Convince your neighbors

Many of us poll our students during class about conceptual questions.  This technique is one of the hallmarks of Eric Mazur’s “Peer Instruction” teaching method initially developed for teaching introductory physics.  Many at Hamline use “clickers” to accomplish this polling.  What I’d like to talk about in this post is what happens after the polling, something I call “convincing your neighbors.”

Mazur gives a guideline of 80% when deciding whether to have students convince their neighbors.  This means that if more than 80% of the class chooses the same answer (not necessarily the correct answer), it’s not worth class time to have them talk amongst themselves.  If no answer reachers that threshold, however, having the students discuss their opinions is a vital ingredient to learning.

I’ve been teaching this way for ten years now and I’ve seen this work well and I’ve seen it work not so well.  Some of the pitfalls include:

  • Sometimes its hard to get students to find someone who disagrees with them
  • Students don’t always fully commit to their answers
  • Students readily agree to change their mind when confronted with someone they think understands the material better

Recently I taught a class that worked quite well and introduced a new twist.  I put students into groups of three or four for the duration of the class period so that they could work together on sample problems.  For the conceptual information I used my concept quizzes the same as always.  However, this time I said “convince your group” instead of “convince your neighbors.”  I found that this caused much more vibrant conversations.  Each group had a white board to work the sample problems on and often they would use the white board to flesh out the details of the conceptual question.

It seems that by randomly forming groups I dealt with the first point above.  Students weren’t sitting by their friends whom they often study with and so it was rare for a group to all vote the same way.  While students didn’t necessarily commit to their answers any more than in the past, the group dynamic seemed to get them to focus more than I’ve seen before.  As for the last point, because the groups work together on many different things during the class period it seems they are a little less in awe of the “smart” students.

As a side note, I don’t use clickers for this.  This is how I do it.

How have others seen the “convince your neighbors” aspect of conceptual polling work?

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