The science of teaching

Eric Mazur was the opening speaker at the ALT-C 2012  conference in Manchester UK this week. The keynote presentations were streamed online and I attended this presentation virtually – well worth the hour spent.

The slides of this talk are available here

A recording of the keynote has not yet been posted, but should ultimately appear here

Eric Mazur is a Harvard University physicist who is as interested in researching how his students learn physics, particularly through peer instruction, as he is in researching specific physics concepts.

An interesting aspect of his keynote to the ALT-C conference was his focus on pedagogy rather than technology and his very convincing argument against traditional lecturing to large groups, despite the fact that he delivered the keynote through a lecture to a large group. He says in an interview with Seb Schmoller, before the conference, that lectures are ineffective for teaching anything that is conceptually very difficult, but are good for motivating people. I found his lecture very motivating and my attention didn’t waver during the hour, but I wasn’t asked to learn any difficult physics concepts.

His keynote focused on his recent research

  • the gender gap between male and female achievement in physics,
  • the ineffectiveness of demonstrations in physics teaching and
  • the role of confusion in learning.

He urged us to continuously research our teaching and measure outcomes, using the scientific method. How he does this himself was very well illustrated through his talk.

Here are some of the key points for me.

The problem with traditional lectures….

… is that they hold the mind captive, whereas in fact the mind needs to wander to address problems. A ‘real problem’ is knowing where you want to get to, but not knowing how to get there. Science applies a known procedure to an unknown answer, whereas in our teaching we very often mark/measure students’ understanding by marking their answers rather than their procedures. A lot of assessment is simply regurgitation, rather than a measure of understanding.

The brain stores models not facts. To learn we need cognitive dissonance (Piaget).

Lectures don’t allow us time to make connections and reflect, or to register cognitive dissonance.

We need to build ‘speed bumps’ into lectures, to slow them down and allow time for sense-making.

Research on students’ neurological activity shows that they are more ‘asleep’ when they are in a traditional lecture than when they actually are asleep.

Eric Mazur's ALT-C keynote presentation Slide 6

The scientific approach to teaching: Research as a basis for course design Slide 6

(click on the image to enlarge it)

Teacher explanations and demonstrations do not, by themselves, improve student understanding. Students’ misconceptions are very resistant to change. This can be seen in these two videos which I remembered when listening to the keynote

A Private Universe

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos

Interaction and collaboration for more effective lectures

In his research into the gender gap between men and women’s achievements in learning physics concepts from lectures, Eric Mazur found that women’s test score can be hugely improved through interactive and collaborative lectures. Men’s scores also improved.

He also found that asking students to simply observe scientific demonstrations is not helpful. Critical to improving their understanding is asking them to predict a possible outcome and to discuss their ideas with their peers.

Also critical to effective interaction is skilled questioning by the teacher.

All this takes time – so taking this approach, there is no longer time to use lectures for the dissemination of facts. Students should therefore be asked to prepare for lectures through pre-reading and discussion. The lecture or classroom should be used for sense-making.  In the classroom teachers need to facilitate the assimilation of information through interaction and questioning. Information transfer (through ‘telling’) should happen in a learning space out of the classroom before or after the lecture.

Technology should be used to free up the lecturer and the student to have more time to focus on interaction, collaboration and sense-making. If it is not doing this, then it is not being used effectively to serve pedagogy.

The role of confusion in learning

Eric Mazur finished his keynote by making some interesting points about confusion. His research has shown that ….

  • Confusion doesn’t necessarily correlate with understanding
  • Confused students are twice as likely to be correct as students who do not think they are confused
  • Confusion is not necessarily the result of poor teaching
  • Confusion is an essential part of the learning process

My perspective on all this…

…… is that a focus on pedagogy and how students learn applies to all teaching, online or offline, to large groups or small groups, in physics or another discipline. If we are teachers we need to find ways to make our students think, become aware of and confront their misconceptions, to learn how to learn and realise that learning is about understanding, more than about the ‘grade’. According to Eric Mazur

‘You can forget facts, but you cannot forget understanding’.

One question that I have always had about the teaching of science through discussion, based on my own experience is:

How do you prevent students from compounding their misconceptions through interaction and discussion with equally confused peers?’

I think the answer to this question might lie in Eric Mazur’s work on learning catalytics, which as yet I don’t know anything about.

For an alternative perspective on the keynote, see this blog post – Black Hole

15 thoughts on “The science of teaching

  1. Scott Johnsonscottx5 September 17, 2012 / 6:03 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    Thanks for the references to Eric Mazur. So many of the examples we provide to our instructors venturing into (or resisting) online teaching are impersonal to the point of being unusable. While it isn’t our job to tell people how to teach, the fact that we “design” courses implies we are telling them what to do. Teaching being a personal as well as public skill / performance needs imput not only from the design team but buy-in from the instructor and you can’t order cooperation. One advantage we have over other ID departments is all of us have taught in one form or another. It helps too to show evidence of interest in the craft of teaching at the doing-it level and Eric Mazur certainly projects doing over theory.

    As an aside, my FSLT questionnaire is done but I done have the Oxford Brooks return address. Can I send it to the Oxford Brooks main contact attention to you?

  2. jilltbone September 28, 2012 / 3:01 pm

    Not only will students “forget facts yet remember understanding,” they will not recall how we taught them, but they will remember how we treated them.

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