Interactive peer group learning

This week’s blog continues Bob Farmer’s contribution. He applies his ideas on interactive peer group learning to teaching The Language of Ideas:

Low academic language skills have been shown to be associated with low academic performance in a variety of educational settings. Mary Mason’s computer package The Language of Ideas is a based on the principle that one of the differences between successful and unsuccessful students is that students who succeed have learned the abstract language of ideas. In order to get qualifications in any subject, therefore, students need more than good exam technique, they also need to learn about and raise their level of academic language skills.

The package can be downloaded at:

It would have been easy for Mary Mason simply to create a series of exercises that focus on concrete and abstract language that students, like Professor Mazur’s traditional students, could romp through at a surface level without ever being able to see the wood from the trees. However, the Language of Ideas provides an introductory ‘concept’ question at the start of each of topic. These are in the form of ‘exam’ questions with two plausible but very different answers. Students are asked to mark the essays, as if they were the teacher, and in so doing try and figure out which is likely to be awarded the most marks and why. Each exercise embodies a concept which is then developed in the main body of the programme and which the students work through before being confronted with the same question: ‘which is the best answer and why?’ Finally, in the last section students are asked to apply what they have just learned to assignment briefs or exam questions in the subject areas they are currently studying.

Mazur’s strategy for peer instruction (Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual)

Out of class:

  • Two questions on topic to be tried ‘cold’.
  • One question on difficulties student encountered. All to be handed in before coming to class.

In class          

  • Concept question
  • Thinking
  • Individual answer
  • Peer discussion followed by revised group answer
  • Explanation

My suggestions, broadly based on the above:

 In class

  • Concept question on topic to be tried ‘cold’ (marking exercise)
  • Individual answer (without discussion, students write down and hand in their thoughts on which answer is best and why).
  • Peer learning (students in pairs or threes work at computers through the main programme)
  • Revised answer to the concept question (without discussion, students write down and hand in their revised thoughts).
  • Peer discussion followed by revised group answers.
  • Explanation (tutor summarises contributions from the groups and provides additional insights)

Out of class

  • Application task (students write reflections and comments on their own recently completed assignments and or mock exam answers)

In an ideal world, if we want students to take this work seriously I suggest that it should be assessed. Individual and revised answers to the concept question would provide the tutor with valuable insights into students’ understands of academic language skills. Lastly, the reflective application task provides a vehicle for the final summative assessment.

Bob Farmer

June 2012



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