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A Look at Peer Instruction | Social Learning Amplified

 

Our debut episode brings you a conversation on Peer Instruction with Eric Mazur and Julie Schell,  Assistant Vice Provost of Academic Technology at the University of Texas at Austin. Schell explains what Peer Instruction is, what makes this method work, and why she continues to use it with her students.

Eric Mazur:

Welcome to the Social Learning Amplified podcast, the podcast that brings us candid conversations with educators who are finding new ways to engage and motivate their students inside and outside the classroom. Each episode of Social Learning Amplified will give you real life examples and practical strategies you can put into practice in your own courses. Let's meet today's guest.

Julie Schell

Welcome to Social Learning Amplified. I am your host, Eric Maur, and our guest on the episode today is Julie Schell of The University of Texas at Austin, where she is Assistant Vice Provost of Academic Technology. She holds a number of other titles, including Executive Director, Instructional Continuity, Innovation, and Accreditation, College of Fine Arts Assistant Professor of Practice, Program in Higher Education Leadership. Julie, welcome to Social Learning Amplified!

Julie Schell:

Hey, Eric, it's great to see you.

Eric Mazur:

It's good to see you. So, Julie, as you know, it's a special year. We have celebrated 30 years of peer instruction. I, I just can't believe how, how time flies, you know, it was 30 years ago. Then I decided to throw my entire class upside down and start teaching by questioning rather than telling. Yeah. Now, you've told me this story a while back, and I know that it's sort of the origin how you and I connected way back when, but how did you first learn about peer instruction?

Julie Schell:

Well, I just have to say, I'm, so, I'm just so grateful that you, you took your teaching seriously and thought about how you might improve your teaching, because the moment that you decided that led to a transformation in my life, and that is my origin story with peer instruction, and I'm, I'm so excited to, to share it with you. I was getting my doctorate in higher and post-secondary education at Teachers College at Columbia University, and I was pursuing the research question, why do research active tenured faculty members try to improve their introductory undergraduate teaching? So that was a, a big question that I had. I'm trying to understand why someone would do that, right? Because as you know, there's not a lot of incentives for improving your teaching at Research One universities. The incentives are really geared towards, towards research, right?

So, so I'm was very curious why would someone try to improve their, their teaching? And so I set up my study at two major research universities here in the us and I began interviewing tenured faculty who were research active, but who were also teaching introductory undergraduate science courses. And I kept I kept hearing this. I kept hearing this response of oh, well, I, I heard Eric Mazur give a talk about peer instruction. And it changed, it completely changed my teaching, and it reinvigorated me. And it, it not only inspired me to improve my teaching, but inspired me to change what I was doing and really use peer instruction to, to radically improvestudent learning in my courses. And I just think, who is this guy? He, who is this person that everybody keeps talking about? And it was chemistry faculty, physics faculty, astronomy faculty, math facultyyou know, I was engineering faculty. I was looking at a broadyou know, broad number of folks, and they just kept saying, Eric Mazur. I'm like, who is this guy? So that, that's how I, that's how I first heard about it. The story goes on from there.

Eric Mazur:

I assume that there are a number of listeners who have not really heard about peer instruction. Would you be able to define it in your own words, Julie?

Julie Schell:

Completely. It actually picks up from this previous story. So as I was studying and pursuing my, my question about why are people doing this, I went to a chemistry class at a major research university on the east coast. It was one of these auditorium style classrooms with tiered seating. There were 500 plus students in the classroom. And I was sitting there, wasn't quite sure what I was in for, but this person had mentioned you and that he used peer instruction in class. And so as I was sitting there the instructor was had a, had a question up on the screen, and he was, he was lecturing. And then all of a sudden the room erupted into conversation. And I saw the students, and they were, they were, they were like playing with what I thought were mobile phones. And, and so I was looking around, I was like, so I, I literally wrote in my observation notes, students not paying attention, playing with phones.

And then I started listening to the conversations and they were they were talking about the content. So wait a sec, second, something's happening here. the instructor was up on the stage. The students were completely engaged. They were moving their hands. It was something funny is happening here. I started to listen to the content conversations that they were having, and they were convinced trying to convince one another of an answer I, that I, I said, wait a second, something magic is happening. And that is the moment that I changed and I became a complete evangelist of peer instruction. And so for me, what peer instruction is, is a, it's a social learning pedagogy where an instructor will present a, a, a concept and pose a question. And over time, those at first those questions are, I think we talked about them being conceptual questions, but over time, that's really broadened.

