Making lectures more interactive

Early in 2007, I had been lecturing for about four years, and had become somewhat despondent about the possibilities of teaching in large group settings. I kept trying to make my lectures better, and although students rated them as better than average, I felt frustrated that it remained hard to interact with more than one or two students at a time, using a traditional lecture format.

My colleague Sam Butchart then introduced me to the idea of Peer Instruction, a method of teaching that gets everyone engaging and interacting, numerous times in each lecture. The idea is simply to punctuate the lecture with multiple choice questions which the students can answer. The questions are designed to test conceptual mastery of the ideas just presented in the lecture, rather than mere factual recall.

We use a mass response system, such as flash-cards, to very quickly and efficiently find out what students think. If the answers are overwhelmingly correct, the teacher can congratulate the students and move on. If not, a number of different strategies can be used, but in a typical case the teacher will simply ask students to turn to the person next to them and discuss their answers. (Hence the name: peer instruction.) Often a student who has just grasped a new idea can explain it to another student more effectively than a teacher who is very familiar with the concept. It also gives students a chance to actively apply what they have been learning, rather than simply passively recording it. After a brief discussion, the teacher can ‘poll’ the class again, to  see if the pattern of answers has changed. Surprisingly often, the correct answer will spread from a minority of the class to the majority.

The method has been widely used in the sciences, but is less well known in the humanities. I tried it out, and rapidly became a convert. Lectures were more fun to deliver, and students found them more rewarding to attend.

The big challenge is crafting good questions. Together, Sam and I have compiled some helpful resources for those who are interested in the method of teaching, including a number of sample questions, here.

Also see our paper, with Greg Restall of Melbourne University, reporting some survey-based data on the student reception of peer instruction: Using Peer Instruction to Teach Philosophy, Logic, and Critical ThinkingTeaching Philosophy 32 (2009).