People to Know: Eric Mazur

If you follow the world of classroom response systems, you’ve likely heard of Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur.  (I’ve certainly mentioned him often here on this blog.)  Mazur’s book, Peer Instruction, and related talks and videos introduced the most commonly used clicker pedagogy (peer instruction) to many instructors in the sciences and other disciplines.  For a concise introduction to this pedagogy, as well as what motivated its development by Mazur, see his recent article, “Peer Instruction: An Overview.”

Here are a few key statements from that article:

It became apparent that many students were simply memorizing algorithms without understanding the underlying physics.

Mazur’s physics education research has helped make the case that students are quite capable of solving computational problems without understanding the associated concepts.  When planning assessment and learning activities for students in quantitative disciplines, this is an important point to remember.  Mazur addresses this issue by including both computational and conceptual questions on his exams and spending class time helping students make sense of conceptual clicker questions he calls ConcepTests.  See his article for examples.

Here’s another good idea:

Preclass reading assignments from the book first introduce the material. Next, lectures elaborate on the reading, address potential difficulties, deepen understanding, build confidence, and add additional examples.

In his talks, Mazur often talks about learning as a two-step process: transfer and assimilation.  Instead of using lectures to transfer information and after-class problem sets to help students assimilate that information, Mazur has his students read the textbook before class for the transfer step.  He then uses class time to help them assimilate that information.  Why?  In part because it makes sense to use  class time to do things that take advantage of the fact he and his students are all together.  He makes class time a collaborative learning experience for the students by using clickers to facilitate peer instruction, a pedagogy he outlines clearly in the article.

One more point from the article:

I view the results from the poll without displaying the results to the students. If more than 30% and less than 70% responded correctly, I give the students one to two minutes to convince their neighbors of the correct answer.

This is a change in practice from Mazur’s early use of peer instruction.  He didn’t used to “hide” the results of the first vote from the students.  However, he and others, including me, have begun to think that showing the results of the first vote to students should only be done when those results are likely to motivate students to engage more seriously in discussions with their peers.  If most of the students agree on the answer to a clicker question (whether they’re right or wrong), they’re less likely to think the question is worth discussing.  As a result, I’ve started only showing my students the results of the first vote if those results indicate disagreement among the students.  I think that kind of results motivates them to take the discussion more seriously.

If you get the chance to hear Eric Mazur give a talk, take advantage of it.  The story he tells about how his teaching has evolved over time is a compelling one.  You might also check out some of his publications on peer instruction, listed below.

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