Rethinking the Way College Students Are Taught

Harvard students Ryan Duncan (right) and Kevin Mazige in their lab for Eric Mazur’s physics class. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Harvard physics prof. Eric Mazur has been rethinking his own teaching process since the early 1990s. “Peer-instruction” is one of his innovations:

“And something happened in my classroom which I had never seen before,” he says. “The entire classroom erupted in chaos. They were dying to explain it to one another and to talk about it.”

Mazur says after just a few minutes of talking to each other, most of the students seemed to have a much better understanding of the concept he’d been trying to teach.

“The 50 percent who had the right answer effectively convinced the other 50 percent,” he says.

Here’s what Mazur has figured out about what goes on when the students talk with each other during peer instruction:

“Imagine two students sitting next to one another, Mary and John. Mary has the right answer because she understands it. John does not. Mary’s more likely, on average, to convince John than the other way around because she has the right reasoning.”

But here’s the irony. “Mary is more likely to convince John than professor Mazur in front of the class,” Mazur says.

“She’s only recently learned it and still has some feeling for the conceptual difficulties that she has whereas professor Mazur learned [the idea] such a long time ago that he can no longer understand why somebody has difficulty grasping it.”

(…) Mazur now teaches all of his classes using a “peer-instruction” approach. Rather than teaching by telling, he teaches by questioning. Mazur says it’s a particularly effective way to teach large classes.

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking the Way College Students Are Taught

  1. I’ve been a math teacher for about three to five years (in two different places), and I’m aware that I just stopped been an student, but I’m trying not to forget how a student thinks, I was one of them. I try to be emphatic and seek for new ways to teach some concepts.

    Yet, I understand that good students might have a different way to explain things, and I don’t mind about that, actually it makes me happy. I don’t get mad if I see two students talking in class that are obviously explaining the subject. Sometimes I even thank them for helping me to explain it, specially since, as you said learned “the idea such a long time ago that I can no longer understand why somebody has difficulty grasping it”, no matter how hard I try to do new things.

  2. Thanks for the real-world comments. Evidence is accumulating that students learn at different paces, and learn best with different modalities.

    One example is the NYC pilot, School of One, which is testing several modalities. This search will find three Seekerblog posts on the project.

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