Confessions of a Converted Lecturer
November 20, 2009 4:15 PM   Subscribe

"I thought I was a good teacher until I discovered my students were just memorizing information rather than learning to understand the material. Who was to blame? The students? The material? I will explain how I came to the agonizing conclusion that the culprit was neither of these. It was my teaching that caused students to fail! I will show how I have adjusted my approach to teaching and how it has improved my students' performance significantly." Physics professor Eric Mazur explains the development and use of the "ConcepTest".


Math professor Mark Schlatter has categorized five different types of ConcepTests he has written and used in class. (pdf)

For those of use of who can't afford clicker systems, one researcher concluded that flash cards work just as well . (pdf)
posted by inkyroom (17 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
Minds of our own covers similar territory, at least with respect to ineffectiveness of teaching style.
posted by Chuckles at 5:01 PM on November 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

Nice. Seems like a lot of metacognition going on there.
posted by John of Michigan at 6:03 PM on November 20, 2009

It certainly helps that he is a charismatic lecturer. I was able to watch the entire lecture and derive educational insights from it.

Cooperative learning is a great tool, as it expands the communication of information, and synthesis of learning styles, exponentially. So many obstacles vanish in a cooperative atmosphere. When students are not overwhelmed by the instructor's status, and put into a semi-coma by stress, exhaustion, and self doubt they can learn better. Of all the things that young people are, social is most likely number one. Comfortably socializing with common momentary learning goals, is what they do. Gossip! So, if in class they can gossip about physics, or math, or art, or design, then they will learn, as they naturally learn at this age.
posted by Oyéah at 6:24 PM on November 20, 2009

He is a great speaker, no wonder he got such great evals for traditional "teaching". I almost feel sorry for the students that they don't get lectures anymore :)

Also, interesting to speculate.. The existing bias that leads professorial type people to become professors should be very much disrupted by this kind of improved technique. What will the long term consequences be?
posted by Chuckles at 6:48 PM on November 20, 2009

It is, unfortunately, quite a bummer (and one that is all too common) when a teacher realizes the value of well developed conceptually based multiple choice tests but implements them in a way that fails to assess either factual or conceptual understanding. I have to grade a lot of tests like this lately.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 7:09 PM on November 20, 2009

I can speak as a person who took a physics class taught in a similar way that I thought it was great. However, much depends upon having a professor like Dr. Mazur or my own physics professor who really cares about helping students learn. Most of my professors could, at best, be described as indifferent. Some, obviously, hated students, hated "teaching," and clearly did so only under duress. Notable favorites in that category would include the instructor who stopped doing student evaluations because he only ever got terrible feedback ("I know what students say about me, so I don't bother") and the instructor who refused to hold office hours or even allow students to visit and ask questions by appointment. The system itself needs to change, bastards who screw students over year after year need to get driven out, before teaching and learning quality is likely to improve.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:38 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I teach math in college and use some of Mazur's techniques, which I learned in grad school. These are easy to adopt even if, like me, you're too conservative to abandon the lecture format entirely. Here's one I use almost every day: ask a question with two or three possible answers. Ask students to vote on which one they think is correct. (The question should be tough enough that not everyone will immediately vote for the right answer.) Then ask the students to turn to the person next to them and spend the next 1-3 minutes trying to reach consensus about which answer is correct. Then revote. The fact that this process tends to move towards the right answer is incredibly powerful -- a demonstration of the basic principle that things in math are the way they are not because I say they are, but because disciplined thought over time tends to reveal the way they are.
posted by escabeche at 8:00 PM on November 20, 2009 [7 favorites]

tl; dtps
posted by HeroZero at 9:24 PM on November 20, 2009

posted by humannaire at 9:38 PM on November 20, 2009

Wow. It's 1:45 in the morning here, and I should have been in bed over an hour ago, but I got sucked right into that.

I'm now significantly questioning a huge portion of my education, and whether I ever understood any of the material, or if I was just a plug n' chug.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:46 PM on November 20, 2009

tl; dtps
posted by HeroZero at 11:24 PM on November 20 [+] [!]

posted by humannaire at 11:38 PM on November 20 [+] [!]

"too long; didn't think-pair-share"

I was sorta kidding. It was late.

I'm a high school English teacher. It's interesting to hear this obviously brilliant and engaging physics professor talk about what are, I would hope, pretty basic ideas in teaching. I love his honesty in describing the terrified thought processes that beginning teachers go through (e.g. "If the students have the same book I do, what will I teach them in class?").

