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Interview #5: Eric Mazur
In this interview, Eric discusses the improved learning outcomes observed in students, stemming from his original theories and teaching models of Peer to Peer Learning and Learning Catalytics. He also examines the conceptual changes educators can make to enrich the learning experience, across many disciplines and settings.
Like many others before me, I thought the best way for my students to learn was how I had been taught - by listening to lectures. Through my students' work and feedback received, the illusion that I was a great Physics teacher (using these methods) went on for many years.
I then read an article about how students weren't really learning physics in their introductory courses. It didn't matter whether you gave a test on day one and then repeated it at the end - you got more or less the same poor results. I decided to give the test to my students to demonstrate that things were different in my class… during the test one student asked me, 'how should I answer these questions, according to what you taught us, or the way I usually think about these things?'
That was the unravelling of the illusion that I was a good teacher.
So as an experiment I assigned an exam with two types of problems. One was a standard textbook problem and the other was a word problem with no computation.
Much to my surprise, the students did well on the computational problem but stumbled on the word based problem, and that's when I realised they just solved by memorisation without understanding the principles.
As educators, we are simply not assessing things that are really valuable. Students tend to develop superficial strategies, like memorisation and rote procedures to pass tests.
I realised that for many of the questions that I designed on my tests, students were simply answering by rote instead of having a coherent framework and understanding of how physics really worked.
I think we continue to teach in a traditional method because most of us never pause to think about how we really learn. Typically, the person doing the assessment in the course is the person teaching, so you can always adjust your assessment to get whatever results you want...
How do we get away with this approach in education? In some ways, education is one big cartel where the people that determine what happen are also the people assessing - no wonder there is no change.
What is the alternative approach? I would suggest we focus on the learning outcome. I often ask myself what the content going into a course is, and what I want my students to be able to do after taking this course. I try to define all of my courses into actionable outcomes.
After discovering that I wasn't an effective teacher, I realised I had been focusing too much on information transfer in my classes. Education is so much more than delivering information - it involves having the students make sense of the information, and having the insights that permit them to extract the skills and knowledge to apply in their careers.
I like to think of it as a two step process. (One) - information transfer, (two) - sense making. I assumed that sensemaking would occur on its own, but it actually requires the learner to be actively involved. So I threw the information step out and gave the students the responsibility of information transfer.
For example, I may ask my students to read a book before coming to class, watch a lecture, or do some preliminary research; then in class I focus on the ‘sensemaking’ by teaching and questioning.
Click on the image for a larger view.
I wanted activities in the classroom to promote thinking, so I developed peer to peer instruction. In class, I would talk for a few minutes and then pose a question to students.
I let the students think about it and then commit individually to an answer. For this we used the platform learning catalytics.
Then I told them to find a neighbour who had a different answer. Suppose you got the right answer, but I didn't. You are more likely to convince me than the other way around, simply by the force of logic. But more importantly you are more likely to convince the other students, than Professor Mazur, because you had only recently learnt it yourself - you still know what the difficulties are that the learner had, whereas Professor Mazur learnt it such a long time ago that to him it is so clear. As a final step, I then had the students recommit to an answer.
In essence, that is peer instruction - which has been applied to many different disciplines in many different settings from K-12 to Higher Education, and has been shown to increase the learning gains significantly, often tripling them.
Look at a kindergarten; you would never have a teacher lecture there. I think this is the natural approach to teaching. Unless you cannot find a method to transfer the information outside of the classroom, this will always be the best approach.
The best opportunity to apply peer learning, is where there is a subject with a lot of information available in the textbook, video lecture or online. Why take the students' valuable time in the classroom to regurgitate that information? Foster discussion about it instead.
Absolutely. So in the mid-80's, when I taught my well-received lectures, the students' exam performance made me believe that I was an effective teacher. It wasn't until later that I realised that they were doing well in these problems not because they understood the physics, but because they learnt to recognise problems and apply memorised techniques to solve them.
After switching to teaching peer instruction, I found that my students' understanding went up. Their performance on other problems also increased in spite of having paid less attention. If you understand the basic principles of a subject you’re likely to become a better problem solver.
I think ownership is crucially important. I read a book by Alan November who describes how he was a teacher, and his school was one of the first in the US to have a computer classroom. One day he receives a call that there has been a break-in to the computer classroom, but no windows were broken and all of the computers were there.
A single student was sitting there at a computer, who said to him 'I want to learn how to program the computer.' He then realised that if somebody really wants to learn they'll do anything, including breaking the law to do this.
We are all born with that ownership of learning, young children have this innate desire to learn. You don't have to give them exams or books; they'll just devour whatever information you put in front of them, try to figure it out and build mental models that will help them grow in life.
I think the sad thing is that education does a very good job of switching that ownership of learning off, so it's important to give that ownership back to students. Peer instruction is a small step in the right direction, as ownership of the information transfer process returns to the students, and gives them an opportunity to learn by teaching one another.
I think the important part is learning by doing, which is how we all learn. Therefore, a good approach is to use a combination of team based and project based learning.
I place students in teams so that there is a social responsibility to learning, and the project based component is there to foster ownership. Ideally, I like to include a component of empathy into the project so that it is motivated not by the discipline but because you can do good by doing.
Then I say, by the way, you might want to have a look at this book because it can help you with your project - the project becomes the trojan horse.
I don't think there is a cookie cutter approach to education, and we have to test different learning environments to expose students to a wide breadth of learning environments. What about the students who enjoy working alone?
After graduating from high school and going into the workplace; they will have to work with other people, and it would be a shock if you are used to working in isolation, then all of a sudden find yourself in a position where you're forced to collaborate with others. I think there might be personalities that are less conducive to working together, but the sooner you can start to develop collaborative working habits, the better it is going to be.
Collaborative and communication skills. Peer learning involves communication and the ability to articulate your thoughts. It also trains qualitative and quantitative thinking skills, which are all skills that are crucially important.
And most importantly, it helps students become lifelong learners. I find many students who take my class become much better lifelong learners because they take this habit of taking responsibility for the information transfer and end up doing better in their next courses.
Learning really starts on the job, and I think that students soon discover that when there's no more formal guidance you have to learn on your own. So learning how to learn is perhaps the most important skill we can teach our students in any educational setting.
Part 2: Eric Mazur on transforming education outcomes and beyond
Eric Mazur is the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University, developer of Peer to Peer Learning and creator of the Learning Catalytics program.
Since launching the 'In Conversation' series in 2015, we now have a collection of interviews to present, with more arriving each month!
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