Everything you ever wanted to know about peer instruction: Part 1 (How PI Helps Students Learn)

Confused about what the literature recommends for best use of clickers? Want to have all the information summarized and synthesized for you in a nice, trustworthy reference? Well, I’ve certainly been hungry for such a reference, and now we have it: A team of scholars in chemistry education have just published a very comprehensive review across all the STEM fields, Research-Based Implementation of Peer Instruction: A literature Review. I will outline the results from this paper in this month’s post (focused on the data supporting the use of Peer Instruction) and next month (where we’ll look at the data on effective use).

Peer instruction is the recommended use of clickers, following the following cycle:

  • Instructor lectures for a short time
  • Students vote individually using a clicker or other mechanism
  • Students discuss the question together (if the majority didn’t get it right)
  • The instructor explains the answer and holds a class discussion

Here are the key questions addressed about the efficacy of peer instruction (PI) in this review.

1. Does Peer Instruction help students learn?
Yup, it sure does, but we knew that before from a wide variety of studies. Students perform better on conceptual tests of their learning and course exams. The data summarized in this review may be useful for those who need to justify their use of PI to administrators or others.

2. Does Peer Instruction improve problem-solving skills?
Fewer studies have been done in this area, but the answer seems to be yes, especially in terms of improving students ability to generalize their knowledge, through applying material to novel problems.

3. Does Peer Instruction reduce dropout rates?
Again, the answer appears to be yes; 3 studies in physics and computer science have found dropout rates reduced by 15-50% in courses using PI.

4. What do students think of peer instruction?
Here, the results are a bit more nuanced. Overall, the answer is that they like it; many students have shown that students feel that PI helps them learn, and students feel more self-confident in courses using PI. However, student course evaluation results are mixed, with some studies reporting no difference and some a positive change. Some studies have reported a negative response to PI, including one that found more mixed responses among students who are majors in the discipline. However, students generally recommend the use of PI.

5 . Does the type of question used matter to the results?
Higher-order questions (beyond simple recall) are assumed to be more beneficial, since they give students something meaningful to discuss and can lead to conceptual change (rather than just reinforcing facts). Some studies have tested this assumption, and have found that students improve most on questions that test higher-order skills, or for questions on which most students don’t initially get the right answer.

6. Are clickers necessary?
Some instructors use electronic “clickers” to collect student votes, and others use flash cards or other system. Two studies have shown similar learning gains in classes using either method. However, one study suggested higher learning outcomes with clickers compared to flash cards. More research is needed in this area, however. Anyone need a research project?
Stay tuned next month for the results on how to use Peer Instruction!

Full reference:
Research-Based Implementation of Peer Instruction: A literature Review. T. Vickrey, K. Rosploch, R. Rahmanian, M. Pilarz, and M. Stains. CBE Life Sciences Education, 14(1), March 2015.