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2012 January 2

NPR reports on peer instruction

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:45
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In yesterday’s All Things Considered broadcast, NPR reported on peer instruction in physics: Physicists Seek To Lose The Lecture As Teaching Tool.  Much of the story is from Eric Mazur at Harvard, who has been using peer instruction for about 20 years in his intro physics class.  He uses the Force Concept Inventory (though NPR never names the test) as a pre-test and post-test to see how much of the most basic concepts of Newtonian mechanics his students acquire.  In the old lecture days, there was not much change from the beginning of the semester to the end (an improvement in FCI scores of about 14% of the points).  Now he claims three times as much gain (which would be about 40% of the points on the FCI).

But is peer instruction really what is making the difference?

Mazur says the key is to get them to do the assigned reading—what he calls the “information-gathering” part of education—before they come to class.

I believe that this is indeed the key, as my experience with college students is that most never do the reading at all.  Any change to the pedagogy that forces them to read the book is likely to show similar gains, and having them read the book before class makes the class most effective, whether the class is lecture, teacher-led discussion, clicker questions, or peer instruction.  If there is any magic to peer instruction, it would be in the social pressure to read the material ahead of time.

Are there other, perhaps better ways to get students to do the reading before class?  Has anyone compared different pedagogical approaches specifically to see which foster reading before class most?

14 Comments »

  1. I agree – getting students to read before class is important. My approach with a biology graduate level class (about 15-20 students) has been to require students to submit a question about the reading for discussion. The discussion takes place at the beginning of the class. They can earn extra credit points for submitting thought-provoking questions or ones that I hadn’t thought of previously. Some students really do well with this and will work hard to get the extra credit points – reading beyond the assigned readings just to find something good. Some don’t. But enough students do the reading to be able to contribute to a good discussion.

    I also think that the tests are important. If students know that they will be asked to think beyond rote memorization on the tests, they are more likely to study the material in a way that allows them to apply the information to new questions and situations.

    Comment by kandooku — 2012 January 2 @ 16:30 | Reply

    • Your observations are likely to be useful to me, as I also teach grad students, but would they work for lower-level classes (large freshman classes or high school classes).

      For large classes, you can’t read all the questions at the beginning of the class, and likely only the top 10% would be motivated to provide them anyway.

      The class size is similar in grad-school and high-school classes, but the in-class to out-of-class workload ratio is different (see https://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2010/06/26/homework-load/ ). Spending time in class reading is probably wasted for most students (too little time for the slow readers and too much time for the fast readers), and students don’t have much time outside class in high school, so the reading has to be short and easily assimilated.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 2 @ 16:59 | Reply

      • You are right. Reading questions from students before class and providing feedback is very time-consuming and would not be possible for a larger class.

        A lot to do with student attitudes about learning (though, that would not necessarily explain Mazur’s results). I was once told that there was a survey that indicated that students who learn in traditional classrooms think that they learn the most when the teacher is lecturing, while homeschooled students think that they learn the most when they have to research a topic. Unfortunately, I have never been able to find the survey, but it makes sense that students who are used to being fed information are less likely to be engaged than those who are used to seeking out information to learn.

        Certainly, from my point of view, the students who are there to learn a topic are much more fun to teach than those who are there solely to fulfill a requirement or get a grade.

        Comment by kandooku — 2012 January 2 @ 18:29 | Reply

  2. Much evidence exists to show that reading the text before class is NOT the key to Mazur’s success (and to many others’ success in getting large student learning gains, as measured by pre- and posttests in research-based concept inventories such as the Force Concept Inventory.

    You would find it illuminating to investigate this issue fully. The NPR “All things Considered” piece last Sunday is a short excerpt from a podcast called DON’T LECTURE ME. I found the first half of the hour-long podcast insightful. If you don’t have time to listen to the podcast, read the first two articles.

    The first half of the podcast (and the first two articles) features physics education researchers David Hestenes of ASU, Eric Mazur of Harvard, and Edward “Joe” Redish of the University of Maryland. 

