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To Lecture or Not to Lecture, an Age-Old Question

By Vickie G. Hampton

Eric Mazur

ERIC MAZUR, a renowned professor of physics at Harvard University, asked the hard questions, did the research and came up with a revolutionary method that could profoundly alter interactions in physics classes—and a number of other classes for that matter—across the nation.

The fascinating discovery? Lecturing is defunct, a practice literally out of the Middle Ages that has long lost its usefulness, especially in today’s finger-tip, click-here information age.

“What an inefficient enterprise,” said Mazur, “because you could just videotape your lecture, deliver it to students on their IPODS and get exactly the same information out—no need to redo [a lecture] year after year.”

Mazur spoke during a colloquium on teaching and pedagogy on Sept. 27 titled “Understanding or Memorization: Are We Teaching the Right Thing?”

According to Mazur, the word lecture is derived from Latin meaning “to read.”

“Until books were available in 1492, it was the only way of passing on information,” he explained.“For the last 100 years,we’re had access to books, but we’ve continued to basically read the book to students.”

So what does the physicist propose? A radical shift in focus from “teaching to helping students learn.”

“Education is not just information transfer, but assimilation of information,” he said. Mazur found that his students could “regurgitate algorithms,” but had little understanding of why they worked or their application in real life.

“Just applying laws without understanding what they mean and how they work—that is boring. You throw away all the beauty of science,” he said.

His new approach includes giving students more responsibility for gathering information, including pre-class reading— “I know that’s heresy in science,” he said.

He also uses what he calls ConcepTests, questions that allow students to draw on their understanding of algorithms rather than their memory of them. He offers concept questions to his students approximately every 15 minutes. After one minute of thinking through their answer, the students transmit their answers to his computer with clicking devises. Then he does something that is tantamount to a pedagogical breakthrough: he allows the students to turn to each other and defend their answers.

Yes, you may—in fact, you must—talk in his class.

“Normally, when we lecture, we stop talking and ask does anyone have any questions. There is a lot of reluctance—we get nothing. But if you ask students to talk to one another, they’re very engaged,” he explained.

Mazur is also more engaged, listening in on the students’ explanations to understand how they think. In the process, he has learned a valuable lesson.

“Better understanding leads to better problem-solving. But this is something I really want to hammer in, good problemsolving doesn’t indicate better understanding,” he said.

“You want to try to achieve ‘Aha!’ moments.”

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