Saturday, May 14, 2011

Molecular modeling and peer instruction

Last Tuesday I had my first go at using peer instruction.  Peer instruction is a fancy term for a relatively simple process:

1. Put up a multiple choice question
2. Ask the students to come up with an answer without talking to each other. Give them 2-3 minutes.
3. Have a vote (more on how below)
4. If 80 % or more get the right answer, show the right answer, give a short explanation, and move on.
5. If less than 80 % get the right answer, ask the students to discuss it with their neighbor. Give them 3-5 minutes.
6. Have another vote.
7. Give them the right answer and explain it.

Voting using

The screencast (best viewed in full-screen mode) shows how I use the website for the voting.  It requires the students to have access to a browser, so I ask them to bring a smartphone or a laptop to class.  It is also possible to submit votes by SMS, but Polleverywhere only provides a British phone number for Europe, so this gets pricey in Denmark.

The free version of can register up to 30 votes.  For larger classes your department needs to buy a six or 12 month subscription, the latter is about $900.  You just create an account on the site, create your poll, and you are ready to go. 

All my questions have four options labelled A, B, C, and D, so I just create one poll per course.  The example in the screencast is used in a course called KemiF1, so the codes for the options are kemif1A - kemif1D.  You do need to create completely unique codes.  The site assigns you numerical codes by default, so you can also just use those.  The website with the question is here.  Option D is "don't know".  It is important to have that option so that everyone casts a vote every time.

I thought it would be cool for the students to see the votes coming in live, but they felt it biased their vote too much, so it is better to leave the question up as they vote, and show the results when the vote is done.  You can monitor the progress on the vote on another device such as a smartphone or iPad.

Why use peer instruction?
Much has been written about peer instruction (just google it), but I find the two videos posted here especially informative.  And think about this: if you lecture on organic chemistry and less than 80 % of your students understand what you mean when you draw a hexagon, is there really any point in going on to more complicated material?

Peer instruction and molecular modeling
The real challenge when using peer instruction is to come up with good questions and I think molecular modeling and visualization can contribute a lot here.  For example, the spinning models in the example  reinforces the fact that cyclohexane is not planar.  Note that the students can go to the page and interact with each model as they mull their options.

I will show more examples of using molecular modeling and peer instruction in future posts.

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