Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur thought he was doing a great job his first six years of teaching. That was, until he discovered his students were only memorizing the formulas he was explaining in class rather than learning how to understand and analyze them. It was then he realized the traditional lecture was flawed, and decided he needed to change his method of teaching.
Now, his 100 or so students sit in small groups discussing a question they see on a screen in front of them. Through a mobile device. Mazur asks them to answer the question that’s been posed, and when he sees all the answers flash on the screen, he pairs the students off and says, “Now defend your reasoning.” In the process of trying to convince one another why they answered the question a certain way, students begin to notice holes in their logic. Mazur then asks the question again, and he starts to see that more of his students have gotten the answer correct.
What Mazur has created is “peer instruction,” where students are given the opportunity to interact and learn from each other. No longer are they being forced to sit for hours just listening to a lecture. Instead, they’re being compelled to engage with the material, and that mode of teaching has been brought into several classrooms across the country.
John Belcher and Peter Dourmashkin, both introductory physics professors at MIT, said they’ve integrated “peer instruction” into their classrooms, breaking their students up into 13 groups of nine and having them work on problems together.
Forty years ago, when Belcher began teaching at MIT, he was primarily lecturing. The problem, however, was that nearly 50 percent of his class wasn’t showing up. “If students don’t come, they’re not going to learn anything from you,” Belcher said, who admitted it’s easy to get lost in a lecture. Now that there’s an added level of interaction, though, more of his students have been making an appearance.
“You need to talk to the students,” Belcher said. “You need to stop and ask them questions.”
Belcher and Dourmashkin have also had students stop and ask the others questions. Three undergraduates and one graduate student help make up their teaching teams, and it’s those students they have walk around and assist students.
“Those undergraduates just learned how the material worked, and they’re much closer to the work,” Dourmashkin said. “So they understand why students are or aren’t learning something.”
And when one student understands a problem at a table, Dourmashkin said that instead of explaining it himself, he looks at that student and says, “Now you explain it.” Although it might look impressive when Dourmashkin solves an equation, he also knows his students won’t learn anything unless they solve the problem themselves. The more they’re then able to answer inside the classroom, the more they’ll be able to individually solve outside of the classroom.
Dourmashkin relates the situation to playing an instrument, saying that just because you go to Symphony Hall and listen to someone play the piano, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be able to go home and play the piano, too. The only way to learn is from hours and hours of practice.
All three professors have said the lecture’s not dead, however; there’s just a better way to do it. Mazur admits he still lectures in class, but he does it in five to 10 minute intervals, shifting between questions and answers.
The next tool to integrate? Online learning. With the introduction of MITx, Belcher claimed he wouldn’t mind seeing less face-to-face time, as long as it was combined with an online component.
“The best possible thing is sitting down with a student one-on-one, and I think you can do that with a good online system,” Belcher said, who also remarked that he wouldn’t change what he’s doing now, but that he would integrate more online time and save the face-to-face conversations for more interactive presentations.
Mazur has definitely noticed we’re at a “crossroads in education,” so what’s to come in the following year is expected to be innovative and exciting. What’s not new, however, is the traditional lecture hall. Instead, it’s outdated, and it’s time professors start making a change.