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New Peer Instruction Network: Find other clicker users and connect

posted: February 21, 2012 by

Steve-CQPeer Instruction — a method of using clickers to engage students by having them discuss the questions with their peers before discussing as a whole class — has become extremely popular in a wide range of disciplines and courses. Visit the Physics Education Research User’s Guide here to see more about Peer Instruction. But instructors typically hear about peer instruction through word of mouth, at conferences or by hearing a talk, and don’t always have a lot of support at their home institution to learn how to implement it well.  And the research shows that this lack of support leads to a lot of instructors trying the technique; and then dropping it; a real shame since research also shows how much it can improve student learning.

But that might be changing.  One of the inventors of Peer Instruction, Eric Mazur, has now launched a new Peer Instruction Network, at  The site is still being populated and reaching full functionality, but already has more than 2000 registrants.  The postdoc working on building out the site writes:

  • 441 registrants report having ConcepTests that they have developed in their disciplines.
  • More than 700 users have asked questions about Peer Instruction, and 1200 have written testimonials about their interest or experience with PI.
  • Users from a variety of disciplines, including (but not limited to) physics, law, biology, chemistry, psychology, mathematics, engineering, astronomy, information systems, computer science, measurement, project management, pharmacy, english, statistics, real estate, sociology, nursing, political science, theology, history, art, and foreign languages.

We are still working to register more users as we continue to build out the full site, including the ability to locate and connect with users in your school, organization, or discipline.

So, if you’re using Peer Instruction, or are curious about it, consider signing up for the network.

Here is the text from a press release released by Harvard on the new network:

The Peer Instruction Network, a new global social site for interactive teaching, launches at Harvard

CONTACT: Michael Rutter, (617) 496-3815

Cambridge, Mass. – February 8, 2012 – Researchers at Harvard University have launched the Peer Instruction (PI) Network (, a new global social network for users of interactive teaching methods.

PI, developed by Eric Mazur, Area Dean for Applied Physics and Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), is an innovative evidence-based pedagogy designed to improve student engagement and success.

Mazur, famous for his talk titled “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer,” developed the method after realizing in the 1990s that his physics lectures at Harvard, while popular, were not helping students to master the basic concepts.

The PI technique relies on the power of the “flipped classroom.” Information transfer (i.e., a teacher transferring knowledge to students) takes place in advance, typically through online lectures. In short, students study before rather than after class.

As a result, the classroom becomes a place for active learning, questions, and discussion. Instructors spend their time addressing students’ difficulties rather than lecturing.

While originally developed for Mazur’s introductory physics courses, PI is now used across multiple disciplines, from the sciences to the humanities.

The Peer Instruction Network will serve as a hub for educators around the world to connect and share their PI experiences, submit questions, and engage with other PI users.

“In the first phase of community building we are aiming to register current and potential users of Peer Instruction,” said Julie Schell, Co-Founder of the Peer Instruction Network and a senior education postdoctoral fellow in the Mazur Group at SEAS.

“So far, the response has been remarkable,” Schell said. “More than 1,900 educators from elementary schools to research universities worldwide, including those in Ethiopia, Israel, Singapore, Vietnam, Finland, Germany, Greece, South Africa, and places like South Dakota, New York City, New Orleans and Oklahoma, have joined the Network.”

Testimonials from network registrants suggest why PI is rapidly becoming a pedagogy of choice: It works.

A science professor wrote on the site: “I use the technique so extensively that I’ve moved my lectures from ‘live’ to video podcasts that the students view before coming to class. In-class ‘lecture’ time is now devoted to Peer Instruction, worksheets, and physics demonstrations. Works great!”

At Harvard, Mazur and his team have long been encouraging other faculty to experiment with Peer Instruction in their own courses. With support from Cherry A. Murray, Dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), he has even used it to better engage faculty at faculty meetings and retreats.

“We are amazed by the response to the initial launch of the Peer Instruction Network,” said Mazur. “By connecting people who use interactive teaching methods, we hope to cultivate a community of practice that will have a global effect on educational change.”

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Do they do the reading? Helping students prepare for lecture

posted: December 28, 2011 by

Since my last post on the Flipped Classroom, I’ve stumbled across enough particularly good resources on a similar topic to merit a follow-up post.  The idea behind the Flipped Classroom is that classtime is better spent in helping students to apply ideas (e.g., working problems, doing labs, or in other words making sense of the content) rather than in the traditional lecture content-delivery mode.  So, students watch mini recorded lectures at home to get the content, and then spend class time applying the ideas, with the teacher as a coach.  You can see more about this technique on the previous posts, or at Learning4Mastery. In this post, I will talk about ways to help students use pre-lecture time to adequately prepare for class — whether you’re using a flipped classroom model or not — and the research behind some of those techniques.