    Articles:
    http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/tomorrows-college/lectures/

    The URL of the 1-hour podcast “Don’t Lecture Me” (rather than the 3 articles based on it):
    http://arwpodcast.tumblr.com/post/9675982132/podcast-friday-dont-lecture-me

    Emily Hanford, the podcast producer, wrote about her motivation for it at
    http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/tomorrows-college/lectures/notebook.html

    Carl Wieman, Nobelist in physics, was her inspiration. She links to a fascinating, insightful, and IMPORTANT 1.5-hour video at M.I.T. by him. http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/560/ . She summarizes it in a way that is motivational. The Carl Wieman video is especially appropriate for college faculty.

    BTW, David Hestenes told me that Emily Hanford called him repeatedly to make sure that she got his information correctly. She was very thorough, he said.

    In Modeling Instruction, student reading of a textbook outside of class is not required. Many modelers do not use a textbook, because none that are useful enough for learning exist at high school level. And a short “lecture” occurs only AFTER students develop a scientific model. See Frank Noschese’s blogpost for a description and links to videos of Modeling Instruction:
    http://fnoschese.wordpress.com/modeling-instruction/

    There is a place for lectures, BUT students must be “primed” for the lecture. According to the PER User’s Guide FAQ:
    It is possible for students to learn from a lecture if they are prepared to engage with it. For example, Schwartz found that if students work to solve a problem on their own before hearing a lecture with the correct explanation, they learn more from the lecture. (For a short summary of this article aimed at physics instructors, see these posts – part 1 and part 2 – on the sciencegeekgirl blog.) Schwartz and Bransford argue that lectures can be effective “when students enter a learning situation with a wealth of background knowledge and a clear sense of the problems for which they seek solutions.”

    That is why a short lecture FOLLOWs student engagement with model development.

    References:
    Daniel Schwartz: Practicing versus inventing with contrasting cases: The effects of telling first on learning and transfer. Journal of Educational Psychology: Volume 103, Issue 4, Pages 759-775
    http://www.compadre.org/per/items/detail.cfm?ID=11526

    [A summary for physics instructors is at
    http://blog.sciencegeekgirl.com/2008/10/10/a-time-for-telling/ and
    http://blog.sciencegeekgirl.com/2008/11/17/another-example-of-a-preparation-for-future-learning-activity-density/ ]

    Daniel L. Schwartz and John D. Bransford, A Time for Telling (1998). Cognition and Instruction: Volume 16, Issue 4, Pages 475-522
    http://www.per-central.org/items/detail.cfm?ID=11521

    For more, see Frank Noschese’s blog (Dec. 2, 2011):
    You Khan’t Ignore How Students Learn
    http://fnoschese.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/you-khant-ignore-how-students-learn/

    cheers,
    Jane Jackson, Co-Director, Modeling Instruction Program
    Department of Physics, Arizona State University, Tempe

    Comment by Jane Jackson — 2012 January 3 @ 19:07 | Reply

    • Sorry about the delay in approving this comment—wordpress.com thought it was spam, probably because of the number of links. I only check my spam filter occasionally for false positives.

      I’m unlikely to watch the videos or listen to the podcasts—I find videos and podcasts a very painful way to get information. Because of the glacial pace, my mind wanders and I lose track of what they are talking about. I’m more likely to read the articles. I’ve read http://fnoschese.wordpress.com/modeling-instruction/ (indeed, I believe it as his blog that introduced me to the term “modeling instruction”).

      Are any of the articles you mentioned directly addressing “Much evidence exists to show that reading the text before class is NOT the key to Mazur’s success”?

      I’ve long been of the opinion that struggling with the material before getting a lecture or other interaction with a teacher is useful. (See, for example, https://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/live-action-math/ , which refers to a 2004 essay on classes I taught at least as far back as 1998. (See http://users.soe.ucsc.edu/~karplus/16/16-style.html for an explanation of the teaching style I used in Fall 1998.)

      The basic concepts of Modeling Instruction make sense to me (as far as I understand them), but I’m not sure which details of the approach are really important and which are just being carried along by the important ones.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 5 @ 20:02 | Reply

      • You ask for more evidence (in print form) that reading the textbook before class is NOT the key to Eric Mazur’s success in learning gains as measured by the FORCE CONCEPT INVENTORY. The big answer is that MANY other physics instructors have got gains as large as Eric Mazur’s, and some of these instructors do not use any textbook. The key is interactive engagement with immediate feedback, along with minds-on, and usually hands-on instruction.
        1) Richard Hake has written much about this, in his posts to several listservs, on his blog, and on his website. His seminal paper is referenced on his website: http://www.physics.indiana.edu/~hake

        See also (I quote Richard Hake):
        Hake, R.R. 2011a. “Is the ‘Teacher Effect’ the Dominant Factor in Students’ Academic Gain?” online on the OPEN! AERA-L archives at . Post of 7 Apr 2011 17:51:59-0700 to AERA-L and Net-Gold. The abstract and link to the complete post were transmitted to various discussion lists and are also on my blog “Hake’sEdStuff” at http://bit.ly/ifvkSz.

