"When I started teaching physics at Harvard University, I never asked myself how I would educate my students. I did what my teachers had done – I lectured. I thought that was how one learns."
The above quotation is from an article by Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur published in Science magazine in 2009. He was describing the evolutionary process that occurred in his teaching methodology and how it was accepted by his students. After years of being a university lecturer Mazur reached the conclusion that the traditional teaching method, through lecturing, reduces teaching to the transfer of information. He believes that this method preserved without any significant changes from the days when teaching was essentially the transfer of information and learning was essentially memorization.
In his first days as a lecturer, Mazur taught according to lecture notes he had prepared in advance. Since the contents of his lectures often deviated from the textbooks he used to hand out to his students copies of these lecture notes. At the end of the semester he received some evaluations that stunned and even infuriated him: the students were overall content with his teaching, but some of them complained that he was lecturing straight from the handouts. "What was I supposed to do? Develop a set of lecture notes different from the ones I handed out?" He wondered.
For several years he managed to ignore these complaints, until he realized that something wasn't working properly. His students had trouble with a physics exam on Newton's Laws that demanded conceptual understanding of the material. One of them even asked at the beginning of the exam: "How should I answer these questions? According to what you taught me or according to the way I usually think about these things?”
It was then that Mazur realized that something basic was missing from his teaching. This led him to the decision to basically reverse the model of information transfer. He passed to his students the responsibility for gathering information – from now on they were expected to read the lesson material before class, "so that class time can be devoted to discussions, peer interactions, and time to assimilate and think." Instead of passing on the facts he would ask short multiple choice questions that encourage conceptual thinking.
Mazur's teaching methodology integrates technological tools with the usage of "clickers" – handheld devices with which students commit to an individual answer in advance. The distribution of the answers is displayed on the teacher's computer and helps him in leading the ensuing discussion. During class the teacher also circulates among the students, listening to and sometimes joining their discussions.
This approach has two advantages: it continuously engages the students in the learning process in an active manner and it provides the teacher with a continuous feedback about the level of understanding of any particular subject being discussed. Importantly, it is not the technology that lies at the heart of this approach's novelty. "It is not the technology but the pedagogy that matters", says Mazur. The technology indeed provides convenient teaching tools and creates a buzz among the students, but the important thing is really the revolution in the teaching and learning experience.
Mazur's conclusion is clear-cut: there are great benefits in changing the focus of education from simple information transfer to helping students assimilate the material. "My only regret is that I love to lecture", he concludes.
The original article:
Mazur, Eric (2009). Farewell, Lecture? Science, 323, 50-51.
Dr. Dvora Cohen
Davidson Institute of Science Education