Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Facilitating Discussion with Peer Instruction

Here are two trappings I've seen recently:

#1: Validating the right answer the moment you hear it, thereby short-circuiting any dialogue about the problem.

Recently, I heard a college instructor say, "I agree with you," anytime a student said something correct, and "Are there any other ideas?" anytime a student said something incorrect. My sense was that the phrases "I agree with you," and "Are there any other ideas?" were honest attempts by the instructor NOT to say "That's correct" and "That's incorrect". I caught on to this pattern of talk quickly, and I imagined students would catch on within a few days or weeks.

#2: Requesting that a nearly correct student "say more" in a manner that implies, "Could you please restate what you said using the correct terminology?" rather than, "I'm really interested in your idea, please say more about that?"

This can be subtle, as it often has to do with tone of voice, body language, and subtle phrasings. When an instructor does this, however it really gums up the dialogue. Because students pick up on the fact that it's not about their ideas, this kind talk quickly descends into a game of "the teacher is thinking of a number between 0 and 100." Students either start opting out or just trying to guess what the instructor wants them to say.

The Big Picture

Facilitating discussions is hard work. In my mind, the number one priority is getting students to invite me in to their learning through their talk. Largely, this means that they are sharing their ideas and thinking, not trying to guess what's in my mind or avoid being wrong. When I see instructors falling into these kinds of traps, I see this priority being undermined.

Some people might think the solution to trap #1 is to have a better poker face–don't have any "tells" that give away the right answer. I think that approach is flawed because it's trying to stop the symptom, but not the cause. I don't need a poker face if I am not listening to student ideas primarily through a lens of correct and incorrect.

Some people might think the solution to trap #2 is to not care about terminology. While that's possible, I don't think it's realistic. I think the solution is to distinguish the activities of "shopping for ideas" and "connecting with disciplinary formalism". The problem is in trying to do both at the same time and in the same way.

I certainly enjoy watching other people teach, because it gives me an opportunity to reflect on my own teaching. There are times when I "gum up the dialogue" and focus on correctness when I shouldn't. Sometimes by watching others, I understand better why we all fall into these traps and what impact it can have on students.


  1. Are you familiar with SATIC coding?

    How we respond to student talk is so very important, but so very often underestimated.

    I'd suggest one strategy (that i'm sure you're familiar with) to address both of these issues: wait time 2.

    After every student response wait 3 seconds before saying anything and see what happens....it's amazing. :)

  2. I just now looked up SATIC. Pretty cool. I'll look into it more. I agree that the importance of our emotional and social response to student talk is underestimated.

    And yeah, wait time is huge. I find that wait time is easy if I give myself something to do or a place to be. I can either choose to be at the board writing down student ideas as they arise (something to do), or I can hide in the corner of the room as not to be "in front of the class" (a place to be) They serve different purposes, but both help me as a teacher to naturally build in wait time. I do it automatically, instead of trying.

  3. I like to look at how the other students respond to comments by students. Sometimes I'll say things like "so-and-so seems to disagree" or "what the heck was that face?"

    I also think the peer-instruction style "share with your neighbors" is great because they use such different vocabulary to communicate things to each other. -Andy

  4. Here are a range of things I have pulled into my repertoire:

    "Say more about that?"
    "That sounds really important."
    "That sounds similar/different than so-and-so's idea"
    "Would someone like to add to that?"
    "Is there anyone who would like to agree or disagree with what was just said?"
    "I didn't quite catch that. Can you elaborate?"
    "You look like you have something to say."
    "We haven't had a chance to hear from so-and-so yet"
    "Do you mean ABC or XYZ?"
    "What do you think of that idea?"
    "Are you agreeing or disagreeing with so-and-so's idea?"
    "Can someone help explain that idea, so I can understand, too?"

  5. Brian,
    This is a great list. It sounds dumb, but I think it would be very helpful to print a card with questions/statements like this to spark me while teaching.

  6. Not dumb at all. Most of things I have learned to say I picked up from watching others say them, and seeing the impact that they have on students.

    I say pick ONE thing, just one, and practice saying it in class just a little bit. Pay attention to what happens.

  7. Wow -- you buried the lead here. That list is really helpful. It's amazing how a tiny change in wording can make a huge difference. I sometimes ask "can anyone offer some evidence in support of [x]? Can anyone offer some evidence that contradicts [x]?" but I prefer your way of asking "would anyone like to agree or disagree". Also, in response to comments with an "edge" (you know the ones -- they are veiled accusations) I sometimes say, "it sounds like you're frustrated with me, but I'm not sure about what." So far, that has lead to students finding a respectful way to explain what they're upset about, so that we can address it.

  8. Sorry to bury the good stuff in the comments. I agree that minor word changes can have a big impact, partially because of the words themselves, but partially because when we say those words we have a different manner about ourselves.

    Two other big ones that changed things for me was to open with "I'd like to hear arguments on both sides." and to press iwth, "I'm not hearing any dissent. I want to hear at least one opposing argument before we move on..."

  9. I'm not so good at #2, but for #1 especially when i've taught the class before, i get to knowing which questions are going to be gimmes and which will engender discussion. i do a mix of both - the easy ones help review, build confidence and to help me see who's really lost. with those, i will quickly give up the answer since at least 3/4 of the students will get it right. the harder ones will get discussion going - i see (via clickers, signs, or fingers held up) that there's significant dissent, and then i will get them talking to their neighbors.... if the correct answer is one of the ones more favored, i might eliminate some of the unchosen or less-frequently chosen answers from the running before i set them talking. then we do a re-vote after some peer discussion. it also takes experience to know when it helps to seed the discussion with some open-ended questions, some broad hints or whatnot... if the class is small enough i can throw these in during the discussion depending on what i hear people talking about. certainly if they come to a standstill in the discussion, i will toss in a prompt of some sort.

    i've definitely done these - very helpful for discussion and setting the tone!
    "Two other big ones that changed things for me was to open with "I'd like to hear arguments on both sides." and to press iwth, "I'm not hearing any dissent. I want to hear at least one opposing argument before we move on..."

    for #2 i got feedback early in my teaching career from a microteaching session (videotaped practice teaching session in front of grad student peers) that when someone gave a part of the answer i was looking for, i jumped (excitedly!) on them, but came across as intimidating and they became unsure of themselves and clammed up. i didn't want to just declare it correct and take over the discussion, but instead my challenge to "say more" was taken as a threat by someone who wasn't sure if her answer was correct. so now i try to validate more what the person said, right or wrong, by hearing from them where the idea came from, because there's always a kernel of truth in there that i can bring the discussion along on.

  10. I have to say that the ones from the list that I most often use are

    "Would someone like to add to that?"
    "Is there anyone who would like to agree or disagree with what was just said?"
    "Do you mean ABC or XYZ?"

    One of my favorite strategies to help students discuss their ideas is to ask the class WHY somebody might choose a specific answer (say answer C). I usually do this after a student has provided a clear explanation for a (more often than not) correct answer. This provides other students an opportunity to explain what they now believe to be incorrect answer. I find that I get answers from each of the following: a student who had the correct answer guessing why somebody might have chosen answer C, a student who originally chose C but changed their answer after the talk to your neighbor phase, and students who chose C and feel that I have provided them with a safe place in which to explain their thinking that led them to C.