How to Teach the Teachers

Physics professor Eric Mazur has been recognized internationally for his research program in optical physics as well as his work in science education. The Harvard Crimson interviewed Professor Mazur to find out more about his role as a science educator.

The Harvard Crimson: When did you start getting interested in science education?

Mazur: When I became an assistant professor here at Harvard in 1984, I was asked to teach. Of course, I knew it was going to be part of my job description, so I took my teaching very seriously. However, as is common practice all over the globe, when you teach in higher education, you get absolutely no training—no theories, no coaching, nothing. I based my opinions and my approach on my personal experiences, and my personal experiences were no different from the experiences of many students today—or the experiences of students in the 19th century or in the 16th century; namely, you sit in benches and you listen to a professor, and you take notes, and then you walk away thinking you’ve learned things. I did to my students back in 1984 exactly what my teachers had done to me, naively believing that was how I had learned science. I was devoted to teaching right from the start—I was just incredibly ill informed, unprepared, unqualified, and misguided in my approach, but I think that is no different than anybody else.

THC: When did you start realizing that this teaching style wasn’t working?Mazur: I started having students solve basically two types of problems on exams. One of them was a word based conceptual problem, and the other was a textbook problem on exactly the same subject—and what I found was a true eye opener. Students could do perfectly well on the textbook problem, but on the word-based problem they floundered. They had not internalized the information and they could not deal with it conceptually, but they were able to solve a textbook problem simply by rote, following a prescription. And that’s when I really started grappling with new approaches for teaching. That’s when I had students start learning by questioning and having students ask one another questions.

THC: Can you briefly describe your philosophy and process of teaching?

Mazur: If you train for a marathon, you aren’t doing yourself any good sitting and eating popcorn, watching videos of marathon runners—you’ve got to do the running ... As a student you need to take control of your own learning, and a teacher should really be, in a sense, the coach to put you on the right path and keep you on the right path—and to keep you motivated for wanting to learn. The form that it takes depends largely on the class, the class size, and the class purpose. If it is a really large class, I may ask a short question, and have the students use clickers to first commit individually to an answer, and then debate the answer among themselves. If it is a small class I may have the students teach one another—with me as a coach. The key point here is that the focus is on the student as the learner, and my task is not one of regurgitating information.

THC: How has your research in education merged with your scientific research? How have you managed to do cutting edge research in your field while at the same time making a contribution to educational research and methods?

Mazur: Whenever people ask me that question, I am always a little incredulous, and I think—how can you not do the two things together? After all, if I am a scientist, the main question you ask as a scientist is “why?” I become like a little kid again and I want to understand things and I want to wrap my head around how something works. Yes, the subjects are different, one is the interaction between light and matter and one is the classroom, but this basic curiosity of wanting to understand how things work motivates both.

THC: Do you think that college professors should have to take courses in pedagogy?

Mazur: Absolutely. You want to be a lawyer, you have to pass the bar exam. You want to be a doctor, you have to pass all kinds of exams. You want to teach in a kindergarten, you need to have certification. But if you want, on the other hand, to teach the next generation of leaders—and you want to teach in higher education—simply by virtue of a PhD degree you are supposed to know exactly how to educate people. It just doesn’t make sense.