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Professors Explore Alternatives to Traditional Lectures

By Akua F. Abu, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

“Active learning is very much related to hands-on design education,” said Walsh. “If you only have problem-set based learning, you get the idea that you can tackle your problems by just pulling an all-nighter. Instead, we challenge the students—and ask them to use everything that we’ve taught—to solve it.”

As Walsh explained, students grow intellectually by troubleshooting and correcting their own mistakes, experiences which help them become better project managers and designers.

Some classes, such as the advanced laboratory course Physics 191r, have eliminated their lecture component completely. In the class, students work together to conduct and analyze famous experiments.

“It’s very individualized and personal. A class like this shows you what it’s like to be a real researcher doing experimental physics in a lab,” said David A. Rosengarten ’12, a student taking the course.

Several students expressed enthusiasm for creative teaching methods.

“I definitely like the teaching model in which a substantial portion of the learning occurs beyond lecture,” Collin A. Rees ’12 wrote in an email. Rees is an Engineering Sciences 51 teaching fellow and took the course last fall.

“You always walk out of lab having accomplished something. Being a Mechanical Engineering concentrator, it made me fall in love with my concentration again and again,” said Nancy E. De Haro ’13, who took ES51 last spring.

But other students voiced concerns about the practicality of such methods.

Carina R. Fish ’13, who took Mazur’s Physics 11b class last spring, said that Mazur’s unconventional structure did not always lead to a better understanding of the material. “If the whole class was lost, real learning would never happen,” she said.

“The problem with this class was it took a very ‘perfectionistic’ approach to learning,” Ariana M. Saxby ’13, who also took Physics 11b, wrote in an email. “If you didn’t get a chance to do all the reading, however, class time felt useless.”

—Staff writer Akua F. Abu can be reached at

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