Harvard Professor Eric Mazur gave a talk at ETH Zurich entitled “Assessment: The Silent Killer of Learning” and two workshops on the same subject

Professor Eric Mazur uses modern teaching methods in his work at the elite American university of Harvard. The winner of the Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education sets great store by teamwork and an interactive approach in his classes. This is of particular benefit to female students.

ZURICH, 10-12-2014 — /EuropaWire/ — As far as Harvard Professor Eric Mazur is concerned, the traditional model of the lecture, where the lecturer talks, and the students listen passively, has had its day. He takes a different approach to teaching: the physics professor has developed his own methods for making the act of learning more interactive and efficient, so as to compensate for gender differences. At the end of November, as part of an event organised by Equal!, Eric Mazur gave a talk at ETH Zurich entitled “Assessment: The Silent Killer of Learning” and two workshops on the same subject.

Eric Mazur has collected data about his students for many years, including from the days when he was still using traditional teaching methods himself. One of his findings is that women in the US in general have a statistically significantly inferior level of prior knowledge than men when they start studying physics. That applies regardless of whether they had no physics lessons at all at secondary school or have taken an advanced course.

This way, women catch up

“We can address that gap by changing the approach to teaching. Women benefit from verbal interactivity and a non-competitive, collaborative atmosphere. Yet, especially in science courses, there is often intense competition.”

So instead of repeating in his lectures material that the students can in any case read in the textbook he has written, Eric Mazur applies a pedagogy he calls “Peer Instruction”: before each session, he gives the students material to read. During class he poses conceptual questions to test their understanding of the material, and gives the students about one minute to choose an answer – this may be done by raising their hands, using little cards or an electronic selection system.

Once the students have decided on their answers, they have to persuade the person sitting next to them why their choice is the right one. Then they select an answer again. The result is that the number of those choosing the correct answer is always higher after the discussion, leading to the conclusion that the students are teaching one another successfully. “You learn the most by teaching other people”, says Eric Mazur.

Over the duration of the course, the performance of the women improves to the same level as that of the men – who, incidentally, also benefit from the interactive approach, but not as much as the women. “The women benefit more from this system than the men, but not at the expense of the men”, says Eric Mazur.

“We treat learning far too much as an individual activity. But learning doesn’t stop when you get your diploma and you’ll never learn in isolation again later on in life or in your job. Learning is a social experience.”

Same-sex teams are the weakest

That’s why Eric Mazur likes to set up teams which each work on a project for a month. They learn physics through practical application. One benefit is that the students watch each other and any cheating is essentially eliminated. “They feel a sense of social responsibility towards their classmates. That is a more powerful force than feeling guilty in relation to the professor”, says Eric Mazur. “The attendance rate on these courses has risen to 97 per cent. The students even come when they are sick! This shows that learning can be fun after all.”

Eric Mazur decides on the composition of the teams of five himself – “Because even in your working life you can’t choose your own team.” His criteria include gender, previous knowledge and characteristics such as whether the individual tends to be dominant or more reserved.

“Diversity in general is good. Different perspectives make people realise things that they didn’t before.” However, the key factor is gender: “The gender balance is what correlates most closely with a team’s success. I have discovered that all-male and all-female teams perform worst of all. I was taken aback by that.”

Inadequate examinations

Eric Mazur is interested not only in teaching methods but also in examination techniques. “Students often only learn what they need to pass the exam, and then forget it all again.” It’s not a question of remembering information, but rather of knowing where to find the information. That’s why he allows his students to use books and even the Internet during examinations. “After all, when I’m writing a paper myself, I don’t know everything by heart – I also use reference material.”

Unfortunately the ways of assessing students are very limited. One mark cannot express all of a person’s capabilities. “Creativity, scientific thinking, innovation… you can’t give a mark for these things.” Nor do examinations test the things that he feels are really important in life – such as the ability to work with other people or to communicate with them.

That’s why Eric Mazur assesses his students according to a complex system based on four components: the ability to learn independently, teamwork, meeting the learning objectives and professionalism, which in turn includes punctuality, cooperation and ethics. “Nevertheless, unfortunately Harvard still demands a conventional marking system – so in the end I do have to summarise all these factors in a single mark.”

However, he does not think much of the idea of introducing gender-specific examinations: “Having different tests for men and women would be terrible and would only lead to tensions. The problem lies on the input side, not on the output side, and the good news is that we can even out any differences on the input side through interactivity and collaboration in the classroom.”

About Eric Mazur

Eric Mazur is a Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and Dean of Applied Physics at the University of Harvard. In May he won theMinerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education, endowed with 500,000 US dollars, for the teaching method that he developed in the 1990s called “Peer Instruction”. This new prize is awarded to a single faculty member from anywhere in the world in recognition of extraordinary innovations in teaching.


Eric Mazur during the talk which he gave at ETH Zurich. (Photo: ETH Zurich/Andrea Schmits)

Eric Mazur during the talk which he gave at ETH Zurich. (Photo: ETH Zurich/Andrea Schmits)


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