Revamping the Lecture

What happens when students walk away from a class without learning what their instructor anticipated?  Eric Mazur, a Professor of Physics at Harvard, encountered this very problem with his introductory Physics classes. Mazur found that most students became good at solving the math intensive problems in the exams, but were often unfamiliar with the larger concepts that the formulas and equations came from. They were not learning how to think like scientists. Students were learning how to problem solve, without learning a whole lot about Physics. Instead of admitting defeat, Mazur worked to reinvent his teaching method. While large lectures may not be the ideal setting for learning, they are prevalent for introductory classes, and with changes can still offer an effective learning venue. In 1997, Mazur published Peer Instruction, a manual for teaching science, based on his own experience in revamping his science courses. Although this manual is meant to assist science professors, there are valuable concepts that can help in rethinking the way History courses are taught.

Mazur explains that earlier in his career he spent a bulk of his attention on preparing for lecture. This involved writing detailed and compact lecture notes to keep on track. Students eventually asked Mazur to share these, and he began to distribute all the course notes to students at the beginning of the semester. However, students complained in course evaluations that his lectures were the same as the notes. This caused Mazur to realize that the lecture was repetitive and did not really serve a purpose if all the information he was presenting required a passive student that would have gained just as much by staying home and reading the lecture notes. This realization spurred Mazur to completely reinvent his approach to teaching.

What method of teaching would make the lecture worthwhile and essential for students? The answer for Mazur was collaborative learning. Mazur realized that science courses were often incredibly competitive. Students were graded on a curve, and this made fellow students competitors. In order to combat competitiveness, and encourage collaboration, Mazur implemented something he calls “CocepTests.” Mazur would lecture on a concept, then quiz the students to gage understanding. After initially answering, the students would then discuss amongst themselves, and work to convince their peers of their selected answers. The students were quizzed again, and from these answers Mazur would gage how well people were learning the concept. What Mazur learned is that students learn well from each other, and being able to explain one’s answer to other students indicates a command over the material. Explaining material to others makes the material clearer for the one explaining. It also can serve as a boost in confidence for more unsure students. Mazur found that testing students after explaining a concept allowed for him to gage understanding and encourage collaboration.

Mazur’s use of these tests to gage pacing in the class reflects some of Gee’s observations about effective learning in Video Games. The test results would inform Mazur of how well people were grasping the concept he had explained. When the class achieved 90% correct answers, Mazur felt confident to move on to the next topic. This is similar to the ways video games have levels that allow a player to move forward and advance once they have shown competence in completing the tasks in a given level. It seems that Mazur is encouraging a similar sort of pacing, but one that is based on the class’ level of competence. Mazur fosters a sense of collaboration, by allowing students to move on to the next conceptual level based on group performance. This would be similar to the class playing a video game together, and only progressing when the group is ready. This approach allows for struggling students to not get left behind, and offers the more advanced students an opportunity to gain proficiency when communicating concepts to others.

Although History is different from Physics in many ways, and does not necessarily involve standardized ideas and concepts that students must learn, Mazur’s encouragement of collaboration can be effective in History courses as well. Giving students the opportunity to convince others of their own historical interpretations and arguments would surely improve a student’s writing ability. Convincing other students would require an organization of thoughts and examples in order to make a cohesive argument about the past. This would offer students a regular opportunity to practice what Wineburg termed as “historical thinking,” and fine-tune their skills of historical interpretation. Regularly testing students during lecture, would effectively measure competence, while allowing students to move past merely memorizing the dates and names of the past.

Mazur’s other innovation in the classroom, to ensure that lectures are worthwhile and productive for students, is to make sure that students come into class with reading done so that the lecture can add to what students already know, or are unclear about. Instead of merely repeating simple information, Mazur would rather take time to ensure that students have a strong command over concepts. In order to guarantee that students approach the lecture with a base line of knowledge, Mazur would test the students on the reading, and would grade these tests competitively. Grading these quizzes on a scale allowed for an environment of competition that would discourage cheating in the classroom and encourage students to complete their reading. Mazur also approached grading quizzes in a less discouraging manner, by allowing good grades to prop up future grades, and not penalizing and discouraging students with bad grades. Providing incentive to read before class allowed Mazur to make time in lecture more efficient and worthwhile for students.

This is an approach that would work well in a History lecture. If students are required to come into each lecture session having read a blend of secondary and primary sources, they would then have a baseline of the subject matter and could use the class time to further refine their understanding. This would require the students to be quizzed on the reading at the beginning of class. After discussing a theme or approach to students, an instructor could then challenge the students to develop their own historical argument. Using the guidance of the lecture, combined with that they have read in primary and secondary sources, students can develop their own historical arguments. Once students have gone through the activity of forming their own historical argument, they can then work to convince others of their argument. This is an activity that can facilitate and encourage collaborative learning and the development of historical thinking.

Mazur does bring up a challenge around reinventing his class, and that is the challenge of evaluation and testing. Even though Mazur strongly favors teaching Physics concepts, he felt pressured to also test for problem solving as well, in order to prevent too much student dissent. Students tend to be concerned with their grades, and while they will accept innovative teaching methods, they are less receptive to innovative testing. Grades appear to be an impediment on teaching, but what other incentive could be given for students to be invested in the class, and invested in the reading? Self-evaluation would be an effective method for evaluating student performance, and would allow students an opportunity to practice persuasion, and writing positively about themselves. These are skills that have been promoted by Cathy Davidson as being valuable outside of the History classroom, especially in the job market. This would still leave the question of how professors can motivate students to come to class prepared. Perhaps social pressure in a collaborative learning environment would serve as motivation? Regardless of the answer, Mazur’s innovations in the Physics classroom, and his dedication to sharing his resources and experiences, provide some key insights into how the lecture could be more effective in fostering historical thinking in students.

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2 Responses to Revamping the Lecture

  1. Nice review of Mazur’s approach. I think you are asking all the right questions in the last paragraph. How do we bake student engagement with content into the design of the course. I like his approach to quizzing individuals then essentially quizzing the group after discussion. I also think your line about student dissent is important. They may be far more willing to try new learning techniques than new assessment techniques. Like our music example in class a few weeks ago, a new course has to balance the strangeness with enough familiarity that students don’t feel lost.

  2. Pingback: Penne Restad & Karl Miller on Teaching History

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