It really could be any kind of question. And then have the students think of an answer on their own first. And that's what they were doing. They were using, they were using clickers at, at that time, because this was in, in the early two thousands. Commit to an answer. Think about it, and commit to an answer, and then turn to their neighbor and discuss that answer and try to convince them that, that their rationale is right and use evidence from their learning to do that. And then when it's time when the instructor sort of hears and feels in the room that amazing conversation is sort of dimmed down a little bit to recommit to another to their answer again. So vote again. And then finally, the instructor reveals either the correct answer or an explanation if it is a question without a correct answer, and then leads to a discussion. So the, the short definition is it's a social learning pedagogy that is jam-packed with learning benefits. The long answer is this explanation of, of the what you, what you might expect to see if you run a short peer instruction engagement in your class.

Curious to learn more about Peer Instruction? Join the 2022 Perusall Exchange course to watch Julie Schell's presentation, Guidance for implementing Peer Instruction based on Learning Science.
 

Eric Mazur:

Now, you, you've studied peer instruction, I think, for, for well over a, a decade, including sort of what the, the cognitive basis is for, for its success. What makes this method work?

Julie Schell:

So this method, I like to, I like to describe it as a potent cocktail of learning science. So it is absolutely jam-packed with a whole host of benefits to learning. And we can talk about a few of the top ones. One of them is that as you describe in the peer instruction manual the questions are, the questions that a instructor would pose are generally always associated with learning outcomes. So what you would want students to know and be able to do to after taking a particular course when the questions for peer instruction are aligned with those higher level learning outcomes, it creates a really a structured and goal oriented experience for students. So it's very aligned with what we know about learning, that when there's a learning outcome that's staged and then that is backed up by the activities in the class that that's what propels learning forward.

So that's kind of the high level, but when you, you start to get inside the, that's the, when you start to get inside that cocktail there, first of all, it's, it's just, there's a, there's a concept called retrieval practice, or retrieval enhanced learning. And peer instruction has all of the benefits of retrieval. So, so I'm gonna give a concrete example here of a question. Let's imagine that we're, we're in class and I'm standing in front of the room and I've got a glass full of water, and it's got also ice cubes floating in it. Okay? So I've got a glass of water with ice cubes floating in it. I wanna ask the students, okay here's this glass. When these ice cubes melt, melt by the end of class, is the water gonna, is the water gonna spill over the top of the glass?

Okay? So that's an example of a question I might ask, and I ask students to, to select an answer to think about it and use what they're learning is in this class to, to respond to that answer. And so that first question, the students have to engage in pulling information from their memory. So that's the first benefit that is that is established in a hundred years plus of learning science, that the act of pulling information from memory strengthens the memory. In fact, Aristotle said that, so this is a really, really established theory from, from cognitive science. so that first act of pulling information from memory, it writes on the memory. and that also involves metacognition, right? So metacognition is thinking about your thinking and developing awareness of your learning state. So when we first think about, okay, is the, is are the ice cubes when they melt, is the water gonna flow over what happens?

What is my, my knowledge here on this particular concept? I am gonna develop awareness as to whether I know the answer or not, whether I'm confident in, in my answer or not, and I'm going to then make a decision about that. And so that metacognition, that development of that awareness is sort of the, it's, it's the holy grail of learning being able to recognize what you know and what you don't know so that you can self-regulate your learning afterwards. so those are the first sort of two the two learning science benefits. Now, you might be asking, but what if they select the wrong answer, right? so if the retrieval is so powerful, what happens if I say yes, the water's gonna flow over, right? Because that's not the right answer, is it?

Eric Mazur:

<laugh> water is, that's not

Julie Schell:

<laugh> so I know my physics.

Eric Mazur:

So what happens next?

Julie Schell:

Physics.

Eric Mazur:

Very good. What happens next?

