond, “Yeah, that’s totally what I was thinking, too.” They can get away with it.
  • so what if a student doesn’t pick a prompt? What’s the instructor going to do about it? Cold-call on students? That’s not TPS anymore; it’s anxiety-inducing, imposter-syndrome-reinforcing arm-twisting. Ask for students to raise their hands? Sure, and the same 3 students answer (and I don’t have to talk, ever, if I don’t want to.)

Introducing TPS/cards

indexcardsOkay, back to Vis Arts. When we brainstormed how to do peer instruction without clickers (What’s that you say, use ABCD voting cards? Two words: card fade. And see 5 below), we stumbled onto a variation of TPS that, I believe, resolves these weaknesses by borrowing from PI:

  1. the instructor poses a thought-provoking question. It can be open-ended. It can be multiple-choice. It can even be “Draw a picture of…” or “Sketch a graph of…” Whatever the instructor decides will provoke the best discussion.
  2. students think on their own and write their thoughts on 3 x 5 inch index cards that the instructor distributes every day. By writing on the card, students commit to one of the choices. (Bonus: writing!)
  3. students pair with neighbors to discuss their thoughts, referring to their index cards as necessary
  4. students and the instructor share the thoughts in a class-wide discussion
  5. at the end of class, students hand in their index cards (after writing their names on them). The instructor uses these cards to award participation points. Yes, this takes time that scales with the size of the class. But does flipping through a stack of cards, putting tally marks on a class list, really take that much longer than syncing your clicker software with course management system (don’t forget, there is no frustrating, pull-your-hair-out battle with freakin’ Blackboard! Arrggghh! at the beginning of the term.)

Super Bonus: Education Research

Like any experimental teaching and learning activity, we need to ask, “But did it work?” We have a post-course student survey that probes deeply how student perceived and learned from peer instruction, and we’re running essentially same survey in these TPS/cards classes with “peer instruction” search-and-replaced with “think-pair-share.” I’m really  excited to see how the courses taught with TPS/cards turn out.

Double Super Bonus

The instructor kept all the index cards from her classes, in chronological order. She’s going to run some content analysis on the students’ thoughts to see if, for example, their thinking grew more sophisticated and expert-like as the course progressed. An awesome teaching-as-research project!

 Your thoughts

What do you think? Have I missed something critical about PI or added something harmful to TPS? Is this something school teachers have been doing for decades and HigherEd is only now re-inventing it? What research question would you try to answer if you had a record of what your students  were thinking throughout the term? All ideas welcome!

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PI in LA

I’m excited to return to Cal State University Los Angeles (CSULA) to give a couple of workshops on peer instruction. My thanks to Beverly Bondad-Brown in the Center for Effective Teaching and Learning for the invitation.

My first workshop is about writing good peer instructions. Actually, it’s about helping students learn to think more like experts, and effective peer instruction with clickers is a versatile tool for all kinds of skills and all kinds of disciplines. The participants looked through a collection of good and bad peer instruction questions and had to judge the questions on their clarity, context, learning outcome, distractors, difficulty and if the question could stimulate thoughtful discussion (hat-tip to Stephanie Chasteen for this list of what makes a good peer instruction question.)

Effective Peer Instruction

It’s not enough to through clickers at the students, though. To get more out of peer instruction, instructors need to do everything they can so students waste no precious, cognitive load trying to figure out what to do. “Is this when we vote?” “Are we supposed to talk now?” “What is the answer, anyway?” Those questions distract them from thinking like experts.

My colleague, Beth Simon, and I have worked out a “choreography” that keeps the students focused on content, rather than the tool. These are 2 variations. One is for classes emphasizing  analytical skills like you’d typically see in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes. Here, students vote on their own, convince a neighbor they have the right answer, vote again, and the participate in a class-wide discussion. The other choreography is for classes where argumentation is more important. Here, all the choices to the question can be supported – the goal is to give students practice supporting their choice. They vote once, justify their choice to their neighbors, and then contribute to a class-wide discussion. There are no right or wrong answers so it doesn’t make sense to “convince your neighbor you’ve got the right answer.”

I’ll add the additional resources I used later today…

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You’re only a 2-minute pause away from peer instruction

No matter what course you teach, one of your course-level learning outcomes should be that students will think more like experts in your field. They won’t be experts yet, not after one course or even an undergraduate degree, but they can think in more expert-like ways.

How do experts think?

