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A peer instruction approach for engaging girls in the Computing classroom: Study results

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Today, we are publishing the third report of our findings from our Gender Balance in Computing research programme. This report shares the outcomes from the Peer Instruction project, which is the last in our set of three interventions that has explored teaching approaches to engage more girls in computing.

In a computing classroom, a smiling girl raises her hand.

The premise of the teaching approach research is that the way Computing is taught may not always match the teaching approaches to which girls are most likely to respond positively [1]. As with the Storytelling project and the Pair Programming project, this project aimed to find new contexts and approaches to help increase the number of girls choosing to study and work in computing. 

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What is peer instruction? 

Peer instruction is a structured, collaborative teaching approach. It has been shown to be an effective pedagogy for novice programmers and those studying computer science at a university level because the interactive, cooperative activities help learners to perceive the topics as less stressful and less difficult [2]. 

Multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and peer conversations about the question answers are at the core of the peer instruction approach. Through talking to each other about MCQs, pupils can deepen their understanding about why a particular concept or fact is correct, and correct any misconceptions.

A diagram showing The five stages of the peer instruction teaching approach covered in a computing lesson: based on a misconception focused multiple-choice question, stage 1 is solo response, stage 2 is peer discussion, stage 3 is peer response, stage 4 is sharing results, stage 5 is class discussion. Optional steps are pre-instruction and follow-up multiple-choice question.

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The five stages of the peer instruction teaching approach covered in a Computing lesson.

In England, the Computing curriculum at Key Stage 3 (ages 11–14) introduces learners to some new concepts, such as data representation, and moves learners to text-based programming languages. Towards the end of this Key Stage, learners will make choices about the subjects that they go onto study for GCSEs. These choices are influenced by learners’ attitudes towards the subject, and so we decided to trial whether the peer instruction teaching approach might lead to more positive attitudes towards Computing among girls.

The Peer Instruction intervention

The initial pilot of this trial ran from January to March 2020 with 15 secondary schools. We then used teacher feedback to develop resources to use in a full randomised controlled trial which ran from October 2021 to February 2022 in more than 60 secondary schools in England. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we changed our original plan to run face-to-face training and instead developed an online course to train teachers in the peer instruction approach. After taking part in the training, the teachers delivered 12 weeks of Computing lessons in data representation and Python programming. The two six-week units of work covered computing concepts for Key Stage 3 learners such as: 

  • Understanding how numbers can be represented in binary format
  • Understanding how data of various types can be represented and manipulated digitally in the form of binary digits
  • Using a text-based programming language to solve a variety of computational problems 

The study was run as a randomised controlled trial where participating schools were randomly divided into two groups. Schools in the treatment group used the peer instruction resources, and schools in the control group taught their normal Computing lessons. The independent evaluators from the Behavioural Insights Team used pupil surveys to measure the impact of the resources and supported this with lesson observations and teacher interviews to better understand the  themes emerging from the data. 

“I think peer instruction lessons are actually better than the normal lessons because you can ask other people around you to help more.”

– Female pupil who took part in the peer instruction lessons (report, p. 45)

Findings from the evaluation

The outcome measures of the peer instruction approach evaluation were quantitative data obtained from Year 8 pupils (aged 12 to 13) via pre- and post-surveys about the pupils’ stated intent to select Computer Science as a GCSE subject, and attitudes towards Computing as captured by the Student Computer Science Attitude Survey (SCSAS). When compared with the control group, the treatment group did not show a statistically significant increase in stated intent or positive attitudes towards Computing. This is a really valuable finding to help us build our understanding of what works in computing education. 

