When Fredrik Lundell began using the teaching method peer instruction his students passed their exams much easier. (Photo: Christer Gummeson)

“No more regular lectures”

Published Jan 26, 2012

Fredrik Lundell no longer stands behind his desk and he has scrapped his old lecturing methods. Instead, he inspires his students to discuss and participate actively in the learning process. For this, he has been awarded the prize Teacher of the Year at KTH.

“I will never go back to traditional lecturing. This works so much better. Students learn more, and more students pass their exams,” says Fredrik Lundell, associate professor at the Department of Mechanics.

The teaching method is called peer instruction and is based on students learning from each other. Fredrik Lundell uses the method on an elementary mechanics course where the students among other things must learn to understand and use 60 or so concepts on the basics of mechanics.

The principle is simple: before each lesson the students study the areas to be dealt with thoroughly. The teacher begins by providing a very brief presentation whereafter the students, individually, answer a number of multiple-choice questions. The answers are provided via an audience response system, an electrical device which measures the students’ responses. The entire group's answers are immediately available to the teacher.

After that, the students form small discussion groups to discuss what the correct answers actually are. The discussion ends with the questions being asked once again and their responses being measured.

“This is a very powerful tool for creating interactive lectures. During the discussions the students practice explaining scientific concepts, deepening their knowledge of the subject at the same time,” says Fredrik Lundell.

More pass their exams

Understanding the concepts almost always improves between the first and second responses. Often the proportion of students that reply correctly is doubled and sometimes they get everything right.

“The discussions lead to many more students understanding what the concepts mean and that they are able to place them in their correct contexts. It is an incredibly fantastic and effective method,” says Fredrik Lundell.

The use of peer instruction has shown clear effects on the amount of students being able to complete the course. The proportion of students that were able to pass their exams during the previous spring term was almost 20 percentage points higher compared to those who were taught using traditional lecturing techniques. On the theoretical parts of the course, the difference was even greater, by almost 30 percentage points. Here 97 per cent of Fredrik Lundell’s students passed their exams.

“This is nothing unique for KTH. The improvement in the examination results is completely in line with what peer instruction usually results in at the universities using the method,” says Fredrik Lundell.

Peer instruction has the unique ability of being able to capture what the students experience as the course’s difficult parts, Fredrik Lundell means. He has taught at KTH since the time he was a technologist during the mid 1990s, and is of the opinion that it has become all the more difficult to identify students’ learning problems.

“But with this method you receive immediate feedback.  If only 20 per cent of the students reply correctly to the question the first time, you can clearly see that this is something you have to work more with. But on the other hand: if 80 per cent provide the correct answer, you don’t need to put that much more effort into dealing with that particular question. The concept questions mean that you automatically end up at the correct level of teaching,” he says.

Close contact with students

During the peer discussions, Fredrik Lundell walks round providing support to the various groups, helping the students to reason logically and to justify their conclusions. In this way, he has “face-to-face interaction” with each student several times during the course.

“That is not possible with traditional teaching. For me it is highly advantageous to be able to follow the students’ intellectual development and it is captivating to experience it at close quarters,” he says.

He is convinced that the method can be used on many other courses at KTH.

“Yes, assuming there is good literature in the subject. Peer instruction can be used with all subjects when you are trying to create in-depth learning,” he says.

Fredrik Lundell was chosen as Teacher of the Year 2011 at KTH. The prize is awarded by the student union and is aimed at fostering innovative methods that can function as inspiration for others teachers. Fredrik Lundell learned about peer instruction during a study trip to Boston last year which was arranged by Learning Lab. The methodology was developed by Eric Mazur, a researcher at Harvard University.

“I am really pleased to have been awarded this prize. Especially because the prize-winner is chosen by the students and because they clearly appreciated this new way of teaching,” says Fredrik Lundell.

Text:Christer Gummeson

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