According to How People Learn, experts must

  1. have a deep foundation of factual knowledge
  2. understand those facts and concepts in a conceptual framework
  3. organize the knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application

Here’s how I picture that conceptual framework:





It’s not enough just to teach the factual knowledge: you also have to help students build the conceptual framework and give them practice retrieving and applying the facts and concepts:

Factual knowledge

Factual knowledge

Conceptual framework

Conceptual framework



(My thanks to Kimberly Tanner at San Francisco State University for reminding me that anyone can memorize a bunch of facts; expertise lies in the conceptual framework and retrieval.)

What does your classroom look like?

Yes, let’s support expert-like thinking and behavior. But how do you do it? I think Ken Bain, in What the best college teachers do (2004), describes it perfectly:

More than anything else, the best teachers try to create a natural critical learning environment: natural because students encounter skills, habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating—authentic tasks that arouse curiosity and become intrinsically interesting; critical because students learn to think critically, to reason from evidence, to examine the quality of their reasoning using a variety of intellectual standards, to make improvements while thinking, and to ask probing and insightful questions about the thinking of other people.

The big idea, then, is to pick instructional strategies that give students practice thinking like experts, in a natural and authentic way.

The Slippery Slope to Peer Instruction

My colleague Beth Simon and I have come up with a strategy we call, “The Slippery Slope to Peer Instruction.”

2-minute pause: The 2-minute pause procedure is really easy to implement in a class because you literally don’t do anything. Every 15 or 20 minutes of lecture, when you sense your students’ brains are full, you stop lecturing and invite the students to take 2 minutes to

  • review their notes
  • consult with neighbors to fill in missing points
  • check with neighbors if anything is confusing
  • formulate a question(s) that will clear up confusion or fill in a gap (this is very expert-like behavior!)

When conversations dies down (wait longer than 2 minutes if there’s good stuff happening) lead a brief, class-wide discussion to answer questions and resolve confusion. They’ll probably have questions you haven’t thought about (because if you did think about them, you’d have covered it in the lecture.) Answer by “thinking-aloud”, that is, sharing aloud that voice in your head as you figure it out. When everyone is back up-up-to-speed and has had a chance to hang some knowledge on their conceptual framework, you can pick up where you left off.

2-minute pause Pro™: Maybe when you pause, your students

  • aren’t confus—ed
  • don’t have anything to talk about
  • don’t know how to have expert-like conversions

Then “seed” the pause with a question. You could get them to reconsider what you’ve just covered:

Okay, everyone, that’s a lot to think about. Take 2 minutes to look over your notes. If you’re confused about something, check with your neighbors. If everything’s okay, think about this: what do you suppose would happen if they run that experiment with adults instead of children?

Or prime them for what’s coming:

Okay, everyone, that’s a lot to think about. Take 2 minutes to look over your notes. If you’re confused about something, check with your neighbors. If everything’s okay, think about this: How do you think this result will change when we apply it in 3 dimensions instead of 2?

Peer Instruction: Don’t just stop lecturing and don’t just seed the discussion with an interesting question. Direct the discussion between students by giving them a few conversation starters. That is, ask a conceptually-challenging, multiple choice question with choices that activate expert-like thinking and/or common misconceptions. Here’s one of my favorites, from an introductory #astro101 class

How many of these are reasons for the season?

  • —the height of the Sun in the sky during the day
  • Earth’s distance from the Sun
  • how many hours the Sun is up each day
  1. one of them
  2. two
  3. all three

I like this question because it activates a strong misconception (that the seasons are due to Earth’s distance from the Sun) and it requires students to think and talk like astronomers.


Yes, requires! Even if every single student correctly chooses B, the instructor can drive the next few minutes of astro-goodness with, “Excellent. Which two?!”

You’re only a 2-minute pause away from peer instruction

That’s our “slippery slope” strategy. Instructors looking to move away from traditional lecture are often reluctant to jump right to peer instruction, citing the technical overhead — software and hardware — and the cost to students for clickers. What could be easier than a 2-minute pause, though? It gives instructors a taste of the incredible feedback and interaction that students will contribute, given the chance. After that, it’s just baby steps to seeding the discussion and then driving the conversations.

Acquiring knowledge. Attaching it to a framework. Retrieving it to support discussion. In my book, that’s expert-like thinking.

(This post is adapted from a post I wrote for UCSD’s Summer Graduate Teaching Scholars program)

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