        Hake, R.R. 2011b. “The ‘Teacher Effect’ – Response to Hansen #2,” online on the OPEN! AERA-L archives at . Post of 16 Apr 2011 13:43:41 -0700 to AERA-L and Net-Gold. The abstract and link to the complete post were transmitted to various discussion lists and are also on my blog “Hake’sEdStuff” at
        http://bit.ly/efQg1g.

        Hake, R.R. 2011c. “The ‘Teacher Effect’ – Response to Hansen #4,” online on the OPEN! AERA-L archives at . Post of 22 Apr 2011 14:11:15-0700 to AERA-L and Net-Gold. The abstract and link to the complete post are being transmitted to various discussion lists and are also on my blog “Hake’sEdStuff” at
        http://bit.ly/f2wH9v.

        2) Hestenes, D. (2000). Findings of the Modeling Workshop Project (1994-2000) (from Final Report submitted to the National Science Foundation, Arlington, VA). Note: the effect size was later calculated as 0.91; high! http://modeling.asu.edu/R&E/Research.html

        Comment by Jane Jackson — 2012 January 17 @ 20:48 | Reply

        • Thanks, those are the sorts of references I was looking for. I’ll read them as soon as I can.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 17 @ 22:23 | Reply

  3. Is Mazur teaching Harvard students? And do they not know the most basic concepts of Newtonian physics before he teaches them? That’s what struck me in your post (I’m hoping some part of my impression is not true).

    Comment by zb — 2012 January 5 @ 06:59 | Reply

    • I’ve seen other studies which show that most Harvard graduates don’t know much science. And it is certainly true that most students taking an intro physics class at any college (elite or otherwise) don’t really understand Newtonian mechanics coming in. Traditionally taught physics classes in colleges were not getting them to do decently on the Force Concept Inventory even at the end of the course. This is not a new problem—the FCI was developed in 1992 (or earlier, 1992 is the first publication I found describing it) to document a problem that was old even then.

      I’ve not seen the FCI questions, but I wonder if the problem is related at all to Torigoe’s observation that students below the top quarter of the class find numeric problems easier than symboic problems.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 5 @ 08:25 | Reply

  4. […] my recent post NPR reports on peer instruction, I conjectured that a lot of the gains of Mazur’s peer instruction came from getting the […]

    Pingback by Preclass learning « Gas station without pumps — 2012 January 6 @ 16:25 | Reply

  5. I like to lecture, but so far, what I’ve read (and listened to – although I also hate watching videos for information, I was fascinated by Eric Mazur’s hour-long video) about peer instruction and group work makes sense to me. I also agree that getting students to read before class would be a great help. But that would still have them digesting the author’s ideas. What seems vital is for them to play with a problem themselves. (I’m thinking about math here myself, not physics.)

    Great discussion here, thanks.

    Comment by Sue VanHattum — 2012 January 8 @ 09:03 | Reply

  6. […] NPR reports on peer instruction (gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com) […]

    Pingback by NPR: Physicists Seek To Lose The Lecture As Teaching Tool | Brian Pistone's Education Technology Blog — 2012 January 29 @ 06:34 | Reply

  7. […] comes up over and over “Modeling Instruction”. I got some pointers to papers in a comment by Jane Jackson, when I asked for references about peer instruction (a somewhat broader […]

    Pingback by Modeling Instruction « Gas station without pumps — 2012 February 29 @ 18:32 | Reply

  8. […] buzzword comes up over and over “Modeling Instruction”. I got some pointers to papers in a comment by Jane Jackson, when I asked for references about peer instruction (a somewhat broader […]

    Pingback by Modeling Instruction « Gas station without pumps | modelingnew.com — 2012 February 29 @ 22:20 | Reply


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