In physics and applied physics professor Eric Mazur’s classes, hundreds of students debate physics problems in small groups, consulting their laptops and phones as they search for the right answer.
This unusual teaching method is called peer instruction, and Mazur is just one of the many professors at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to employ unusual pedagogical styles in recent years.
Mazur developed his peer instruction method in 1991 after tests revealed that his students had not effectively absorbed many of the fundamental concepts taught in his physics courses. He said he concluded that students were not sufficiently engaging with the material and were earning passing grades through rote memorization.
“That is not what education is,” Mazur said. “That ‘aha’ moment when you understand the material rarely happens during lecture.”
His new method offered an alternative to the traditional lecture model of teaching. Through hands-on activities, it encourages students to think critically about the material presented in class.
To prepare for Mazur’s unique classes, students learn conceptual basics on their own by reading pre-lectures posted on the course website.
“What I am advocating is really moving information transfer out of the classroom. That’s the easy part. We need to focus attention on the difficult parts by actually practicing concepts in class,” Mazur said.
According to Mazur, the strength of the method is that students are given the opportunity to learn from their peers rather than the professor, whose familiarity with the material might prevent him or her from understanding a student’s problem.
“When I teach a lecture course, I teach by questioning,” Mazur added. “I ask students to interact with one another and discuss things under my guidance.”
Standardized assessments have shown that this alternative method drastically increases students’ retention of information, Mazur said.
The idea of active, hands-on learning has caught on quickly at SEAS as dozens of professors take increasingly innovative approaches to pedagogy.
SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray said that she is a “champion” of new teaching styles and welcomes faculty to use creative methods in their classrooms.
“The SEAS faculty is very interested in new methods of teaching and learning,” Murray said. “Some of them will be experiments. They might not all work out too well but we’ll learn.”
In classes such as Engineering Sciences 51: “Computer-Aided Machine Design,” students learn the fundamentals of the engineering design process through hands-on projects. Students spend a significant amount of class time in front of computer models or building and designing objects, including catapults and cars, in the School’s machine shop.
The goal, Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering assistant professor Conor J. Walsh said, is to encourage students to see that real-world challenges can be tackled by applying material learned in the classroom.