If you want them to think like experts…

[Cross-posted from the UCSD Center for Teaching Development]

I spend a lot of time thinking about how and why peer instruction works and helping instructors improve their technique. The other day, I had an experience that crystallized for me the difference between peer instruction and students merely clicking their clickers.

The instructor I was observing, who gave me permission to tell this story, was teaching a political science class about gender and politics. During the class, she asked a clicker question something like this:

Where does the US rank in the world when it comes to
the percentage of women in elected positions?
A) 12th
B) 34th
C) 78th
D) 112th

Here’s what was supposed to happen…

The students would vote. Then they’d “turn to your neighbors and convince them you’re right.” The students would help each other remember the correct answer, 78th, and then spontaneously launch into a discussion about how that’s surprising because of ABC and interesting because it’s DEF but not GHI and so on, bringing in all the interesting, conceptually challenging ideas that political scientists explore and debate.

That’s not what happened, though. Sure, they voted. The even split across all four answers showed they didn’t know the answer and were guessing. And when she asked them to turn to their neighbors, the room didn’t crescendo with conversation. There was some brief murmuring

“What’d you pick?”
“78th.”
“Huh. I picked 34th.”

And that was it. There was no interest, no conversation, no debate.

The problem, I think, was not with the students but with the question. It didn’t require students to confront their understanding, take a stance and be prepared to defend it. It simply required them to remember some fact from some book somewhere. In other words, just the kind of low-level knowledge we often scoff at when we say, “Oh, this course isn’t about fact and memorization. No, this course is about gathering evidence to form and then defend arguments.” Not to pick on the Humanities, I often hear from STEM instructors, “…No, this course is about problem-solving and applying the theory to real world applications.”

Here’s a better clicker question:

The US ranks 78th in the world when it comes to the percentage of women
in elected positions. In your opinion, why is this surprising?

A) Because it shows ABC
B) Because it’s an example of DEF
C) Because it contradicts GHI
D) Something else

The fact that requires memorization? Just give it to them. Most importantly, seed the conversation with the concepts you want them to grapple with. They’re not expert enough, not yet, to spontaneously come up with ABC, DEF and GHI, so spark the conversation, especially if one of the choices is a common misconception that needs confronting.

With a question like this, and effective peer instruction “choreography”, the students first do a solo vote where they have to decide, each in their own heads, what they believe about the concept. This solo vote is critical because it prepares them to contribute to the discussion with their peers that follows. For 30 seconds or a minute, the room will be filled with political scientists. Or at least, students practicing to become political scientists, getting immediate feedback from their peers and the instructor. That’s what peer instruction is about.

So remember,

Ifyouwanthemtothinklikeexperts

[Update Jul 5, 2013] One of my Summer projects is (finally) reading Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do. In summarizing how the best college teachers conduct their classes, Bain describes the “natural critical learning environment”

More than anything else, the best teachers try to create a natural critical learning environment: “natural” because students encounter the 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. (p. 99)

Where I see the clearest connection with the questions used in peer instruction is one of the characteristics of a natural critical learning environment”

[T]he natural critical learning environment also encourages students in some higher-order intellectual activity: encouraging them to compare, apply, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize, but never only to listen and remember. Often that means asking students to make and defend judgments and them providing them with some basis for making the decision. (p. 102)

The original peer instruction question, “Where does the US rank in the world…” asks students only to remember. A good peer instruction question (and a well-choreographed episode of peer instruction) forces students climb higher into Blooms’s taxonomy.

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6 Responses to If you want them to think like experts…

  1. What is most helpful in this post (and I do find it quite helpful) is also where it does not go quite far enough. On its own, “Ask the right question” is not really helpful, I think, because it doesn’t define for us what that would look like or how it differs from the wrong questions, etc. The concrete example of a question that didn’t work was, however, an excellent way of answering just that. Also, the example of how to revise that question was very useful. But I wish that it would have been a complete example. Knowing what good answers for the multiple choices would be for the specific question about where the US ranks in terms of women as elective officials would have really brought that example home. But just as students cannot “spontaneously come up with ABC, DEF and GHI,” I’m finding that I cannot either. What would good choices for this example question look like concretely?

    Also, I love the connection to Bain’s wonderful book. I think the main weakness in that book is similar. He presents many general principles and some but not that many concrete examples of how those principles could be put into effect. I would love to see a follow up volume of that book that consists of, say, a dozen case studies of teachers (preferably those studied in the book) putting its principles into practice concretely.


    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

    • Peter says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Paul. I, too, wish I could have given real words for ABC, DEF and GHI but Poli Sci isn’t my field and you can’t just make up crappy answers until you have 3 or 4 or 5 of them. A good peer instruction question requires good choices. And authoring good choices requires in the instructor both content knowledge and knowledge of the misconceptions. What option ABC will a good fraction of the students not only recognize but also agree with, well, maybe “agree with but I’m not quite sure why.” In another post, I wrote about a study examining the power of teachers knowing about misconception.

      Even though I don’t have the content and misconception knowledge to complete clicker questions (other than in physics and astronomy) I write these posts in the hopes that instructors will

      • see it’s possible to spark a deep conversation with a well-authored clicker question
      • use my examples as a template

      I’m working on a Sooper Sekrit project to create a small archive of good clicker questions that will be tagged both by discipline (poli sci, physics, astronomy,…) and by question type (more than one correct answer, opinion only, introduces problem without solving it,…) Stay tuned!

  2. nelson matias says:

    Your explanation couldn’t be better, thank you!

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