Key factors for success with peer instruction include
designing discussion-provoking questions, ensuring adequate preclass preparation by administering reading
quizzes, and grading participation in questions but —
crucially — not correctness of the response. Of course
the heart of any question-driven approach to learning is
the quality of the questions. Peer instruction questions
may be used to verify student understanding of what
was just said in lecture, or to highlight difficult corner
cases in the reading material. My favorite questions are
those that anticipate the next topic of lecture. A well-crafted question of this type can light a fire of motivation within students to hear what the instructor will
teach next, because they have been confronted by a scenario that illustrates the need for it and have spent several minutes grappling with the issue.
Originally developed in physics classes by Eric Mazur,
a Harvard physics professor, peer instruction’s strong,
multidecade track record of success there (Crouch and
Mazur 2013) has launched it into other disciplines and,
increasingly, into computer science classrooms. Peer instruction has been successful in a variety of computer
science courses including introductory programming (in
a variety of languages), Data Structures, Discrete Math,
Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, Theory of Computation, Operating Systems, Programming Languages,
and Architecture. 1 Potential adopters of these materials
should be encouraged by reports that adopters of materials experience success matching that of the instructor
who created the materials (Lee, Garcia, and Porter 2013).
Research on use of peer instruction in computer sci-
ence has created a compelling case in several dimen-
sions. Experiments using a follow-up question verified
that students learn from discussing with peers and are
not simply “copying” a perceived strong groupmate
(Porter, Lee, Simon, and Zingaro 2011). In a study of
more than 20 peer instruction classes taught by 7 differ-
ent faculty, and compared to over 100 standard instruc-
tion versions of the same courses, use of peer instruction
halved fail rates (Porter, Lee, and Simon 2013). Use of
peer instruction in the introductory course, together
with pair programming and media computation, re-
tained 18 to 30 percent more majors in subsequent years
(Porter and Simon 2013). Peer instruction is effective in
engaging groups of hundreds of students (Lee, Garcia,
and Porter 2013), and guiding groups of 10 or fewer in
liberal arts college settings (Porter, Garcia, Glick, Ma-
tusiewicz, and Taylor 2013). Perhaps most importantly,
students enjoy peer instruction and believe it to be ben-
eficial. In standardized student surveys of classes using
peer instruction, it is common for about 90 percent of
students to say they recommend that other instructors
adopt use of clickers and peer discussion (Lee, Garcia,
and Porter 2013).
1. Complete materials for many of these are available to faculty
without cost at peerinstruction4cs.org.
Crouch, C. H., and Mazur, E. 2001. Peer instruction: Ten Years
of Experience and Results. American Journal of Physics 69(970).
Lee, C. B; Garcia, S.; and Porter, L. 2013. Can Peer Instruction Be
Effective in Upper-Division Computer Science Courses? ACM
Transactions on Computing Education 13( 3): 12.
Porter, L., and Simon, B. Retaining 18–30% More Majors with a
Trio of Instructional Best Practices in CS1. Paper presented at the
44th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE ’ 13), Denver, CO, 6–9 March.
Porter, L.; Garcia, S.; Glick, J.; Matusiewicz, A.; and Taylor, C.
2013. Peer Instruction in Computer Science at Small Liberal Arts
Colleges. In Proceedings of the Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education Conference (ITiCSE 2013). New York: Association for Computing Machinery.
Porter, L.; Lee, C. B.; and Simon, B. 2013. Halving Fail Rates Using Peer Instruction: A Study of Four Computer Science Courses. In Proceeding of the 44th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE ’ 13).
Porter, L.; Lee, C. B.; Simon, B.; and Zingaro, D. 2011. Peer Instruction: Do Students Really Learn from Peer Discussion in
Computing? In Proceedings of the 7th International Workshop on
Computing Education Research. New York: Association for Computing Machinery, 2011. dx.doi.org/10.1145/2016911.2016923
Cynthia Bailey Lee is a lecturer in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University. She has a Ph.D. in computer
science (University of California, San Diego) in the area of high-performance computing. Her currently research is in computer
science education, with an emphasis on the use of peer instruction pedagogy in lecture.
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