Gender Balance in Computing: Using a peer instruction approach in the computing classroom

24 August 2022

In the computing classroom, teachers use a variety of pedagogical strategies to present information in a way that is accessible and to help learners develop a sound understanding of concepts. Today, we are publishing the results of a project that explored the use of a teaching approach called peer instruction in secondary schools with Year 8 (pupils aged 12 to 13), with the aim of increasing girls’ engagement in computing lessons and study choices.

What is peer instruction?

Peer instruction is a form of collaborative learning that encourages classroom discussion within a structured five-step framework. Previous research has shown that activities which promote meaningful talk in the classroom directly improve academic outcomes[1] and a recent review of computing education literature highlighted the importance of talk as a key element in developing pupil understanding of computing concepts[2].

There are two opportunities for discussion in the peer instruction approach. Firstly, as peer discussion about a multiple choice question (MCQ) in order to reach a group consensus, and then secondly as part of a whole class discussion about the same question.

Figure 1 - The five stages of the peer instruction teaching approach

In the Peer Instruction project, secondary teachers taught two six-week units of work linked to national curriculum objectives on understanding data representation and learning Python, a text-based programming language. The lessons were structured using the peer instruction approach and began with a ‘flipped learning’ activity by setting learners a pre-instruction task to give them some familiarity with the concepts being discussed before moving onto the dialogic elements of talking about the answers to some carefully chosen MCQs. Feedback from interviewed teachers suggested that the approach was effective in their classrooms and that they would add this pedagogy to their toolkit for teaching computing.

"One of the kids (who struggles) said to me, 'Miss, you didn't teach us at all today,' he said. 'Girl X taught me everything today.' He was paired with Girl X, and I was like, 'Well, that's what it's about.’ ” - Secondary computing teacher (report, p. 45)

Who talks in the computing classroom?

The observations and interviews carried out by the independent evaluators from the Behavioural Insights Team provided some interesting insights about pupil engagement in the lessons. Whilst these activities were carried out in a limited set of case study schools and the qualitative data collected is thus not representative of all schools who took part in the project, the insights pose some useful points for teachers to consider about confidence, volume and interjections of pupil speech.

“Whilst girls’ engagement in discussions was also noted in the lesson observations, the girls tended to be less confident speaking in front of the class and, across both schools, tended to speak more quietly so the teacher needed to repeat what they had said to the rest of the class. Where there were vocal interjections in these lessons, they were generally boys.” - Secondary computing teacher (report, p. 42)

Oracy skills are closely linked to achievement in learning, because learners construct meaning and understanding through talk, as well as being exposed to new ideas[3]. Linking this to the idea of discussion in the peer instruction approach, when learners reason purposefully in groups, they may develop an understanding of the patterns and processes involved in reaching a decision then internalise this to use again in future work, either alone or with others. Feedback from some teachers suggests that this type of purposeful knowledge building was taking place using the peer instruction approach with both boys and girls:

“I was very pleased that a lot of the girls were doing a lot of the talking. It was one of the binary lessons, doing the binary conversion.”  - Secondary computing teacher (report, p. 42)

Teachers who are considering using a peer instruction approach in computing lessons may wish to pay attention to social interactions within their classroom, identify who talks in their computing lessons, and reflect on ways to elevate opportunities for girls to increase their confidence in talking.

MCQs for assessment vs MCQs for learning

Multiple choice questions (MCQs) are a key part of the peer instruction approach. They include a correct answer and three distractor answers, which need to capture common misconceptions in order to promote opportunities for peer discussion. In the example below, misconceptions include:

  • The program will print the letter ‘b’
  • The program will print the right-hand side of the second statement without recognising it as addition
  • The program will concatenate the two numbers rather than adding them together
Figure 2 - An example of an MCQ from the online training session

MCQs are often used as an assessment tool in quizzes and tests, but peer instruction uses MCQs as a teaching tool in lessons. The peer instruction approach revolves around supporting learners to correct each other’s misconceptions, so the focus is no longer on individuals answering correctly but rather on collaboration to reason and decide on the right answer together.

The independent evaluation found some variation in the way that MCQs were used in this project. Some schools focused more on the group discussion element than others, which could possibly be a consequence of adapting the training to an online context. If the training had taken place face to face, there would have been more opportunities to model group discussion and flag the change from MCQs for assessment to MCQs for teaching.

Despite the challenges of adapting an existing tool into a new pedagogy, there was lots of positive feedback from teachers about the usefulness of the MCQs and the engagement from learners.

“They’re a good set of multiple choice questions. I’m going to look at what I’ve got in other modules and see whether I can enhance them with some better questions sets that go along those lines. They’re very simple and they’re not intimidating for pupils.”  - Secondary computing teacher (report, p. 38)

This was supported by comments from the learners who appreciated the opportunity to share their ideas and check their answers with others when discussing the answers to the MCQs.

“I prefer talking in a group because then you get the other side of other people’s thoughts” - Female pupil (report, p. 39)

Teacher resources on peer instruction

If you’d like to try using the peer instruction in your classroom, here are some free resources you can use:

  • Watch this short video about the MCQ cycle in peer instruction.
  • Read this Pedagogy Quick Read on peer instruction for a summary of the approach and the research it is based on.
  • 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.


[1] Percipio Global Ltd. Dialogic Teaching. 2017 EEF.

[2] Waite, J. & Sentence, S. Teaching programming in schools: A review of approaches and strategies. 2021. The Raspberry Pi Foundation.

[3] Vygotsky, L. S. (2012). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT press (Original work published 1962).