What amazes and saddens me about my own profession is that so many people don't agree with the ideas that Mazur is talking about. My school's sometimes hamfisted administration has spent a lot of energy trying to get teachers to use less lecture and more peer-to-peer learning strategies. This is how I taught already. A lot of my coworkers, in addition to being sick of intellectually-challenged administrators telling them what to do, are dubious about the possibilities of peer-to-peer teaching. That is, I fundamentally believe that students can, however painstakingly, construct knowledge on their own or with their peers. Many teachers just don't believe that because it's difficult and they'd rather just lecture.
posted by HeroZero at 6:34 AM on November 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

This isn't really a rejection of lecture, but promotion of interactive lecture, a la Direct Instruction. With or without electronic clickers, this kind of technique has been known to be more effective than either lecture OR "group work" OR project-based "exploratory learning" for decades.
posted by mabelstreet at 7:49 AM on November 21, 2009 [5 favorites]

While he's compelling and makes good points, he's pretty much saying what we've all known for literally decades, yet been too stubborn to actually apply them in any remotely reasonable way. What a disgusting scam the vast majority of teaching in academia is (and I say this as a 4th year undergraduate): take a bunch of academics, impose a tenure process on them that weeds out any with views more than 10% outside those of the rest of the department, goad the most junior members into teaching introductory classes, tell them they will primarily be evaluated on their research and scholarship, then turn your backs and pay no attention to what happens in the classroom whatsoever, but skim some hastily written evaluations at the end of the term, when it's already too late to do anything. Given this, is it any wonder that the instructors of these large lecture courses don't give a damn and employ the tactics that are easiest for them rather than those known to be most beneficial to the students? Of course they will grab the notes from the last time the course was taught, maybe slip in a lecture around their old dissertation topic or perhaps on their current research if it's vaguely relevant, and try to get through the class with a minimum of effort.

Certainly, there are some professors who rise above this and actually care about the quality of teaching, and I have great respect for these teachers, but in most academic departments, the faculty members who most care about teaching tend to be non-tenure-track adjuncts who literally must be looking for another job elsewhere in order to advance in their careers. That's right: the best teachers at American universities are often those circulating their CVs because their work is so undervalued by their employers that they have hit a glass ceiling.

The entire system right now demonstrates that teaching quality is unimportant, and in fact, spending the amount of time and energy required to teach well makes it virtually impossible to amass the publications and other citations required to succeed in their jobs. Until the incentive structure for faculty is substantially changed, teaching will never improve in American universities. Instead, we'll just get someone every few years like Prof. Mazur to tell us what we've known all along.
posted by zachlipton at 1:57 PM on November 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

This was great, although I'm sitting here considering how this same technique could have been applied to what I've been learning for my past four undergraduate years, psychology. It seems much less obvious and perhaps more ineffective. There aren't as many "problems" apparent.
posted by Defenestrator at 9:00 PM on November 22, 2009

Thanks for posting this. I'm really digging into it and thinking of how to incorporate some of these ideas into my middle-school math classroom. They parallel ideas I've had about using instant assessment (with clickers or flashcards or whiteboards) to know when the students "got it." Plus, I like the cooperative learning aspect. My student sit in groups of 3 or 4 and the peer instruction might work well.
posted by msacheson at 11:29 AM on November 23, 2009

Great lecture, I did wonder if he was going to hold Peer Interaction during the middle of it. Seeing those results it's disappointing it hasn't spread to my university where I can see the same problems that he was speaking of. Cookbook learning, lack of retention and understanding, poor assessment. It really is a shame.
posted by charred at 2:36 AM on November 24, 2009

I'm just relieved i got the question about the truck and the car right. I think most students know the sense of passing a test and not really understanding the subject.

In my college years i studied a variety of engineering subjects, and could not fool myself about the study dynamics behind the grades: understood the concepts, didnt study that much: got an A. Didn't understand the concepts and couldnt be bothered about working on the subject: got an F. BUT work your arse off to get nowhere near a real insight on the subject: get a C or D. That was the real deal, being able to get the C on those subjects that meant 90% of the time devoted to study. I'm looking at you department of materials.

I think an uninterested student body ( premed physics course is spot on) or an uninterested lecturer both lead to the "work you arse off - pass the test - forget all that nonsense in your head" dynamic.
posted by valdesm at 9:45 AM on November 26, 2009

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