Relegating decision-making responsibility is very easy to do, easier still when people don’t have the tools to dissect the veracity of information for themselves. Within the scientific community, the answer for “should you believe any given report” generally includes “was it peer-reviewed”. The point of peer review being that we don’t believe something just because “a very senior scientist says so”— there are standards that have to be met — a decision made by other scientists in the same field (peers of scientists doing the study). The strict criteria that apply to doing science, can they be made part of learning science? How can science students be taught the process of critical assessment and feedback? Peer Instruction offers one possibility to do that.
Sometimes clubbed with many ways of class discussion, there are multiple elements to peer instruction. As the name suggests, students “instruct” their peers; only, unlike the lecture setting, here the instruction is in the form of a discussion. It requires students to self-evaluate what they know, present their point of view to their peers (the instruction part) and try to understand their peers’ arguments in turn. Teachers use it either for formative assessment of student understanding in real-time, and/or for specific needs of a project/assignment. For many, it is also a preferred method to teach students how to read original scientific papers.
When done right, this mode of instruction involves arguments being judged for their merit, like it is in peer review. “Translating” principles of peer review to peer instruction in class would include asking students to summarise their peers point of view, assess whether the argument [they heard] is logical, put forth their own argument and give reasons for agreeing/disagreeing with their peer(s).
Though discussion is an integral part of peer instruction, teachers who use this method advise to carefully introduce the format and to ensure it is made clear to students what’s expected of them; lest it becomes another case of “fisheye teaching” where discussion becomes confined between the teacher and a few extroverted students, sidelining the rest of the class.
In any form of discussion, shy students do have their work cut out for them. Not sure whether to clarify a doubt they have, not confident in their own point of view, or lacking the surety to debate another student’s opinion, they either don’t speak up or easily get disheartened when they get shouted down by other students. Here again, it is up to the teacher — to set the ground rules for discussion participation.
In the Indian context, several factors can make it a tricky business to adapt peer instruction. Culture plays a big role, always, in framing learners’ behaviours. Frequently, teachers report hesitation on parts of students to be direct, for worries it might be misconstrued and they’d end up alienating their friends. Not for nothing, but another reason discussions can be unsettling for students is that they are comfortable with “one-right-answer” evaluation system. Whereas with methods like peer instruction, having the right answer is not the end-of-story. Students have to be able to show how they got there. Swati Patankar, faculty at IIT Bombay, has been using peer instruction for 7 – 8 years. In one particular instance, her students, after learning ‘regulation of gene expression’ do a group exercise to “design your own genetic switch”. The class is divided in groups, and each group grades the presentations of the other groups, based on pre-set criteria. “I do need to nudge them to develop the criteria they must rely on to grade their peers. I make sure they understand it is not enough for any of them to give loose responses like ‘this was good’; ‘I liked it’. With some encouragement, students do come up with reliable benchmarks: ‘was the argument presented scientifically sound’; ‘was the presentation clear and easy to understand’; etc. For this to work, it is up to the instructor to set it up really well — to make it clear to students what it is that is being evaluated.”
For teachers using peer instruction, it is often rewarding to see students “get” the difference between what they know and what they think they know. “I do believe doing such peer activities gives students a holistic understanding of science process”, says Asim Auti of MES Garware college, Pune. “Students have to be trained to give critical feedback. I think this training is a long process, but totally worth the effort. In one of the courses I teach MSc Biotech students, their response was so overwhelmingly positive, it was incredible — they asked “why is it we don’t learn science this way in school and undergrad too!”