Q& A

Lecturing vs. Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

Monday, September 24, 2007

Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur, author of "Peer Instruction," is known for his research in instructional methods. He helped pioneer a "clicking system" that enables students to simultaneously answer questions in class and their teacher to get the answers instantly. He talked about lecturing and its role.

QIs the traditional lecture still the cornerstone of undergraduate education in all fields?

AI certainly think that in the sciences it is, ignoring everything that is known about education.

Why don't lectures work well in the sciences?

I teach introductory physics to pre-meds. I've done that for many years. These are students who are not going on to become physics majors. They have been told to take physics. They have no clue why they should be taking physics. They probably won't be using most of the content knowledge of physics later in their careers. Some might, but most won't. So the question is: What are the benefits of doing physics? The main benefit is to learn to become a better problem solver. The emphasis should not be on the content and the subject but on developing skills to problem solve. We should teach everybody to develop problem-solving skills. Lecturing is an inefficient way of doing it.

You said that some teachers spoon-feed their students but you force them to learn the material on their own. How do your students like it?

There are some students that are upset that I do not lecture. Some students say, "I'm not paying Harvard $45,000 a year to learn it all myself." At the end of each semester, students fill out a questionnaire, and a few students will write: "Professor Mazur is not teaching us anything. I have to learn it all myself."

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