Daniel has been teaching Introduction to Biophysics 307 for three years. In addition, he has taught a similar graduate course, Molecular Biophysics 611, for one year. After teaching the first year of the undergraduate course, Daniel realized that students did not retain the concepts from the pre-requisite courses and were therefore missing basic knowledge that was critical for student success in his course. Daniel also noticed students had a difficult time understanding the material presented because a lot of the students enrolled in his course were from disciplines other than Physics. In order to effectively address these issues Daniel decided to adopt a different teaching strategy.
To determine what knowledge the students were missing at the start of the course, Daniel developed a quiz that addressed the basic knowledge needed and also incorporated concepts the students should know at the completion of his course. The same quiz was given to the students four times throughout the course. Daniel expected the students to do poorly the first time, which provided a baseline for the students’ current level of understanding. By administering the quiz repeatedly throughout the course Daniel could identify areas where the students continued to struggle which then allowed him to focus his instruction on those areas. By the end of his course, he expected the students to ace the quiz and they did.
Daniel also adopted peer instruction strategies to help the students understand the concepts presented in his course. Daniel used in-class time to present problems first from a physics perspective and then asked students to solve an unrelated problem using the knowledge they gained from his physics demonstration. The unrelated problem was presented from the perspective of a different discipline but still relevant to both the students and the physics concepts. The students volunteered to work through the given problem in front of their peers while sharing their thought process orally. This peer instruction approach allowed the student and their peers to transfer the physics concepts to their discipline(s). The students began to ask questions of their peers and engage in meaningful discussions regarding the application of the material learned, which allowed Daniel to observe the students’ level of understanding and application. In another form of peer instruction, instead of writing traditional lab reports, Daniel had his students write letters to their peers explaining what they learned from their lab and how they might approach the experiment differently if they could do it over. This alternative provided students with an opportunity to critique and learn from their peers’ success and failures in the lab in addition to self-reflection.
Benefits and Impacts
- Daniel was able to meet his student’s where they were at the beginning of the course and observe their growth and understanding as the course progressed.
- Students were able to integrate the concepts presented in Daniel’s course with their specific discipline which helped them retain the material and gain a deeper understanding because the material was relevant to them.
- Students were more engaged with the material because of the high level of accountability involved with peer instruction strategies.
- Students began to work together better as the peer instruction techniques served as a team building exercise and students began to trust each other’s understanding. Finally, the students began to form study groups on their own, which led to better preparation for exams.
- Peer instruction is sometimes easier to integrate in graduate courses compared to undergraduate courses because graduate students seem to be more invested in their education and are therefore motivated to learn and understand the concepts.
- Sometimes students need more emphasis on the basics and the math required, so it is important to have a flexible course schedule to ensure students gain this knowledge before moving onto the more difficult applications. It is important to not assume students have the information and understanding needed to be successful in the course.
- Daniel finds it helpful to identify and appoint a leader when using peer instruction with small groups to promote individual accountability.
Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual by Eric Mazur
Just in Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology by Gregor Novak, Andre Gavrin, Wolfgang Christian, and Evelyn Patterson
Physlets: Teaching Physics with Interactive Curricular Material by Wolfgang Christian and Mario Belloni