Have student reading habits changed?

Have student reading habits changed?

It’s a common complaint:  Students don’t read the book before class.  It’s probably equally true in the humanities, but my main experience is in the sciences.  Science textbooks are dense, full of extraneous diagrams and pictures, and it’s a real challenge for an introductory student to muddle their way through all that information to try to extract useful information from it.  So most don’t bother — they go to class to see what content the professor thinks is important, and then use the textbook to help them to do the homework and guide their exam studying.  But this constrains us to use class in content-delivery mode: If students don’t know the first thing about Newton’s Laws, then how can we do anything in class other than tell them about Newton’s Laws?

Do they read?

Some of my colleagues at CU Boulder studied how students use textbooks in introductory physics (Podolefsky and Finkelstein, “The Perceived Value of Textbooks: Students and instructors may not see eye to eye.” The Physics Teacher, 44, 6, 2006),     Noah Podolefsky, one of the study’s authors, summarizes it below (as quoted from a physics teacher listserv):

In a nutshell, what we found was that few students read the book before class, more student did read (but still not many). However, there was no correlation between reading habits and final grade.  We interviewed students and basically found that they had different strategies for
reading – some read straight through, some read in a non-linear way (going back and forth), some just read the summary. Some students didn’t use the book because they scoured the internet for resources that made more sense to them. We couldn’t find any consistent patterns that related reading habits to performance in the class.

From their data, he claims, it was not clear that encouraging students to read the textbook would have actually helped them.  There’s no correlation between reading the book and doing well in the class, and students are reading in so many different ways that it’s hard to say anymore what “reading” means.  Noah postulates:

I can speculate as to why textbooks are not read, and perhaps not that useful, which is that they aren’t very well designed tools for learning physics. They’re pretty good for re-learning physics if you already have a good framework (i.e., you’re an upper level physics major or grad). But they don’t match very well how new comers (intro students) learn.

I think that this is why we, as academics, get so frustrated when students don’t read.  This is how we learn a new topic — by reading a journal article or a book.  But we’re experts, and we can make sense of the information as it’s presented in the book.  But students are novices, and need more guidance.

So how can we provide that guidance?

One thing that some faculty have tried are multimedia modules to help guide your students in their pre-class preparation.  For example, the University of Illinois has created a suite of multimedia modules, about 10 minutes long, which each guide students through some of the main ideas in the text for a particular topic.   Students watch the videos before class, and take a short quiz on their content to encourage participation. Below are a few such resources that are available online, but please let me know of others that you’re aware of:

  1. Physics: Multimedia Modules; 20-minute lessons with pictures and audio from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne.  Published work on effectiveness here.
  2. Various science: Hippocampus. Short lessons on various topics from the Monterey Institute of Technology, including some recommended ones on physics.
  3. Chemistry & Physics: Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Videos on science, recommended by a high school teacher.
  4. Chemical Engineering: LearnChMe screencasts from CU-Boulder. A richly developed suite of materials on engineering topics.
  5. Various science: Learning4Mastery website by Bergman and Sams covers high school chemistry, physics, earth science, astronomy, calculus, and biology, though their style is idiosyncratic and less easily incorporated into another class


Some other ways to guide students in their preparation are:

  1. Skip the multimedia part and just record your own lectures (using, for example, Panopto).  See some examples of this in physics here and here.
  2. Use pre-existing lectures such as MIT Open Courseware, or other lectures available on iTunesU.
  3. Ask students a pre-lecture quiz, to encourage and guide the reading, or simply ask them what was confusing or what they don’t understand.  This can also guide you as the instructor as to what students are struggling with.  This is called Just in Time Teaching, or JiTT. The quiz can be multiple choice and graded in your course management system to reduce grading burden.
  4. Have students write a brief summary of the reading, and a question that they have about the reading.


The research.

Of course, the big question is, does this stuff work? The answer is probably, as always, “it depends.”  There are few, if any, plug-and-play solutions in education.  How an instructor uses these resources, and coordinates them with the class time, is essential.  That said, here are the results of a few studies.

The UIUC multimedia modules have been studied for several years.  One way to look at the effectiveness is to look at a particular topic, and show students either the multimedia modules, or let them read the traditional textbook.  When they did this (Am. J. Phys, 2009), students did better on a subsequent test on their learning of that topic than with the text-based presentation alone.  That’s not too surprising, since using multiple modes of presentation is typically better than only one mode.  The UIUC folks have also used the multimedia modules in several courses — students watch the modules, and then take a short quiz on their understanding before class.  In another publication (Phys. Rev. ST, 2010), they found that students overall performed better on these “preflight” questions than did students in traditional lectures.  However, they have also reported that students don’t do much better, if at all, on course exams (Am. J. Phys, 2010).  Their interpretation of these results are that students are masters of efficiency.  If they’re aiming for a “B”,  then they’re going to get that “B” with as little work as possible.  So, by guiding students, the modules might have helped them to be more efficient in their studying practices.

