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One problem with conventional teaching lies in the presentation of the material. Frequently, it comes straight out of textbooks and/or lecture notes,
giving students little incentive to attend class. That the traditional presentation is nearly always delivered as a monologue in front of a passive audience compounds the problem. Only exceptional lecturers are capable of holding students' attention for an entire lecture period. It is even more difficult to provide adequate opportunity for students to critically think through the arguments being developed. Consequently, lectures simply reinforce students' feelings that the most important step in mastering the material is memorizing a zoo of apparently unrelated examples.

In order to address these misconceptions about learning, we developed a method, Peer Instruction, which involves students in their own learning during lecture and focuses their attention on underlying concepts. Lectures are interspersed with conceptual questions, called ConcepTests, designed to
expose common difficulties in understanding the material. The students are given one to two minutes to think about the question and formulate their own answers; they then spend two to three minutes discussing their answers in groups of three to four, attempting to reach consensus on the correct answer. This process forces the students to think through the arguments being developed, and enables them (as well as the instructor) to assess their understanding of the concepts even before they leave the classroom.

We have taught two different levels of introductory physics at Harvard using this strategy and have found that students make significant gains in conceptual understanding (as measured by standardized tests) as well as gaining problem solving skills comparable to those acquired in traditionally taught classes. Dozens of instructors at other institutions have implemented Peer Instruction with their own students and found similar results.

Peer Instruction is easy to implement in almost any subject and class. It doesn't require retooling of entire courses or curricula, or significant expenditures of time or money. All that is required is a collection of ConcepTests (available on Project Galileo) and a willingness to spend some of class time on student discussion.

It's the middle of a class period and two hundred students aren't listening to the instructor. Instead, they're engaged in over fifty simultaneous conversations with their neighbors. This probably sounds like a disaster to many teachers. But it's actually a rousing success: the students are discussing a question which challenges them to think about the material and justify their reasoning to their classmates.

Nothing clarifies ideas better than explaining them to others.

Peer Instruction actively engages the students in their own learning. Carefully chosen questions (ConcepTests give students the opportunity
to discover and correct their misunderstandings of the material, and, in the process, learn the key ideas of physics from one another.

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