Mazur Criticizes Forms of Assessments

Current academic assessments fail to teach students skills that are applicable in the real world, argued Area Dean for Applied Physics Eric Mazur during a lecture to a packed hall in the Science Center Tuesday afternoon.

During his lecture, which was titled “The Silent Killer of Learning” and was selected as this year’s Dudley Herschbach Scientist/Teacher lecture, Mazur also argued that assessments promote “inauthentic problem solving,” and thus fail to provide students with the skills most needed in the real world. Mazur said that assessments should focus on feedback, not ranking, and on skills, not memorization.

With a picture of an exam room displayed on the board, Mazur asked, “Have you ever in your professional life encountered a situation where you were cut off from any source of information and from other people?” The remark drew chuckles from the crowd.

In an effort to make the skills learned in the classroom more applicable in the real world, Mazur said that he allows students to bring their books and notes into assessments and has group examinations, where students work in a team, teaching and learning from each other. Mazur also advocated for immediate peer assessments, which he said allow students to receive feedback while the information is still fresh in their mind.

Typical assessments ask you to discover a solution using a learned procedure, which Mazur said is troublesome because real-world problems require students to discover a procedure to reach a desired outcome.

Furthermore, Mazur argued that current assessments problematically rob students of the freedom to make mistakes.

“Making mistakes is a part of problem solving,” said Mazur, but “grading is incompatible with real problem-solving because it penalizes students for making mistakes …. It makes students risk averse.”

Mazur also noted that current tests, in an attempt to make objective questions, have stripped away questions that require students to make or form their own assumptions. Mazur gave the example of determining when a space in a full parking lot would open up as an instance in which an individual would need to assume how long individuals park.

However, Mazur said, “the ability to make correct assumptions is one of the most useful skills no matter the job our students are going to take.”

Audience members said that they found the lecture educational.

“People should start trying [these collaborative approaches] more in other classes,” said Madhavi V.S.V. Duvvuri ’14, who took Mazur’s Applied Physics 50 class last year and is currently one of his teaching fellows.

“Learning to communicate science to other people is an invaluable skillyou don’t see a lot of people being trained to do that in other classes,” he said.

Leigh A. Needleman, a Harvard lab manager, said that after listening to Mazur she was interested in including more student-driven grading in the lab she teaches.

Katy A. Muth, a local high school teacher, said that the lessons applied to her as well. She planned on encouraging students to work through AP Calculus problems collaboratively, rather than simply handing them separate questions.

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