Article Review 3 – Lori Sowa
Contemplating 21st Century skills and gaming theory through the videos and writings of John Seely Brown, I jotted down a number of “big ideas” to research: embracing change, learning to join, power of play, not having a defined endpoint, tinkering, demand-based learning. I searched through a number of articles on the benefits of video games, passion, obsession, and even addiction – but kept returning to the idea of peer instruction, which I think is central in Brown’s theories. My dissertation research is forming around a number of faculty who are using a flipped classroom approach to STEM courses at the freshman and sophomore undergraduate level. The main question becomes – how can we best structure the in-class activities to promote deep learning? The goal is to have students learning from each other, but how can we structure the class to promote this?
In Teaching Engineering Dynamics by use of Peer Instruction Supported by an Audience Response System, Schmidt (2011) describes a study where he implements Mazur’s peer instruction (PI) method in two engineering dynamics courses at a University in Denmark. A third course, taught using the same methods but without the PI discussion questions, served as a control. The author (who was also the instructor for all three courses) used a number of exams (a pre-test of engineering knowledge, final exams, and the cohort’s mathematics exam scores) and a class survey at the end of the course to look at learning gains and students’ dispositions related to the teaching style. The questions on the final examination were broken into two categories: traditional problem solving and conceptual understanding. The author found that scores on the traditional problem solving portion did not vary significantly among the groups, but that the two classes that used PI scored better on the conceptual questions.
The study was overall well-conducted, as the author has a reasonable control group and made an effort to tease out the level of preparedness of the students in the study. However, one variable that was not controlled for was the language in which the course was taught. The program of study was highly international, so two of the sections (the control and one of the experimental groups) were taught in English, while the third course was taught in Danish. The latter group scored better all around, which could potentially be due to the course being taught in their native tongue. In addition, I would have liked to have seen some more detailed questions on the student survey at the end of the course. For example, one of the questions read “Give an assessment of your own preparation for classes”. Since the author encouraged students to read ahead in the text, and their doing so would have likely influenced their performance in the PI activities, a more specific question such as “I prepared for class by reading the assigned sections” and using a Likert-scale rating system to indicate always, sometimes, rarely, etc. may have provided better data. One of the common issues with flipped classrooms is the students’ lack of preparation before class, so it would be nice to quantify this (to the extent you can actually rely on this data).
In my mind the most impressive result of the study was the increase in the number of correct responses after PI discussions and before instructor intervention. Figure 1 from Schmidt’s article (p. 418) shows the percentage of correct answers increased in almost all cases from the students’ initial response (the x-axis below, before PI) to their response after discussion with peers (y-axis, after PI), many times quite substantially.
(apologies – the figure is much more clear in the original text)
Another important aspect of student learning using PI is the awareness by students that they do, indeed, make mistakes and have conceptual misunderstandings. In regards to the students who engaged in PI rating their own understanding of the material lower relative to the control group (who had a higher level of confidence in their grasp of the subject matter), the author provides this explanation:
It is believed that the discrepancy between the students’ assessment of their own outcome and the examination score is related to the quality of the clicker method to expose misunderstandings among students. By taking part in PI-teaching, the student faces the fact that he/she makes quite a lot of mistakes when interpreting new methods and ideas. Thus, the student gets the impression that the knowledge gained is not as profound as the student receiving traditional lectures feels regarding his or her outcome: at a traditional lecture it is tempting for the student to be fully satisfied with all the lecturer’s nice explanations! (p. 421)
There is an outpouring of research that shows that making mistakes and experiencing failure are truly important in the learning process. Many times, students are afraid of failure, and this can inhibit their ability to learn. Schmidt (2011) also states that “…the goal was a safe study environment where the student had no reason to fear giving a wrong answer… [in] this way, it is believed that the most ‘honest’ answers and the best measure of the students’ conceptual understanding as possible were obtained” (p. 416). In searching for an article to reference the importance of not being afraid of failure, I came across this powerful TED talk video with a focus on peer instruction and learning from mistakes.
Once again, the idea of students (novices?) learning from other students proves beneficial to the overall learning process. While this instructional method was used in a face-to-face scenario, the method could be adapted to an online medium.
Schmidt, B. (2011). Teaching engineering dynamics by use of peer instruction supported by an audience response system. European Journal Of Engineering Education, 36(5), 413-423.