Another study in Biology (Lents and Cifuentes, Web-based learning enhancements, J. College Sci. Teach., Nov/Dec 2009), some lecture attendance was replaced with video lectures that consisted of the visual of a powerpoint slide presentation enhanced with audio voiceover.  They found no effect (negative or positive) on student learning from this substitution.  While these authors were aiming to reduce student time-on-task for their largely commuter college, this does suggest the next step — having students engage in video-based learning at home and using lecture time for additional engagement — could be beneficial.

So, it certainly doesn’t seem to hurt to add some sort of pre-class preparation, and if you find some way to guide your students through the topic in a way that is more suited to novice learners than a dense textbook — it could help free up some of your class time to do more in-depth learning.

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Taking the content out of class: Some strategies for “flipping” your classroom

posted: November 28, 2011 by

I’ve written before on the idea of the “Flipped Classroom” for science instruction, where some of class content is moved outside of class time.  Video lessons are recorded in advance, and assigned as homework, freeing the in-person instructional time for working to apply and master that content with the guidance of the instructor.  This is not that radical of an idea — after all, in English class, students read the book before class, and then discuss it in class.  Science is somewhat anomalous in that we think that content delivery has to happen during instruction because students can’t wrestle with the ideas on their own.

I just had the opportunity to take a workshop on the flipped classroom from one of its’ active proponents, Aaron Sams, and wanted to share a few of the ideas I got there.

First, here’s a short YouTube video where Aaron Sams describes his Flipped Classroom, which I think gives a good overview of what it looks like in practice.


Aaron Sams – The Flipped Classroom

You can read more about the Flipped Classroom at several places:

First, Aaron emphasizes, there is no such thing as “the” flipped classroom.  Every educator can take a different approach that matches his or her goals and classroom setting.  The way that he does his classroom is that he spends 5 minutes on a warmup activity, 10 minutes of Q&A time on the video, and then the rest of the class is spend in guided independent practice and/or labs. Of course, he’s in a high school setting, so his class size allows for such an approach, but stay tuned for some ideas that I got for use in the college setting.

In order to flip your classroom, you need three things:

  1. Quality instructional videos (made by you or someone else)
  2. Engaging class activities
  3. Assessment to see if it worked.

Engaging class activities

Let’s start here.  What are you going to have your students do during class?  Worksheets?  Group work?  Labs?  The key is that the activity allows you to get in among the students, interacting with them so that that class time is better used to help guide them and allow them to achieve mastery of the content you want them to grasp.   The videos are meant to get at the lower levels of understanding (e.g., “remembering”).  The class time is meant to get into the higher levels of understanding (“application,” “synthesis,” etc.).


“We don’t use a tool for the sake of using a tool,” says Dan Spencer, “we use a tool when it is appropriate for the job at hand.”  Similarly, you shouldn’t make a video for the sake of making a video.  The pedagogy must drive the technology, not the other way around.  So, what do you want your students to learn?  Consider:  What do my students need me physically present for htat I currently assign out of class, and what I can I remove from class time that my students do not need me present for?  Direct instruction / problem sets / and lab reports, are common answers.

Consider a single lesson to start.  If you want to have students work on problem-solving skills, perhaps model problem-solving in your screencasts.    If you want to guide them through the book reading, perhaps create an online version of the lecture to help cue their attention to the important ideas (this has been done and studied some at UIUC).

Here are some example types of videos:

  • A lecture (can use pre-recorded ones, like MIT Open Courseware)
  • Video of you demonstrating how something works in real life
  • Video of a lab procedure
  • Guided problem-solving
  • Homework solutions
  • Prelab activity
  • Exam review

So, in the college setting, you could imagine using this sort of approach perhaps once a week, to go over homework, to help students get started on homework, to get them ready for an in-class activity.  If the videos are useful and help students either do better in the course, or get a good grade more efficiently, that motivation may be enough for them to watch them.  And you can then use the in-class time for tutorials, small group work, or other activities.  Sure there’s some up-front work to be done, but once the videos are done, you can use them over and over.

You can see a wide variety of example videos on the Learning4Mastery YouTube channel. I highly recommend checking it out — just a few minutes will give you a better sense of what can be done.

