Interactive Peer Instruction in a Large Lecture STEM Course

Interactive Peer Instruction in a Large Lecture STEM Course

Fall 2022
Rachid Skouta standing outside, smiling
Name
Rachid Skouta
Area of Study
Chemistry and Biology
Email Address
rskouta@umass.edu

Active learning strategies promote deeper learning and help students work through difficult concepts and/or problems. Asking students to explain their thinking behind their response to a question to a peer is a particularly powerful way of active learning. Yet, many instructors struggle with scaling up such interactive student engagement in large classes. Read how Dr. Rachid Skouta, a lecturer and an adjunct Assistant Professor in Chemistry and Research Assistant Professor in Biology, uses iClicker questions for interactive peer instruction in his large Organic Chemistry classes with up to 300 students. 

What motivated you to expand the use of iClickers to engage students in interactive peer teaching?   

My classes are not only large, but all my students are non-chemistry majors, which means that they come with a variety of backgrounds and levels of prior knowledge in chemistry. Many of the concepts that I’m teaching are also challenging, and I recognized that I needed to adapt additional interactive peer learning tools and slow down the pace of the class so that students would have time to really think deeply about and apply these concepts. Too often, we slightly sacrifice the amount of content we cover, but don’t really ask ourselves, “Do my students understand these concepts? And will they be able to apply them outside classes (e.g., research laboratory)?” 

Originally, I used iClickers in the more traditional way, just asking the questions without further student engagement. I realized that this allowed me to gauge how I was doing with teaching a concept, but it didn’t provide students with an opportunity to learn through the iClicker questions. Inadvertently, I started using an iClicker approach much like the one pioneered by Harvard University Professor Eric Mazur’s. Later, a CTL (Center for Teaching & Learning) consultant introduced me to Mazur's interactive teaching with peer instruction model, and I continued to implement this teaching strategy in my class moving forward. 

What is it exactly that you are doing? 

I usually pose 4-6 iClicker questions every class session and take students through this 4-step process: 

  • I pose the iClicker question and each student individually answers. I emphasize that students should do their best here, but they won’t be penalized for wrong answers. So, I don’t grade their answers for correctness. But participating in the iClicker questions makes up students’ attendance/participation grade. 

  • I show the cumulative results of the responses, and then I tell students to turn to a partner and discuss their answers with each other: Why did you select A and not B, C or D? So, students provide feedback to each other, and they also really need to think about why they chose a particular answer, and they need to verbalize that. 

  • I ask the same iClicker question again and students respond individually. 

  • When I show the new cumulative response data, I point out how answers have shifted. Then, I explain the correct response and clarify what may have been confusing. Often, you can see the spark in their eyes when students realize that now they understand! 

How do you choose the iClicker questions? 

I begin each class with one iClicker question that connects to an important concept from the previous class. So, for students, it is an effective way to try to remember and review. And, for me, it allows me to gauge their understanding. If most of the students get the correct answer, I move on. If not, I will move to the steps of interactive peer teaching. 

Then, I chunk my content around the 3-4 critical concepts of the topic of the day. I perform a mini lecture supported with a 3D model of molecules to demonstrate each concept, and then ask the iClicker question that invites students to apply what they have just heard from me. 

I end class by asking a final iClicker question that presents a more challenging application of one of the concepts discussed in class. Sometimes, I connect these questions directly to the questions in students’ OWL homework. If so, I explicitly mention this so that students know how what we do in class connects to their homework. 

What would you say is the best thing about engaging students with interactive peer teaching in this way?  

Large classes often feel so anonymous, and students don’t really connect with each other. Using iClickers in this interactive way counters that. So, students really love how interactive this large class is. In their feedback, they have shared how the interactive iClicker process helps to create an inclusive, enthusiastic, and friendly learning environment, where everyone feels included and not judged, and where they can ask questions so that they don’t fall behind with the difficult class content. 

Students have said to me that they feared Organic Chemistry but because of the interactive, friendly, and inclusive nature of the class, now they want to come to class. 

I have also noticed a trend for students to perform better on exams because they don’t just memorize the content but have thought about it more deeply through the interactive peer teaching component of the iClicker questions. In addition, iClicker and exam questions are similar, so students have plenty of in-class practice with answering these types of questions. 

What considerations or tips do you have for other faculty interested in engaging students in interactive peer teaching? 

I would say that: 

  • Yes, this process does take some time, but it’s well worth it because using in-class time in this way really helps students process difficult concepts. In other words, choose quality over quantity.  

  • As you think about when to insert the iClicker interactive peer teaching process, start by identifying the most critical or complex concepts that you are teaching and focus on those. These are concepts that students often find confusing or really need to grapple with. 

  • Do this consistently. Every class session. Once students know the process, it will flow easily. 

  • Phrase the questions in ways that push students to think deeply and apply what you just taught them. 

  • Be mindful that the students come from diverse backgrounds and levels of knowledge and have some simpler and some more challenging questions. 

  • Have similar iClicker and exam questions. 

  • Do not grade the iClicker questions for correctness to encourage student participation. 

  • Be creative. The sky is the limit and adapt it to your own teaching context.