Learning Through Peer Discussion – Mary Power

discuss-copy It seems intuitive that group discussion can enhance the learning experience. We (or at least I do anyway) almost often think of discussions occurring among a small group of individuals. Yet there is a growing body of research evidence indicating that discussion based collaborative learning is a powerful tool that can be used even in large class situations.

In January of this year an article was published in the journal Science that studied large classes and reported on “Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions.”  As a scientist I was anxious to read this article because if published in Science it must be great, right?  Of course that is not always the case, but I think that this is an exciting report with some sound statistical data and a strong argument for the potential contribution of peer discussion to learning.

The study involved the use of classroom response systems or “clickers” as tools to gage the students understanding of concept questions in a large Genetics class. Students were asked “clicker” questions periodically during lecture.  The histograms of the initial individual responses were displayed and when the results were disparate the students discussed the results, in the absence of instructor input, and re-voted. Following the re-vote and prior to the second histogram being shown or the correct answer given, a second isomorphic question (same concept, different “dressing”) was posed for individual student voting.

Reprinted by permission of AAAS
Reprinted by permission of AAAS

The study results summarized in the graph  (Fig. 1 Smith et al.) demonstrate an increase in correct responses following the peer discussion not only with the original but, significantly, with the second isomorphic question as well.  It has sometimes been suggested that with these peer discussion activities the perceived “smarter” students tell the others their answers and thus the second vote is not a true measure of learning, but rather of strategic voting.  Here however, the second question produced scores even higher than the post discussion first question scores (and remember this was prior to any sort of feedback on the first question). The increases were most pronounced with the “hard” questions suggesting that students, through the process of group discussion and debate, were actually learning the concepts on their own.

In the words of a student taking part in the study: “…..and the answer almost sticks better that way because we talked through it instead of just hearing the answer. ”  Now isn’t that what we are striving for — getting it to “stick”!

M. K. Smith, W. B. Wood, W. K. Adams, C. Wieman, J. K. Knight, N. Guild, T. T. Su 2009. Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions. Science 323 (5910): 122-124


Online supporting material (including sample questions and statistics): http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/323/5910/122/DC1

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Mary Power

Mary Power

As Senior Instructional Developer, Blended Learning, Mary Power develops programming that promotes the effective use of the online environment in on-campus courses. Working closely with faculty liaisons, Centre for Extended Learning (CEL), and Instruction Technologies and Multimedia Services (ITMS), she helps manage initiatives related to “blended learning” courses. Mary is also involved in research projects related to the impact and effectiveness of blended learning.

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