What kind of equipment might you need to do this?

An iPad makes it very easy.  Use ReplayNote to import a PDF, or ShowMe is a free app.  ScreenChomp allows you to download the result as a video.  And you can make your own stylus for an iPad for more precise drawings using these instructions here.

An annotated Powerpoint is also very easy.   Use screen capture software to record your screen (Camtasia is nice but pricey, Jing has a 5-minute limit, and Screencastomatic is all web-based).  To annotate the powerpoint you can use:

  • A tablet (like the $60 Bamboo tablet), though I found this to be a bit clunky
  • Activeslate on your Promethean or Smartboard, if you have one
  • A document camera (like Ipevo for $69) to focus on paper.  This seemed to be the easiest to do equations.

A webcam is helpful, to capture video of yourself.

It’s nice to have pop-up boxes (“callouts”) to point out certain items on your screen.  You can do this automatically in Camtasia, but you could do it in other software with manually created callouts.

A calculator emulator is very helpful, so you can model how students would calculate some of these quantities.  Just google Calculator Emulator to find a wide variety of emulators.  Here’s one.

Aaron had some tips to consider:

  • Aim for about 5 minutes
  • Use one video per topic, rather than cramming everything into one video
  • It takes about 30 minutes to record and edit a 10-minute video (at least, once you get good at it)
  • Do we need it perfect, or do we need it Tuesday?  Be satisfied with imperfection rather than obsessively editing.  You can correct your mistakes with callouts.
  • Create PPT’s that have blank spots for the webcam image and the calculator emulator, as well as spaces for working out example problems.
  • Think about how you want the final lesson to look when creating those PPTs.


If you’re going to challenge students to learn at a higher level, you have to test them at that higher level too.  Use continuous formative assessment to see if they’re achieving your standards.   Have them make a Prezi to indicate how ideas in the class are connected.   Have them work together on a group research project.  Whatever it is, have it match your instruction, so that your goals, instruction, and assessment are all aligned.

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“Flipping” your classroom

posted: April 29, 2011 by

When I talk to people about education reform — about doing innovative things like using clickers and peer instruction, or interactive demonstrations, or small group work, a lot of instructors balk.

  • How can I give up that much lecture time?  We have a lot to cover.
  • Students don’t do the reading — so they’re not able to discuss the material yet, they’re starting from scratch.

One great solution to this is called Flipping the Classroom.   The “flip” has to do with where the content is presented.  The standard instructional model is something like this:


But that leaves the toughest part — applying the ideas to homework and problems — to students, struggling on their own.  “How often have you wished you could help confused students as they were doing their work — instead of trying to pick up the pieces the next day?” asks a recent article in The Science Teacher.

The flipped classroom is one answer to that.  The fully flipped model is something like this:


“I no longer go to work to ‘perform’ five times a day; instead, I look forward to going [to class] and interacting with my students all day,” says high school teacher Jonathan Bergmann, who along with Aaron Sams has been actively promoting the idea of the flipped classroom in high school.  In the flipped class, instructors create video podcasts for students to watch — either of lectures, or solving a problem, or demonstrations — and post those for the students to watch at home.

I feel like the fully flipped classroom, with the lecture time used exclusively for hands-on and interactive work, is likely to continue to be more of a draw in K12 education.  In university culture, it’s difficult to go completely interactive given the larger class sizes and the higher expectations that students will spend time becoming proficient in the material on their own as well.  But there is a movement towards creating coursecasts in higher education — where an instructor can videorecord an entire lecture (for watching instead of a live lecture, or for archiving purposes), or perhaps outline a problem or important details.  The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has created web-based lectures for their physics department.  These pre-lectures walk students through key concepts or problems — not replacing the reading, but helping to guide students through the important ideas.  Their research shows that the pre-lectures help make students’ studying more efficient, because they’re oriented to the important principles in the large lecture series.  And here in my home institution of Colorado, the Chemical Engineering department has made an impressive number of screencasts, typically narration by an instructor to supplement the lecture.  A variety of research (like this paper) suggests that the addition of vodcasts can be helpful tools.

Anything that can be done to take some of the content out of lecture and save lecture time for actually working on understanding and applying that content – the better for student learning.  Even if you don’t consider a fully flipped classroom, some of these more small-scale ideas can be valuable changes to any course structure.  After all, what value should the class time offer?  If all students are getting is static information delivery, they can get that from a book.  Your expertise as an instructor is better spent working on the challenging parts of using the information.

The Flipped Class Network

Bergmann and Sam’s website

A very nice post by Derek Bruff on the inverted classroom, posted at the same time as this one!

Images:  Mosborne01, Science Education Initiative.

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