Peer Instruction

Developed by Perry J. Samson
Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences
University of Michigan


Peer instruction may offer some of the richest opportunities for metacognitive teaching. Reciprocal (peer) teaching forces the instructor to use a whole series of metacognitive processes such as determining what the learner already knows, deciding what is to be taught/learned and how; monitoring comprehension and evaluating the outcome in terms of increased comprehension, which in turn encourages the instructor to reflect upon his or her own thinking processes. By asking the students to defend their answer to a question to another student you are, in effect, moving the role of "teacher" to the students.

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Learning Goals

The goal of this exercise is to promote students' learning metacognitive processes. Just as with cognitive processes students will be encouraged to reflect on their learning strategies through discussions and comparisons with peers.

Context for Use

While peer instruction is a model used for improving cognition it can also be employed to improve metacognition. Just as we might use peer instruction for students to compare their content understanding with peers in class we can also use it to compare learning strategies.

Description and Teaching Materials

The general strategy involves posing a question like "What strategies do you feel best prepared you for _______ (the exam, the homework, the lab, etc.)?" Ask the students to write a response, then ask them to disclose their list in a group and write down the others' responses.


The Keeling Curve - Monthly mean atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa Observatory, HawaiiFigure 5. Monthly mean atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa Observatory,Hawaii.
Create an activity in which students are asked to debate a question with another student but wrap the discussion in metacognitive questions. One example of a challenge question would be to show Figure 5 from NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory and ask students to:

  1. Individually explain why there are annual variations in CO2 and in what season is it highest.
  2. In teams of two or more share their answers.
  3. After sharing their answers ask them to edit their previous response, underline what they changed, and articulate what makes them think their revised answer is stronger.
  4. Select teams randomly and have them discuss their answers, how the discussion led them to change their initial answer and what lingering doubts remain.
  5. After selecting some number of teams try to point out examples of how the peer discussion changed conceptual understanding, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking.

The expectation is that once students see value in peer instruction they will more fully engage in the process when subsequently presented.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Metacognitive teaching can be facilitated through "peer instruction" in methods similar to those presented in the analogy activity. This approach, which is employed early in a course, asks the instructor to directly discuss the metacognitive process in class in lieu of discipline content. Describe the value of metacognitive reflection on learning (see, for example, Teaching Metacognition). For example, if you use student response systems (i.e. 'clickers' or web-based tools like LectureTools) tell students why you have them engage in student response with peer instruction. It's not always obvious to students what they should be getting out of these kinds of learning experiences. Some students think the point of these activities is to simply get the 'right' (or at least most popular) answer. Explicitly explain that these activities are usually intended to develop students' conceptual understanding,problem-solving skills, and critical thinking skills, but this only happens if students engage in meaningful discussions with their peers.


At some point later in the course ask students to reflect on if and how the sharing of study strategies affected their own study strategy. Did the process help them reflect on their own methods? Did they learn some additional strategies that they adopted for themselves?