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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Talking Makes It Memorable

Students learn better when they can discuss test items with their peers. A group of professors at University of Colorado, Boulder, reported a study in which they tested the value of allowing peer discussion of questions during lecture. To break up the monotony of traditional lecture in a genetics course, the lecture was periodically interrupted with a paired set of similar multiple-choice questions (Q1 and Q2) for any given concept was asked back to back. For each question, each student voted for the correct answer with a "clicker," and tallies of votes were automatically posted on the instructors podium computer. After the vote on Q1, students were allowed to discuss possible answers (without being told what the right answer was) and then allowed to vote again. Then, they were asked a second question on the same concept (Q2) and voted without discussion.

Performance results were markedly enhanced on the second vote on Q1. For example, pooled over 16 sets of questions, the average correct response to Q1 without discussion was 52%. But 92% got the question right after they were allowed to discuss it with peers (usually 3-4 classmates). Of this same group, 90% then got Q2 right.

Gains were also seen in the group the gave the wrong vote the first time they saw Q1 (48%). Of these, 42% got the answer correct after they discussed it with peers and 77% got Q2 right. Of those who missed Q1, even after discussion, 44% got Q2 right. This indicates that the understanding gained from discussing Q1 helped them with Q2.

The advantage seen here of discussion is primarily one of improved understanding, not necessarily improved memory. But memory should also be improved because peer discussion engages students in thinking, and thinking promotes consolidation. The sound feedback from talking also reinforces memory. Students recognized a memory benefit, as exemplified in the comment "the answer almost sticks better (italics mine) because we talked through it instead of just hearing the answer." What I would like to have seen is a controlled study of two classes, one that got their lecture interrupted with questions in this way and another class that did not, with a final exam given to both groups in which half the questions were the same as those used in class and half that were new but related.


Smith, M. K. et al. 2009. Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science. 323: 122-124.

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