Seminal research from Vygotsky, Bandura, and other learning scientists has demonstrated that learners change their thinking as a result of direction interaction with others. One way to achieve this is through peer instruction - when students work to teach each other, and learn in the process of doing so. Studies of peer instruction show that:

  • Students can better answer a similar question after talking aloud and with their peers.
  • Peer instruction coupled with instructor explanation works better than either one alone.
  • Students like peer instruction. The more students enjoy class, the more likely they will attend, participate, and dedicate time outside of class to studying.
  • Peer instruction classes outperform traditional lectures on a common test.

How it works

Here is one way to implement peer instruction:

  1. Pose a challenging problem or question to students - one that is worthy of discussion (~1 minute)
  2. Ask students to work independently to solve the problem or answer the question. Students' responses can be collected using a classroom response system (i.e., clickers), if desired. (1-3 minutes)
  3. Encourage students to compare and discuss their solutions with neighbors. Wander around the classroom to listen in on student discussions - are they on track? What are the points of confusion? How much time to spend on peer discussion depends on how many students answered correctly. 
    • If most answer correctly, the discussion can be brief. (1-2 minutes) 
    • If students are split, encourage students to attempt to convince their neighbors as they discuss (2-5 minutes).
    • If most answer incorrectly, it may be necessary to backtrack and reteach the key ideas being addressed in the question or problem.
  4. Provide students an opportunity to re-answer the question.
  5. Follow the revote with a whole class discussion. 

When discussing as a whole class, it can be helpful to consider both accurate and inaccurate responses. For example, point out an incorrect response and ask the class why someone might select the response. This avoids calling out students who answered incorrectly, while addressing the misunderstanding head on. As much as possible, ask students to explain the reasoning behind the responses, rather than doing it for them. 

See it in action

Here are several videos on how and why to implement peer instruction, including peer instruction using response systems (i.e., clickers):