Peer Instruction Teaching Techniques

The following are teaching techniques that I have found to be helpful companions to Peer Instruction.  Steven Johnson gives a nice 4 minute animation on why collaboration is important for new ideas to emerge.
This page can be found at:    [Many of these ideas (grouping, counting off within groups) came from Exploring Computer Science (ECS) professional development.  Thanks to Danae Dorsey for "Fist-of-Five"]

Many of the techniques described below include direct links into a YouTube video of a sample lesson.  (You could also see the full 40 minute video at 
This was done in a class of 130 students. 
Also see the the pdf class notes and the course web site that go along with the recorded sample lecture.
  1. Establish community with elbow partners and family groups:
    Make "family groups" of 4-6, and requiring them to sit with their families.  Socially engineer the groups so that any group with females (or some other of Latino / African Americans) have at least one other of the same type in their group. This group is in addition to their "elbow partner". This gives them a semblance of instant community, a place where they belong and there is an expectation of conversation. 

    Video Examples:  
    Elbow partner discussion (5:33) “Does this make sense? Fist of Five, for 15 seconds”.   16:10 “How many do you think that is?” 

  2. Invite discussion in a non-threatening way:
    After students have discussed a question with their peers, have a really soft floppy rubber frisbee to throw out into the crowd. Wherever it lands ask that person to summarize what they talked about with their neighbors.  They can always say "pass".  On the next question they get to toss (or pass) the frisbee. This introduces a regular element of fun, gets them looking at and interacting with each other, and means anyone, anywhere in the room might be chosen next to comment.

    Video Examples:  
    Frisbee is tossed out to "volunteer" a group.  At 30:24 to 31:41 elbow partners / families discuss, with frisbee tossed out at 30:49.  Students who are uncomfortable say "pass".  Frisbee used again at 39:20
    Discussion can get loud, especially in a large classroom.  To get everyone's attention again, after discussion the teacher can raise their hand to get everyone’s attention.  Students seeing this also raise their hand. 1:22 and 39:13

  3. Avoid asking "Are there any questions?"
    Of course there are questions, but in a large lecture room most students are too embarrassed to ask them. Besides using clickers to respond to answers to posted questions, use them to query confidence levels, say on how well students understand the current assignment.  
         In non-clicker settings use "Fist-of-five" for audience response, where you ask everyone to select their level of confidence or understanding and display it using their fingers, where five fingers is "high confidence" and no fingers is "no confidence".  Then ask them to discuss with their elbow partner (often for just 20-30 seconds), compare how many fingers, and if they are not at a five, talk about the obstacles or questions that prevent them from being at a five.  Then choose some pair of students to report out, and presto, the conversation has already started and other students are much happier to jump in, since there is not the onus that they are the only one with a question.  

    Video Examples:  
    An example of the wrong way to do it is at 0:48 “Has anybody…”
    A better way is to invite discussion with their elbow partner (5:33) using "Fist of five"  to indicate whether the idea under discussion makes sense “no(1)..yes(5)”.
    See another example (21:18) of elbow partner discussion “If you do it with 3 disks, how many moves is that?”, followed by a write-in clicker question (21:27), with the question then explained and student answers reviewed (24:47)

  4. Accountability for group discussion:
    Have all groups count off their group members 1-2-3-4. Verify they have done this at the beginning of class by asking "all number two's raise your hands, now number 1's" and so on.  After group discussion for some question during class, choose a random group and ask "person n" to summarize what their group talked about.  This motivates active listening and equity, since anyone of them (not just the "big mouth") might be selected to report out if their group is chosen. 

    Video Examples:  
    Family groups number off 1..6 (1:29).  Teacher verifies everyone knows their number (2:04).  When a group is chosen, then the number indicates whom in the group speaks for that group (30:55) where students can “pass”.  At 39:38 person #2 is asked “What did your family talk about?”

  5. Ensure participation: Invite students to join or engage with their family group.  Invite comment from disengaged students.
    If someone is sitting there and not talking to an elbow partner, walk around and ask them to move and pair them up with someone else.  Guests are welcome, but the rule is "everybody participates."  This works fine since people can always say "pass" when singled out.  After establishing this as the classroom culture, students themselves move to sit next to others when they come in to class.  
         Once students are grouped, say "Today's lucky color is green.  Let's hear from someone wearing green."  Then choose a group seemingly at random.  In reality chose some attribute (e.g. "wearing a hat", or "with headphones", or "with glasses", or "with hoodie" etc) specifically selected to try and loop in some student who might be currently disengaged.

    Video Examples:  
    Student is invited (6:31to sit up with his family group members.  Teacher checks in with groups 27:00 while walking around the room during family groups discussions.

  6. Motivate helpfulness:
    At the end of the semester give bonus points to the best citizens in the Piazza discussion board.

Other Video Examples
  • Peer-Instruction Audience Response (clickers) example is from 15:02-18:20
    (15:02) Example of a write-in clicker question: “How many moves does it require?”.  Students first answer individually (15:35), then the question is reopened (16:15) for them to discuss with their family. Finally question is discussed as a class (17:25) and family / individual answers are reviewed.
            In a second example at 25:22 the question is asked “Back to the original question: How long does 64 disks take?”  Family groups discussion (26:00), then click in on a preset clicker question, followed by another related preset question (28:30).
  • Model the problem using code
    Code is run (33:36 to 38:40) to demo / model scaling the problem, to answer the question "How long would it take to solve the problem on the computer with 64 disks, making over a billion moves / second?"

Recording myself and watching the video is a learning experience!  I realized that I say "so..." quite often, and that it would be good for student voices (as opposed to my voice) be heard a larger proportion of the time.  I need to have more clicker questions that are carefully mapped to the topic, to elicit more student voices and engagement.

See guest Martin Breuss' blog post about his experience visiting the class when the recording was made.                    
Dale Reed,
Nov 25, 2017, 7:08 AM