Peer Instruction in Physics & Astronomy

Order my book on Peer Instruction for Astronomy !

It's "a gem", according to this December 2005 book review in The Physics Teacher. The book includes hundreds of ConcepTests, and was distributed FREE to most intro astro instructors across the country. This is truly a community project, designed to facilitate progress in astronomy education. A few excerpts are available in Word , PDF , or PS format.

By encouraging student participation and interaction during the lecture, Peer Instruction encourages students to critically think through the arguments being developed, and to discuss their ideas and insights with their neighbors. Peer Instruction is a form of Collaborative Learning, one of the best researched pedagogical techniques ever, with literally hundreds of studies that virtually all document substantial improvements in student learning and engagement. It also provides a relief from standard lecture format, both for students and instructors.

Briefly, lectures are broken into sections. Start with a brief, more-or-less standard format mini-lecture on one of the fundamental concepts to be covered. This mini-lecture is then followed by a ConcepTest -- a short multiple-choice question that tests the students' understanding. After one minute, the students record an answer and are then asked to turn to their neighbors to try and convince them of their answers. This invariably leads to animated discussions. After another minute or so, the students are asked to reconsider their answer and record it again. A quick poll is taken so the instructor can decide whether to move on to the next concept, or to continue on the same. This process may repeat twice or 5 times until the end of the class.

Instant touchpad counting systems are available and quite handy for the instructor, but Peer Instruction is not necessarily high tech! Students can also print out and use simple flashcards that are big and bold enough to be seen at the front of the classroom.

How do you possibly find time for all this polling and discussion? It helps a lot to make sure that the students have read the material in advance. I like to use a simple, adaptable of which I provide an Web-based reading quiz. Feel free to download and modify the source page for your needs (e.g., for Netscape click View in the Toolbar, then Page Source).

Peer Instruction was originally developed and implemented for introductory Physics by Eric Mazur at Harvard. The improvements in student performance have been widely publicized in Sheila Tobias' book "Revitalizing Undergraduate Science (Research Corporation, 1992). For more details, check out these references I've compiled, or Mazur's PEER INSTRUCTION: A User's Manual (Prentice Hall, 1997). Instructors have pointed out the benefits of teaching by questioning over the more traditional approach of teaching by telling. This has led to consistent, measurable short- and long-term improvement in student performance. Student satisfaction with the courses have been high. Instructors across the country, teaching in a variety of institutions to widely differing student bodies, have noted similar benefits.

How can we implement Peer Instruction in Astronomy?

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