Peer Instruction/Clicker Questions

Peer instruction harnesses the power of the students to generate learning. It requires a way to quickly tally responses from students (usually with clickers or from a cellphone/computer). However, there are many ways to gather that information that do not require technology.

Clicker questios are a good way to check-in with students' understanding of course material. It can help an instructor gauge common misconceptions in a class so that they can be addressed directly. Good clicker questions often allow students to discuss their answers amongst themselves - further helping studetns learn through peer instruction. 


Gather Materials
  • You will need paper, pens, and markers. Alternately you can have students draw on a chalk board with colored chalk or a white board with colored markers

  • If using the Expert Skeleton Map variation, prepare a starting map. Expert Skeleton Maps are a concept map variation in which students are given partially completed maps from an expert in the field. Prepare the starting “Expert Map” and decide on a list of remaining concepts that students will add to the map


Tell students how to make a Hierarchical Concept Map
  • Identify the main topic or concept and place it at the top center of the map. This is the superordinate concept. It is the most inclusive, general, abstract or is the first stage of a process or sequence.
  • Identify key concepts (about ten to twenty) from the reading, lecture, or other sources. These are called subordinate concepts.

  • Write each concept on a small index card or sticky note

  • Rank, order, or cluster all remaining subordinate concepts. Place the more inclusive, general, broad or abstract concepts higher up and closer to the main concept. Place most exclusive, specific, narrow, or concrete concepts lower on the map. In the case of a process or sequence, order the concepts chronologically. The object is to structure the concepts and their interrelations correctly.

  • Arrange the concepts in a linkable hierarchy

  • Draw the entire hierarchy on apiece of paper/board with enclosures around the concepts and linking lines that are labeled to the specific relationship. The linked concepts together with the labeled link are called the proposition

  • Check for any cross-links (connections across branches), draw in these links as dashed lines and label them

Tell students how to make a Mind Map
  • Identify the central concept, topic, or idea. Write it in the center of a large piece of paper or on the board. This is the primary idea

  • Identify up to six closely related concepts, topics, or ideas, such as subordinate concepts, subtopics, properties, or descriptors. These are the secondary ideas. Write each of these secondary ideas at the end of a thick line radiating from the central primary idea.

  • For each secondary idea, identify up to six closely related concepts, topics, or ideas, such as subordinate concepts, subtopics, properties, or descriptors. These are the tertiary ideas. Write each of these tertiary ideas at the end of a thick line radiating from the secondary idea.

  • Look for cross-relationships between secondary or tertiary ideas. Drawn thin or dashed lines connecting related ideas

  • Add color, icons, and other appropriate symbols. Color-code each line and key words by secondary branch

Be concise

  • Use the briefest and sharpest expression of each idea

  • Clearly label each arrow

Concept Map Examples


  • Have a class disucssion focusing on the structure of the map. Could students envisiona different map with alternate connections, nodes, etc.  



In classical Peer Instruction, the instructor poses a question to the class on a topic just discussed (or that the students read about before class) and polls them for their individual responses.  Based on the results s/he chooses to move on to the next topic or not. If more attention is needed, students are asked to discuss the reasoning behind their responses with their immediate neighbors; after a few minutes the instructor re-polls.  Variations include the instructor showing the students the polling results after the first round or not, choosing whether to ask follow-up questions for polling/discussion, and how to cover the topic prior to polling.

Instructors[1] who implemented PI in this sense were initially polling the class in order to ascertain whether students were learning in lecture-style classes; the "turn to your neighbor" aspect was a follow-on aimed at overcoming student confusion in specific cases. Thus the research focuses on learning gains, both after a given poll/discussion/re-poll episode and for entire courses.  Studies in STEM fields show that PI can greatly increase student comprehension of conceptual material[2] even when the questions asked are not themselves purely conceptual[3].  While it is most prevalent in STEM fields, PI has been implemented in other fields [for example (4), and see also (5) and (6)].

Even though the technique has come to be associated with specific tech (clickers and more sophisticated response systems), the main result from the research is that it is the students' interactive struggling with concepts that produces learning gains, which are likely to occur even when two students discussing together both initially had an incorrect response[5]. A low-tech implemention involves simply provide students with a sheet of paper with each letter "A B C D" (representing response choices) in a different corner of the page, in different colors, so they can fold it to show only one letter and so vote with it for easy, if appproximate visual collation by the instructor.  For gathering data for research however a more robust system (clickers, Learning Catalytics, etc.) would be required.

- J. Girash, Harvard University

[1] Crouch, C. H.; Mazur, E. Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. Am. J. Phys. 2001, 69, 970.
[2] Fagen, A. P.; Crouch, C. H.; Mazur, E. Peer instruction: Results from a range of classrooms. The Physics Teacher 2002, 40, 206.
[3] Miller, R. L.; Santana-Vega, E.; Terrell, M. S. Can good questions and peer discussion improve calculus instruction? Problems, Resources,
and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies 2006, 16, 193-203.
[4] Butchart, S.; Handfield, T.; Restall, G., 2009.  "Using Peer Instruction to teach Philosophy, Logic and Critical Thinking". Teaching Philosophy, 32:1, 1-40.
[5] Turn to Your Neighbor ("Official PI blog")
[6] Agile Learning blog
[7] for example,
[8] Smith, M. K.; Wood, W. B.; Adams, W. K.; Wieman, C.; Knight, J. K.; Guild, N.; Su, T. T. Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science 2009, 323, 122-124.


Additional resources: