Peer Instruction in Philosophy and the Humanities
Since its introduction by Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur and others in the early 1990s, Peer Instruction has become widely used in undergraduate science and mathematics teaching. The potential of PI in the humanities however, remains largely untapped. Given the importance of conceptual understanding and critical thinking in many humanities disciplines, it is clear that the PI method has enormous potential in this context.
With this in mind, the School of Philosophy and Bioethics at Monash University has set up the Peer Instruction in the Humanities Project, to encourage the use of PI in philosophy and other humanities disciplines throughout the higher education sector.
It might be thought that PI could only work in subjects such as physics and mathematics, where there are clear-cut right and wrong answers and that its use in subjects such as philosophy or politics would therefore be inappropriate. Such worries are misplaced however. Firstly, it is entirely possible to construct useful conceptual questions with clear right and wrong answers in these subjects. Examples are questions that ask how a particular concept or theory would apply in a particular case; questions about the logical relationships between concepts or theories; questions about the correct definition of a concept and questions that elicit well known student misconceptions about a particular theory or idea.
Secondly, the opportunities for student discussion and active engagement offered by PI can be achieved even with open-ended questions which do not have a unique correct answer. For example, questions which elicit from students one of several conflicting intuitions in response to a particular situation or case-study can be used to introduce and motivate general theories or principles. Such questions can generate lively discussion and interest.
Thirdly, the opportunity to discuss the ideas and concepts being taught provides students with invaluable practice at actually doing (for example) philosophy. That is, students gain real experience with the actual practice of the discipline they are studying.
Our own experience and research on the use of PI in philosophy and other humanities subjects certainly supports the view that PI has great potential here. For a summary of our findings, see the Evaluations page.