Monday, February 13, 2012

Eric Mazur: Memorization or understanding: are we teaching the right thing?

This hour long lecture is worth watching if you teach!

Mazur describes his experience teaching college physics to pre-med students at Harvard. These students have learned to take tests well, as shown by high school grades and SAT scores. Almost all will have taken not only high school physics but advanced placement physics courses in high school.

He found after several years of teaching, that a significant portion of the students had learned algorithms for solving certain kinds of physics problems, but had not mastered the concepts underlying the use of those algorithms. He has changed his manner of teaching, developing relatively simple multiple-choice questions to use in classes expose the common misconceptions among his students. they are such that when used in the course of a semester, a small plurality of the students will get the right answer, but many or perhaps most will get the wrong answer. He has students provide the answers using clickers. When all the answers are in, he has students work with neighbors with different answers to come to a joint response. These are much more likely to be correct.

The students are also required to read the class texts and have problem solving labs with teaching assistants, but no "lectures" as we normally understand the term. Instead Mazur's large classroom sessions are primarily devoted to small group discussions of conceptual issues.

Mazur, I think correctly points out that a primary job of the college professor is to help his students learn. Moreover, the learning we want is not short term memorization of material (that will be forgotten quickly when the course is over) but the learning of concepts that the student will be able to apply in other contexts.

The problem that I have with this lecture is how to apply it to teaching graduate students in my courses. I have been trying to teach students interested in international organizations how to understand them well. I find that a seminar method in which they present a lot of the content helps. I also like projects, with a faculty member or outside expert providing guidance to each small project team to be a help. Classroom discussions play a part. So can case studies. But I think I need to think more about what Mazur is saying!

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