Friday, January 15, 2010

Hard Work Has to Happen in the Learners' Minds

This week we were very fortunate to have renowned Harvard physicist, Professor Eric Mazur present three seminars at UQ. One hardcore academic lecture on optical physics (an area for which Eric is a world leader), and two seminars on teaching and lecturing style (another area for which Eric is a world leader). I decided to sidestep the optical physics lecture and attend the two teaching and lecturing seminars because effective communication of science is a skill I’ve recently become interested in.

Eric noticed that, while his students were passing his introductory physics course, most were only memorizing facts and not grasping the key ideas of his lectures. To show his students lacked conceptual understanding, he gave two forms of the same test, which were about content his students should have had a solid grasp; one test in traditional form that could be passed with rote learned knowledge, and the other test in conceptual form that required deeper understanding. What he found was that 40% of his students did really well on the traditional test, but tragically poor on the conceptual test. Only 10% of his students performed well on the conceptual test but, critically, they also performed really well on the traditional test.

Modestly, rather than assuming his students were stupid (a hard case to make about Harvard pre-Med students), Eric began looking at how he could change his teaching style to make it easier for his students to better understand those basic concepts. His eureka moment serendipitously occurred at a hastily-organised study session the panicked students requested after their dismal performance on the test they should have aced. Whilst trying to force the concept into his students’ brains with varying diagrams, some students who did understand the ideas were able to explain it to those who didn’t in terms they could appreciate.

The important discovery was that students who understand the content are also more likely to appreciate the barriers to understanding, having recently overcome them themselves. As an expert who had understood these ideas for more than 20 years, Prof. Mazur couldn’t remember what made them difficult to learn. He said “The longer you teach, the less qualified you become to teach.”

From this, Eric developed his Peer Instruction method, which can be seen
here. The method has become hugely popular in the US, where it has been shown to improve learning over twice as much as traditional lecture styles. We are now starting to see similar changes in how UQ lecturers think about teaching.

You can watch Eric’s lecture “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer” here and look at his slides here

- Morgan

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