The evaluation report contains some useful suggestions on how peer instruction methods could be improved in the secondary classroom: 

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  • Emphasise the importance of the stages of the peer instruction approach throughout the supporting materials. Our support for teachers changed from an in-person training day in stage one to an online course in stage two, and this impacted how much we could model the peer instruction steps that involve pupil discussion. This teaching approach differs from the traditional approach of asking learners to put their hands up to answer questions, and we believe that face-to-face training for teachers would be the best way to explore stage two of peer instruction. The importance of the discussion steps in peer instruction were further emphasised in the report: “The interviewed girls similarly reported that they preferred working in a group (as opposed to answering questions individually) as they were able to hear from people who had different ideas to them and check their answers.” So the discussion steps in peer instruction need careful thought when being delivered.
  • It may be useful to combine the peer instruction approach with other strategies. Although only a small number of girls taking part were interviewed, their feedback about the peer instruction lessons was very positive. The evaluation suggests that a multi-faceted approach to addressing gender balance is needed, given that the lack of girls in computing is indicative of a substantive societal issue, which decades of initiatives and research have attempted to address. The evaluators suggested that combining this pedagogy with other strategies, such as linking Computing to real-world problem-solving (another topic we explored in the Gender Balance in Computing programme), may have a cumulatively positive effect. 

“Year 8 is too late” 

At the start of both the Pair Programming and Peer Instruction projects, pupils were asked the same set of questions about their attitudes towards Computing via the Student Computer Science Attitude Survey (SCSAS). The mean scores from the survey results suggest that there is a small gender gap in attitudes at primary school. Boys feel slightly more confident and interested in Computing than girls. By secondary school, this gap has widened, as shown in the graph below:

Graph of the SCSAS scores to show the differences between boys’ and girls’ mean scores (out of 4) when asked about their attitudes towards computing at Year 4/6 and at year 8. Boys state a more positive attitude on average, and the difference between girls' and boys' attitudes in larger in Year 8.
Graph of the SCSAS scores to show the differences between boys’ and girls’ mean scores (out of 4) when asked about their attitudes towards Computing at Year 4/6 and at year 8.

In both projects, pupils were also asked about their intentions to continue studying Computing. In the Pair Programming project, the participating pupils (in Year 4/6) were asked whether they wanted to study Computing in the future, whereas the Year 8 pupils taking part in the Peer Instruction project were asked whether they intended to choose Computer Science as a GCSE subject. We cannot compare these two sets of answers directly, but there is general indication that as girls progress through stages of education, they begin to decide that Computing is not a subject for them. The independent evaluators commented that “it is striking that the gap between genders widens to such an extent over this 2- to 4-year time period, and that the overall proportions of pupils intending to continue to study Computing decreases to such an extent” (p. 15 of the report).  

“These findings show a clear difference in attitudes towards learning Computing between primary and secondary learners. It really makes the adage ‘Year 8 is too late’ very true, and it is important to think carefully about what happens between Year 6 and Year 8 to make sure that Computing is a subject which engages all learners.”

– Sue Sentance, Chief Learning Officer, Raspberry Pi Foundation

Want to find out more about peer instruction?  

  • Download our Big Book of Computing Pedagogy (available as a free online download) and find out more about peer instruction on pages 56 and 57.
  • Read the evaluation report of the peer instruction intervention.
  • Try the free training course on peer instruction used in this project. This course links to our research materials used by teachers as part of the intervention. 

We are very grateful to all the schools, pupils, and teachers who took part in this project. If you would like to stay up-to-date with the Gender Balance in Computing programme, you can sign up to our newsletter. We will also share reports on the other projects within the programme that have explored: 

  • Pupils’ sense of belonging in Computing 
  • The links between non-formal and formal Computing 
  • The impact of using Computing to solve real-world problems

[1] Goode, J., Estrella, R., & Margolis, J. (2008). Lost in Translation: Gender and High School Computer Science. In Cohoon, J, & Aspray, W. (Eds.) Women and Information Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/7272.003.0005

[2] Herman, G. L., & Azad, S. (2020, February). A comparison of peer instruction and collaborative problem solving in a computer architecture course. In Proceedings of the 51st ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education. Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA. pp. 461–467. https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/3328778.3366819

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Written by Maria Richter

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