Helping Students Ask Questions (Inspired by Peer Instruction)

This year I’ve really struggled to get conversation going in class.  I needed some new ways to kick-start the questioning, counter-example-ing, restating, and exploring implications that fuel inquiry-based science.  I suspected students were silent because they were afraid that their peers and/or I would find out what they didn’t know.  I needed a more anonymous way for them to ask questions and offer up ideas.

About that time, I read Mark Guzdial’s post about Peer Instruction in Computer Science.  While exploring the resources he recommends, I found this compelling and very short PI teacher cheat sheet. I was already curious because Andy Rundquist and Joss Ives were blogging about interesting ways to use PI, even with small groups.  I hadn’t looked into it because, until this year, I’ve never been so unsuccessful in fostering discussion.

The cheat-sheet’s clarity and my desperation to increase in-class participation made me think about it differently.  I realized I could adapt some of the techniques, and it worked — I’ve had a several-hundred-percent increase in students asking questions, proposing ideas, and taking part in scientific discourse among themselves.    Caveat: what I’m doing does not follow the research model proposed by PI’s proponents.  It just steals some of their most-easily adopted ideas.

What is Peer Instruction (PI)?

If you’re not familiar with it, the basic idea is that students get the “lecture” before class (via readings, screencasts, etc), then spend class time voting on questions, discussing in small groups, and voting again as their understanding changes.  Wikipedia has a reasonably clear and concise entry on PI, explaining the relationship between Peer Instruction, the “flipped classroom”, and Just-In-Time Teaching.

Why It’s Not Exactly PI

My home-made voting flashcards
My home-made voting flashcards
  • I don’t have clickers, and don’t have any desire for them.  If needed, I use home-made voting cards instead.  Andy explains how effective that can be.
  • I prefer to use open-ended problems, sometimes even problems the students can’t solve with their current knowledge, rather than multiple-choice questions.  That’s partly because I don’t have time to craft good-quality MC items, partly because I want to make full use of the freedom I have to follow students’ noses about what questions and potential answers are worth investigating.
  • Update (Feb 19): I almost forgot to mention, my classroom is not flipped.  In other words, I don’t rely on before-class readings, screencasts, etc.

What About It is PI-Like?

  1. I start with a question for students to tackle individually.  Instead of multiple-choice, it could be a circuit to analyze, or I might ask them to propose a possible cause for a phenomenon we’ve observed.
  2. I give a limited amount of time for this (maybe 2-3 minutes), and will cut it even shorter if 80% of students finish before the maximum time.
  3. I monitor the answers students come up with individually.  Sometimes I ask for a vote using the flashcards.  Other times I just circulate and look at their papers.
  4. I don’t discuss the answers at that point.  I give them a consistent prompt: “In a moment, not right now but in a moment, you’re going to discuss in groups of 4.  Come to agreement on whatever you can, and formulate questions about whatever you can’t agree on.  You have X minutes.  Go.”
  5. I circulate and listen to conversations, so I can prepare for the kinds of group discussion, direct instruction, or extension questions that might be helpful.
  6. When we’re 30 seconds from the end, or when the conversation starts to die down, I announce “30 more seconds to agree or come up with questions.”
  7. Then, I ask each group to report back.  Usually I collect all the questions first, so that Group B doesn’t feel silenced if their question is answered by Group A’s consensus. Occasionally I ask for a flashcard vote at this point; more often, collect answers from each group verbally. I write them on the board — roughly fulfilling the function of “showing the graph” of the clicker results.
  8. If the answers are consistent across the group and nothing needs to be clarified, I might move on to an extension question.  If something does need clarification, I might do some direct instruction.  Either way, I encourage students to engage with the whole group at this point.

Then we’re ready to move on — maybe with another round, maybe with an extension question (the cheat-sheet gives some good multi-purpose prompts, like “What question would make Alternate Answer correct?”).  I’m also a fan of “why would a reasonable person give Alternate Answer?”

Why I Like It

It doesn’t require a ton of preparation.  I usually plan the questions I’ll use (sometimes based on their pre-class reading which, in my world, actually in-class reading…).  But, anytime during class that I feel like throwing a question out to the group, I can do this off the cuff if I need to.

During the group discussion phase (Step 4), questions and ideas start flowing and scientific discourse flourishes.  Right in this moment, they’re dying to know what their neighbour got, and enjoy trying to convince each other.  I don’t think I buy the idea that these techniques help because students learn better from each other — frankly, they’re at least as likely to pseudoteach each other as I am.  I suspect that the benefit comes not so much from what they hear from others but from what they formulate for themselves.   I wish students felt comfortable calling that stuff out in a whole group discussion (with 17 of us in the room, it can be done), but they don’t.  So.  I go with what works.

No one outside the small group has to know who asked which questions.  The complete anonymity of clickers isn’t preserved, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem so far.

Notes For Improvement

There are some prompts on the cheat sheet that I could be using a lot more often — especially replacing “What questions do you have” or “What did you agree on” with “What did you group talk about,” or “If your group changed its mind, what did you discuss?”

There’s also a helpful “Things Not To Do (that seemed like a good idea at the time)” page that includes my favourite blooper — continuing to talk about the problem after I’ve posed the question.

If I was to add something to the “What Not To Do” list, it would be “Shifting/pacing while asking the question and immediately afterwards.”  I really need to practice holding still while giving students a task, and then continuing to hold still until they start the task.   My pacing distracts them and slows down how quickly they shift attention to their task; and if I start wandering the room immediately, it creates the impression that they don’t have to start working until I get near enough to see their paper.

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