Peer Discussion in High School Classes

     In this Harvard Educational Review article, Bryan Henderson (Arizona State University) says “active learning” is a broad term that covers everything that isn’t traditional lecture teaching to passive students. In fact, there are many ways of making students more “active” learners; one of the best, Henderson believes, is “peer instruction” using clickers (wireless audience response devices) in the following manner:

  • Students listen as the teacher presents content.
  • The teacher poses a conceptual question on the content with several answer options.
  • Students consider the options and anonymously submit their answers via clickers.
  • The teacher displays the number of “votes” for each option.
  • Students pair up and debate their choices and the reasons they made them.
  • Students re-vote on the same question via clickers (they may or may not have changed their mind after discussing the question).
  • All answers are displayed (the correct answer usually gets more votes).
  • The teacher discusses the correct answer and any lingering misconceptions.

This process has produced learning gains twice as great as conventional instruction in some studies.

Henderson wondered which was the most important step in the model and whether variations in active-learning pedagogy might produce the same robust learning gains. He studied the same teacher working with four different groups of high-school physics students, introducing variations in how students spent their time between their first clicker vote and their re-vote: (a) pure lecture and note-taking; (b) students writing down their thinking; (c) students debating each question with peers; and (d) students writing first, then discussing with peers.

The results showed the strongest learning gains when students were given the chance to talk with other students between clicker votes. Henderson also found that time of day mattered: the benefits of turning the class over to the students for discussion were greater in the morning than in the afternoon.

An important message here is that results were not dependent only on whether clicker technology was used; what mattered was how and when the technology was used with students, with the most powerful variable being a chance to talk with a peer about a challenging question.


“Beyond ‘Active Learning’: How the ICAP Framework Permits More Acute Examination of the Popular Peer Instruction Pedagogy” by Bryan Henderson in Harvard Educational Review, Winter 2019 (Vol. 89, #4, pp. 611-634), available for purchase at; Henderson can be reached at