Excerpted from: 'What is the First Step We Should Take to Become Great Teachers?

The National Teaching and Learning Forum (2000) vol. 10, no. 1: 7-8 by Craig Nelson,

Carnegie Scholar Emeritus, Biology Department, Indiana University


What does the scholarship of teaching suggest one should do to become a great teacher, assuming one has already mastered the content and the basic mechanics of teaching? A number of studies suggest that structured student-student learning may be the single most powerful tool we have for increasing achievement as well as equity and enthusiasm. For example, Springer, et al. (1997) found that the average effect of small group learning on achievement would move a student from the 50th percentile to the 70th percentile on a standardized test. Similarly, Hake (1998) found that structured student-student interaction was sufficient in physics to approximately double the amount of Newtonian physics mastered in introductory courses across a wide array of institutions, from high schools to Harvard.

What does it take to make structured student-student learning work? Major effects can be had quite simply. Mazur (1997) stops at each major transition in his physics lectures and gives the students a qualitative multiple choice question over the material just presented. He has them mark their answers, talk with their neighbors for about two minutes, and then mark the answers again. He gets approximately a 50% reduction in wrong answers after the interaction, with a concomitant increase in the students' confidence in their understanding and, subsequently, higher exam scores.

More generally, I find that if faculty take responsibility for three things, student-student discussion usually works well:

Teacher's Responsibility #1: Prepared Students

First, it is the teacher's responsibility to get the students prepared. This can be done either by preparing them in class (as Mazur does), by having a work-sheet or summary, or by quizzes. I find that quizzes work best when I specify ahead of time a small number of questions, ones that I really want the students to discuss well. In any case, it is important that out-of-class preparation count substantially in the grade. Otherwise the students will often rationally put their efforts into other tasks.


Teacher's Responsibility #2: Content Structuring

The second key to effective student-student interaction is for the faculty member to structure heavily what the students are discussing. Mazur, for example, doesn't just have them discuss the point and see if they have any questions; rather, he provides a quite specific multiple choice question for them to discuss (and builds into the wrong answers many of the ways he knows that some will have misunderstood).


Teacher's Responsibility #3: Student Participation

Finally, it's important for faculty to take responsibility for making sure that every student participates usefully in the discussion. For two or three minute sessions, having them talk with their neighbors will usually suffice. For longer sessions, I like to make the group responsible for finding out what each person wrote down (or now thinks).


Hake, R. 1998. 'Interactive Engagement vs. Traditional Methods: A Six-thousand-student Survey of Mechanics Test Data for Introductory Physics Coursesî American Journal of Physics, 66:64-74 <www.physics.indiana.edu/~hake/index.html> under SDI labs.


Mazur, E. 1997. Peer Instruction: A User's Manual. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Springer, L., M.E. Stanne, and S.S. Donovan. 1997. 'Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology: A Meta-Analysis.î Univ. of Wisconsin: National Institute for Science Education <www.wcer.wisc.edu/nise/CLI/CL/resource/scismet.htm>