Julie Schell:

<laugh> So, so then the, so then the, this is where the, the magic comes in when the student turns to their neighbor, neighbor, and we usually cue them to try to find someone who has a different answer. so that there is some cognitive dissonance there. Some motivation to come to a resolution together. when the students are talking to one of the, they're, they're actually engaging in a different type of retrieval. They're retrieving what we would call you know, more not soft skills, but different type of skill that is important in this case to science which is argumentation and backing up your your knowledge with evidence. So as you start to think about, okay, well, how do I convince this person? How, what evidence do I draw on? They're starting to pull out and, and it's called retrieval enhanced facilitation.

They're pulling on other they're pulling on other content knowledge that they know both from physics, but also conversational skills, social skill, argumentation skills and that would, we, we would call that variable retrieval. So the first act is just pulling information from memory, but then when they're in discussion, they're actually retrieving a bunch of different types of skills as well as the content knowledge as they're engaged in that conversation. So many amazing things happen. First they're, you know, they're, they're getting to have active engagement with their peer. It's definitely active learning. They're thinking deeply and, and, and considering the content knowledge at a really deep level, and they're starting to, they're, they're starting to, again, gain even further metacognitive awareness about their responses. The next step is then again, another, going back to that other type of retrieval, which is just the, the retrieval of the content knowledge.

But now they've constructed a different, they've, their knowledge has actually changed. Their brains have changed as part of that that conversation with their peers. They've developed new, new understandings, or they've firmed in on their answer. So one student might say, no, definitely flows over, and the other student says, no, because this, this, this theory, this, you know, I'll, I'll let you dig in on that. I do know, I do know the principle, but we don't need to go into that, that detail. If one, once they commit, you ask 'em again. Okay, now that you've had that conversation, we're gonna commit to a, a, our final answer. Students either change their answers or they they stick with their answer, and then the instructor does the reveal. And that's the really important part. you have, if there is a correct answer, you always want to make sure you give a reveal.

So some I've learned over the past decade, some people will want to think that it incentivizes or motivates students to go and and think about the question afterwards, and then they'll come back in class and you'll give them the correct answer. Retrieval is so powerful. it's so, so deeply powerful to the memory that if you don't give them the correct answer at that point, they will remember the wrong answer. So that's why it's really important. And if you're asking questions that don't have a right answer, then you want to try to give explanatory feedback. and it just kind of capping this off here. What the science of retrieval says is that you want to like the, the, the cocktail is that it involves multiple types of retrieval. As I said, information retrieval is where as the retrieval that's happening during the peer instruction, it involves metacognition. it involves learning from your peers in constructing content knowledge in that way, it, and it involves space retrieval because you've done the retrieval at the beginning of the question and the middle of the question at the end of the question. And it involves feedback, both correct answer and explanatory feedback. This is a, it, this is based on some of the most established science in learning, it's peer instruction is one of the, if not the most potent cocktail of learning science that I've, that I've ever encountered.

Eric Mazur

I, I know that the thing that always has struck me the most, one of our teachers in peer instruction is seeing students have this aha moment talk to each other, right? I say, no, it won't flow over. Or, or I say, yes, it will flow over. You say, no, it won't flow over. And then we talk, and then you say something that makes me go, oh, right, this aha moment. The, the and the, the, the incredible number of aha moments you see around you. How would you describe that aha moment? And why is that aha moment not happening when I simply teach through lecturing?

Julie Schell:

So, that's a great question. So, you know, certainly that those aha moments are definitely something that you'll observe and that I've observed often when I'm engaging with peer instruction. And I think that it is, it does involve that opportunity for metacognition, right? You are inviting through peer instruction, you're giving an invitation for a student to think about their learning state. What do I know? How do I know it? What do I need to do to improve my knowledge? that invitation doesn't happen during a straight lecture, right? There's there's no pause. And with a straight lecture, it's passive. It's passive instruction with peer instruction. That invitation invites active learning. A lot of people think that active learning means standing up and moving. That's not what it means. Active learning you know, it's variably defined in the literature, but what really what active learning is, is cognition.

It's thinking about the depth and duration of, of thinking about the content. So when a student is just sitting and listening to a lecture, there's no invitation there's no invitation for that, for that metacognition. In addition, students are near peers, right? You're not a near peer to a student. You are a master. you're, you're, you have deep, deep, deep mastery with the subject matter knowledge. And we, we can call this, it goes by various names in the literature, the curse of knowledge. When you as a master as a, as a <laugh>, as a world renowned physicist, your brain it, it gets rid of all the information that it doesn't need. It gets a lit rid of all those little pieces of knowledge that it doesn't need and, and, and pushes it out and just has these very high level conceptual frameworks.

