Peer Instruction

An article on Presentation Zen about Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction methodology clicked something in me.

Dr. Mazur’s approach: (1) Students read the notes and appropriate section of books, etc. before coming to class. “I am not going to lecture on the notes anymore,” Mazur says. (2) In the classroom what matters is going deeper. “What’s important is depth not coverage.” The pre-assigned readings take care of the coverage, but class time offers the chance to go deeper and spend time on those parts that were most difficult for students. This depth, says Mazur, is not obtained through telling but by using a more Socratic method of asking good questions.

The two main features of the peer instruction approach is that (1) there is active engagement in the classroom. “It’s impossible to sleep in class because every few minutes your neighbor will start talking to you.” And (2) there is continuous information flow back and forth with the student and teacher and also between students. What about solving the physics problems in class? Mazur says that he realized students watching a professor solve problems at the blackboard had little lasting benefit. The benefit of watching a physicist solve problems at the board, says Mazur, is something like training to run a marathon by sitting on the sofa eating chips all day and watching videos of great marathon runners. If you want to be a better runner, you have to run. If you want to be a better problem solver, you have to solve problems. In the end what Mazur found is that when students better understand the material (by going deep, discussing with peers, teaching to peers, etc.), they become better problem solvers. Interestingly, however, Mazur discovered that being a good problem solver (and doing well on tests) did not always indicate understanding.

There are two basic and important points that Dr. Mazur made in this presentation: (1) “Traditional indicators of success are misleading.” That is, teacher evaluations and examination results do not reflect whether students really understand the content, even if they do well on the tests. (2) “Education is no longer about information.” Mazur says the key is not memorizing recipes and formulas to do well on a test, but rather to develop and demonstrate the ability to use the information to solve problems.

Several things which strike out to me;

  1. Asking Good Questions are important in learning not just answering
  2. Our measures of success are not entirely accurate or reflective of wisdom
  3. Information ≠ Power. Not in our world of internet enabled learning (unless you live in an area with no 4G coverage)
  4. People learn more from their peers.

“You can forget facts, but you can not forget understanding”
~ Eric Mazur


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