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A New Way to Learn: Students Argue About Physics

March/April 1998

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

His 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 their answers and the arguments begin. "I tell them, turn to your neighbor and convince them of your answer," Mazur says

After a few minutes, the 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; when 50 percent of the students get the answer right the first time, the second showing is closer to 90 percent.

In 1995, the ConcepTest System was chosen to be included in NSF's Profiles of Innovative Projects, a booklet highlighting 50 of NSF's education ventures. Developed with the help of a 1993 grant from NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education, ConcepTest is now widely distributed through seminars, workshops and Mazur's Web page.

What ConcepTest accomplishes, says Mazur, is getting 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."
[November 1996]

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