Students are not at that level. So they still have those little pieces of knowledge in their conceptual frameworks as they've recently learned the material. So it's easier for them to say, oh, hey, it's this or this, or this. They can remember what it feels like not to know. You have the curse of knowledge. You can't remember what it feels like not to know these things. So it's easier for a near peer, so someone who just knows a little bit more than the person next to them or has a little bit more evidence to create that aha moment for them. So I would say it's those two things.

Eric Mazur:

Yeah, I think Susan Ambrose in her book How Learning Works calls it the "Expert Blind Spot", right? Yes. We, we, we don't, we don't have in our brains as experts anymore what the, what the students have, and therefore, it's hard to see it from their from their point of view.

Julie Schell:

The other amazing thing about peer instruction is that when you're listening to students, you're starting to develop an understanding of their learning state. There are so many times when I'm listening to peer instruction conversations between students, and I think, oh, I never thought of that. So in, during the peer instruction, I'm actually learning. I'm not teaching, I'm listening, and I'm developing an understanding of what my students learning states are, and what are the different misconceptions and correct conceptions that they have that helps my move my teaching forward as well.

Eric Mazur:

Okay. I have two short questions to wrap up our podcast here. one of these peer instruction cycles, question, think, commit, debate, recommit, explain one of these cycles, stays takes anywhere between five and 10 minutes. So over the years, I think many people have been thinking about how to simplify, speed that up. what should people be aware of if they modify the method? What are sort of the, the key parts in just a few words, because we're quickly running out of time.

Julie Schell:

Sure. so I think that for you, one of the beauty of peer instruction is that it's entirely flexible, and you can modify it in whatever way that you choose. But when you do that, you should think about the, the impacts to learning that the modifications might make. So if you remove that, a lot of people will just move that first retrieval. They'll just have the students pair and share. and they won't, they won't do the, the, the first question, commit, commit. and so if you skip that, then you're skipping the retrieval. So that's that's you know, you just need to know that if you something that you really want the students to remember you might think about not skipping that. Certainly you wouldn't want to skip the peer instruction because that's that's the beauty, that's the beauty of the method.

So you would never wanna skip that again. If you skip the, if you skip the correct answer feedback, if there is a correct answer or the explanatory feedback, you, you you're running the risk of having a negative impact or inhibiting learning. And so I, I think that the commit, discuss commit, those are the magic pieces of peer instruction. so you wouldn't, you wouldn't necessarily wanna skip that. On the other hand where you have complete and total flexibility is in the question type. You can ask yes or no questions. You can ask open-ended questions. You can ask questions without a right answer, you can ask conceptual questions. I think that's where a lot of the freedom comes in.

Eric Mazur:

Thank you. And then one final question, where should we be thinking about going next with peer instruction?

Julie Schell:

I think with peer instruction, where we need to go next is really thinking about how to do it effectively and some of these new modalities that we're, we're experiencing right now. So in hybrid instruction and in online instruction, in asynchronous instruction how can we creatively use videos. During the Perusall Exchange, one person asked me if we could do asynchronous pure instruction using Perusall. So that's something that I've been really thinking about and thinking about how to, to use perusal to do asynchronous PI and, and, and imagining what that might look like and how to, how to implement that. So I, I think it's using peer instruction in these new modalities, because at its space, it is fundamentally one of the easiest and best things you can do for student learning. We need to be able to adapt it to these new modalities of where we're at now, 30 years later.

Eric Mazur:

That's wonderful. I, I can't wait to, for, to see what the next 30 years will bring. So thank you so much, Julie, for kicking off this podcast series with me. And thank you all for listening, of course. This podcast will be made available on streaming platforms, and please subscribe to learn more about social learning.

Julie Schell:

Thank you so much, everyone. Turn to your neighbor.

Eric Mazur:

Social Learning Amplified is sponsored by Perusall, the social learning platform that motivates students by increasing engagement, driving, collaboration, and building community through your favorite course content. To learn more, join us at one of our introductory webinars. Visit perusall.com to learn more and register.

 

 

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