March 15, 2006

Peer learning in Science

Great article by David Epstein at InsideHigherEd on how some profs have moved beyond dry lectures and made their classrooms more participatory and, it seems, even more fun for themselves as well.

I was dragged out of my ivory tower,” Mazur said. “The gain [after taking the intro class] was abysmal. It was clear I was not doing a good job teaching physics.” Mazur realized that the students had become quite adept at solving problems by rote, but not at applying concepts. So the next time he taught the course, he took some class time to explain some of the misconceptions exposed by the test.

“I turned and looked at them, 80 students or so, and they looked totally confused,” he said, “as if my explanation had made them more confused. They were silent, so confused they couldn’t even formulate a question.” From the test results, Mazur knew that about half of the students understood the concept he was trying to explain. “On a whim, I said ‘why don’t you turn to your neighbor and convince them of your answer,’ ” he said. “The whole room burst into chaos.”

The students were suddenly so eager to talk physics that Mazur said he figured, “I have to formalize this.” Such was the birth of “peer instruction,” a method of teaching that now has thousands of science faculty members bagging the traditional back-to-the-class lecture.

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