Peer Instruction: In Person and in Virtual Worlds

Weekly Writing 4 – Lori Sowa

I enjoyed watching a snippet of Eric Mazur’s lecture using Peer Instruction in his physics course on YouTube. The topic he is teaching is a complicated one involving the “right hand rule”, where students must think about various vector quantities – electrical force, magnetic field, electric field – to try to answer the question posed.   This is a particularly difficult concept to learn from a textbook, as you are dealing with quantities in 3 dimensions.   Even though the students in the class were not able to come to consensus on a right answer (if there was one), what I liked about how this approach was used is that each student had substantial time to explore the issue independently and in small groups, so when the instructor finally discussed the question with the group I believe they were more likely to understand the answer and see where their own thinking was correct and where it was flawed.   I would venture to guess that most physics students leaving most traditional lectures of this particular material leave the classroom without a good understanding of the topic.

I learned about a very similar technique, called “think-pair-share”, in a College Teaching course I took years ago, and like to use it often.   I like the structure of this approach for a number of reasons:

1.   It allows (forces?) students to think through the problem on their own first.

2. Discussing the answer with a partner provides an opportunity to further explore the topic in a low-risk environment, and to see others’ perspectives and thought processes on the issue.

3. Having adequate time to reflect on a topic, and then practicing explaining, defending, and possibly refining or changing their theories, can help a student find the confidence to share aloud to the entire class.   There is substantial scaffolding built in to the approach, from both comfort and theory-development perspective.

This technique can take a passive lecture and turn it into an active learning opportunity where students interact with the material, forming associations and constructing knowledge.

Back in the threaded discussion regarding online laboratories,   I described the benefits of a particular online simulation lab I used where students could actually change the value for acceleration due to gravity, effectively moving themselves from the Earth to the moon to Jupiter. I found this to be an effective method to help students differentiate between mass and weight.   In the comments, Bob posed a great question about peer instruction – how would this be accomplished in online labs?   My experience in this case was in a blended setting, where students used the online simulations in class with other students and an instructor present – so collaboration with peers was possible.   But how would we accomplish this completely online? I’ve used BlackBoard Collaborate to facilitate small group work with students – but would it be possible for both students to access the same simulation in real-time? Ideally students would be able to talk via microphone and/or chat, while each being able to access and manipulate the simulation together from separate locations.   I know that you can “share your desktop”, but I’m not sure if this has the needed functionality.   Here is a situation where a technological tool is needed to facilitate the desired pedagogy.   If anyone has insight on how this can be accomplished, I would love to hear about it.

One way that students can collaborate in the same online space in real time is in Minecraft – in either the standard or EDU version that includes extra functionality that is useful for an educational setting.   Last Spring, I co-taught a course on STEM education where we used Minecraft as a modeling platform.   Looking back at the experience now, I realize that we actually did facilitate synchronous, online “laboratory” work during class.   A colleague set up a server that all of our teachers could access, so even though we were spread throughout the state, we could all be present in the same “world” in Minecraft, performing physics experiments and admiring student creations.   This platform surely pushes the boundaries of what we traditional, skeptical instructors we would consider an “academic laboratory”.   Like any pedagogical tool implemented for the first time, there were successes and frustrating failures.   But, many of our teachers were able to foster collaborative student work in Minecraft that was truly educational and engaging. Perhaps with the more formal method of peer instruction in mind, we could create learning experiences that would foster peer instruction in a virtual environment similar to those created by Eric Mazur in a face-to-face environment.

I lament the fact that I do not have a screenshot to share of all of our teacher-students and instructors flying around in Minecraft, timing pig races and measuring lengths to explore the concepts of distance, rate, and time, among other fun and (mostly) successful tasks.   But I will share a few screenshots that I do have: one of a scale model hydroelectric facility that a couple of 4th graders built, one of the pig race arena I mentioned earlier, and one of the four instructors for the course in Minecraft.

minecraft hydro





Those interested in learning more about MinecraftEDU can start here:




2 thoughts on “Peer Instruction: In Person and in Virtual Worlds

  1. Owen

    Hi Lori,

    Great post. Some of the various games out there might help you do what you want. I’m trying to think of which might be the most fun…and most successful. Have you ever seen the game Portal? It has some pretty nice physics modeling. There is an education version I think…some other neat looking physics related resources as well…

    I’ve spent a bit of time with minecraft and had some failures there as well. My kids spend countless hours building various things. A pretty neat tool. It will be interesting to see what happens now that it has been purchased by Microsoft.


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