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A New Way to Learn: Students Argue About Physics

November 1996

If you walk into Eric Mazur's Harvard physics class at the wrong time, you may think you're in a lounge instead of a lecture hall. Students argue furiously. They're loud. They're unruly. None of them pays attention to Mazur.

"It's absolute chaos," he admits. "It's great."

The students are arguing about physics. Every 10 minutes Mazur's class has a ConcepTest--an on-the-spot, ungraded quiz that pinpoints an underlying concept of physics.

Students record an answer of A, B, C, or D, then the arguments start. "I tell them, turn to your neighbor and convince your neighbor of your answer."

After a few minutes, the same question is put back up. Freshly convinced students record their answers in a second round of testing. Mazur can see their responses as they are entered into a computer; an occassional show of hands works as well. If 50 percent of the students get the answer right the first time, the second showing is closer to 90 percent.

In 1995, Mazur's ConcepTest System was chosen to be part of NSF's Profiles of Innovative Projects, a booklet by the Directorate for Education and Human Resources highlighting 50 of NSF's education ventures. Each project addresses a generally accepted problem in classrooms.

In Mazur's case, the problem was getting his students to stop memorizing and start thinking. Explaining a concept forces students to grasp the issues, he says. "It's not hands-on, it's brains-on."

What's more, says Mazur, frequently students are better able to get the concept across than he is. "Their answers are fresh and often more effective than my polished explanations."

After the second round of tests, Mazur lectures for a few minutes and sets up another ConcepTest. At the end of each class, Mazur knows how many students have understood the material. It's a good position for a teacher to be in, he says. "Once you start this process, you're hooked. You're in touch with your class. I get nervous now if I lecture more than 10 minutes."

Mazur didn't always teach like this. When he started in 1984, he worked in the standard lecture/laboratory format. Then he read an article claiming that students are memorizing, not conceptualizing science. The article included a test of concepts. "I thought it was easier than what I was testing them on," he says. But his class didn't. They did poorly.

Mazur rethought the process and used a 1993 grant from NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) to develop the ConcepTest and Peer Instruction methods. Used originally at Harvard and University of Massachusetts, Lowell, the method is now widely distributed through seminars and workshops, free teachers' books published by Prentice Hall, and Mazur's World Wide Web page.

The distribution and applicability are among the main reasons for Federal funding from NSF, says Duncan McBride, Program Director in DUE. "This project offers an improvement not only for Eric Mazur and Harvard students, but for students all over the country."

For more information about ConcepTests, visit Mazur's education Web site: http://galileo.harvard.edu

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