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Weekly Tip: Pre-Class Activities and In-Class Peer Instruction Strategies

Imagine a classroom experience where traditional lecture is enhanced by an enriching discussion led by students. This technique is referred to as peer instruction. Students are tasked with a reading or other activity to complete prior to class, and then once in class are given a question or problem to solve regarding the material.

Pre-Class Activities

Pre-class activities are an excellent way to get students to engage with content before they engage with it in class. These activities may include readings, videos, or check-for-understanding assessments.

Benefits of pre-class activities include:

  • Students gain knowledge of the topic prior to engaging in class discussion.
  • Students are prepared in advance to ask questions and think at a higher-level during class.
  • Instructors can gauge student understanding and misconceptions earlier.
  • Instructors have additional time in class to focus on the more challenging material.

The pre-reading approach is a variant on “Just-In-Time-Teaching” (JITTi), in which every class is preceded by a pre-reading assignment and a quiz with open-ended questions about the difficulties encountered. The instructor reacts to these postings by adjusting the lecture to discuss the difficulties “just in time” for the next class.

—Carl Wieman, Science Education Initiative

Tips for Efficiency

Here are some tips for efficient use of pre-class activities:

  • Activities should be tapered to what will be discussed in class.
  • Avoid superfluous information; the more succinct the activity, the more likely students are to participate.
  • Consider giving a follow up assignment for points, such as a check-for-understanding assessment.
  • In class, refer to topics discussed in the pre-class activity, but do not re-teach the material.
  • Explicitly state the purpose, relevance, and benefit of the given assignment. When students understand the relevancy of an assignment, they are more likely to follow through with it.

In-Class Peer Instruction

In class, following pre-class activities, students are divided into groups to discuss and query together. Each group is tasked with arriving at a single conclusion.

There are four language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.  In a lecture we practice listening and reading, not so much writing and speaking.  Peer instruction exercises writing and speaking, which makes for deeper understanding, and multi-modal understanding.

—Dr. Michael Allen Senior Instructor, Physics & Astronomy
Washington State University, Pullman

Why use in-class peer instruction?

Studies have shown that students earn a deeper understanding of concepts by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they learn from their peers.

Some other benefits of in-class peer instruction include:

  • Large class sizes feel smaller.
  • Students gain more practice with the material than with more traditional means such as lecturing.
  • Student ownership of learning is promoted.
  • Students have a chance to contribute to the learning of other students.

You have a closer tie to the material.  You get to interact with others.  The environment is more personal, hopefully more motivating, and hopefully strengthens your recall of the material due to the setting in which the material was consumed.

—Dr. Michael Allen, Senior Instructor, Physics & Astronomy
Washington State University, Pullman

Tips for Facilitating Peer Instruction During Class

Before
  • Develop a concept question which directly correlates to the pre-class activity.
  • Explicitly set class expectations for the in-class activity.
  • State the purpose, relevance, and benefit of the given assignment.
  • Divide students up into groups no bigger than five persons.
During
  • Present the class with the concept question.
  • Give students time to think about their individual answers to the question.
  • If time allows, give students the opportunity to anonymously share their individual answers using clickers or other quick response tools.
  • Students should then discuss their answers within their group, explaining their reasoning.
  • As a group, decide on one common answer.
After
  • Groups share answers using clickers or other quick response tools.
  • Hold a class discussion.

Students are given a chance to consider multiple perspectives, and this helps to broaden their understanding. This also presents a good opportunity for an instructor moderated class discussion. Instructors can then clear up any misconceptions that have arisen during the activity.

References

Heiner, Cynthia, et al. “Pre-Class Reading Assignments Why They May Be the Most Important Homework for Your Students.” Science Education Initiative, Oct. 2016, www.cwsei.ubc.ca.

This series of videos and teaching tips is presented by Academic Outreach and Innovation (AOI). We invite you to join the conversation. Share your tips and ask questions through this blog. If you would like these posts to be sent directly to your email each week, subscribe to the listserv by emailing aoi.li@wsu.edu.

For more information or to schedule time with an instructional designer or emerging technologist, contact aoi.li@wsu.edu or request training on demand. You can also visit the Spark Faculty Innovation Studio in room 102 any time from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Thursday, during the academic year.