Eric Mazur and Peer Instruction

Eric Mazur is the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University and Area Dean of Applied Physics. An internationally recognized scientist and researcher, he leads a vigorous research program in optical physics and supervises one of the largest research groups in the Physics Department at Harvard University. Mazur founded several companies and plays an active role in industry. He is the Vice President of the Optical Society.!keynotes/c151a

Professor Mazur is also a very successful university lecturer and takes his responsibilities in this realm very seriously indeed. He is highly respected by students and peers alike  for the quality of his lectures. Over the years his students’ results remained impressive and all was rosy in the garden.

Then Mazur decided to perform a little experiment. He knew his students were doing well – he wanted to see how well. He had just read a paper which claimed that many students who do well in physics tests which were of the the ‘plug and chug’ variety struggled when there was any higher order thinking involved (‘plug and chug’ refers to the process whereby a student just needs to identify the formula which links the variables, plug the numbers into the formula and chug away on the calculator). So he started throwing in test questions that were a little off the beaten track. This was Harvard University after all; students should be well able to apply their knowledge and to solve problems that were just a little different – right?
Wrong. It turned out that the students were terrible at answering these questions. Mazur was flabbergasted. He understood fully the implication of his findings; his success as a lecturer “was a complete illusion, a house of cards.”

Mazur had just discovered what every physics teacher learns at some stage in their career (but which of us choose to ignore):

“The students did well on textbook-style problems. They had a bag of tricks, formulas to apply. But that was solving problems by rote. They floundered on the simple word problems, which demanded a real understanding of the concepts behind the formulas.”

But here’s where Mazur differs from the rest of us, although according to him this happened almost by accident. After posing a problem to his students he then asked them to discuss the question with each other.

“It was complete chaos,” says Mazur. “But within three minutes, they had figured it out. That was very surprising to me—I had just spent 10 minutes trying to explain this. But the class said, ‘OK, We’ve got it, let’s move on.’

Mazur decided to tackle the issue as though it were a science investigation and this in turn lead him to develop a method of teaching which he called Peer Instruction (coupled with Flipped Learning).

The following is a typical scenario where Peer Instruction works well:
Pose a tricky question to the class. Put four possible answers up on the screen.
Allow students sufficient time to think about it (by themselves) and get them to vote using their phones.
Each student now has to find somebody who chose a different answer and persuade him or her why one particular answer is right and the other is wrong.
Students now vote a second time.
Hopefully there will be a  much greater percentage of correct answers second time around, but at the very least there should be greater engagement with the teacher in the follow-up teacher lead discussions.
It can be as simple as that.

Some points to note about Peer Instruction:
This is a link to a very useful flowchart on how to use Peer Instruction effectively:

A slightly more detailed list of the essential features and many advantages of Peer Instruction:

You don’t need clickers but you probably need wifi. Every student has a phone and there are numerous online programs out there which can collate the information as it comes in in real time (kahoot, socrative and quizlet are some of the most popular).

Peer Instruction goes hand in hand with another of Mazur’s ideas; Flipped Learning, but each can work independently of the other. Most people are probably familiar with Flipped Learning but if you’re interested you can read more here.

Don’t expect to get it right first (or second time). It’s a learning curve. We want students to see that making mistakes is an integral part of the learning process. We need to be comfortable adopting the same philopsophy oursleves. And let students know this in advance.

Show some of the videos from this page to the students so they know where you’re coming from and why. If you can all buy into this process collectively it’s much more likely to catch on:

I like this one:

Peer Instruction may work, but not for the reason we think. In this blogpost the teacher found that very few students changed their minds as a result of the discussion, but they did become much more engaged in the rest of the lesson because they wanted see if their reasoning was correct or not.

There is some evidence that it’s not the actual Peer Instruction itself that’s resulting in better understanding – it could be that Active Learning of any description would have the same effect (link to paper). I don’t know the answer, but in one sense it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this method has been shown to work, time and time again. So if you can add it to your armory then who wouldn’t want to know about it?

I have no doubt that Mazur wasn’t the first to use either of these two ideas, but he did formalise the process, investigate it quantitatively and has promoted it worldwide so certainly deserves any plaudits that come his way,

Neither is  Mazur the first teacher who admitted how ineffective his teaching was.
American high school physics teacher Frank Nochese coined the term ‘pseudoteaching’ for much of what we do in our science/physics classroom.
It’s a fascinating subject area in that it brings into question all that we do, but as I mentioned up top it’s too tempting to just keep on doing what we’re doing and assume that everything’s ticketyboo.
For more on pseudoteaching see here:

Both Peer Instruction and Flipped Learning can be very powerful tools when addressing misconceptions held by students. This is a major problem in science education (assuming you want students to get more from your teaching than just the ability to pass an exam).
The following is a link to many useful resources in this area (note: to deal with misconceptions effectively you must first be aware yourself of the misconceptions which students are likely to hold):

This particular post was prompted by the fact that Professor Mazur will be giving two presentations at next weekend’s ISTA annual conference.
The first is entitled: Educating the innovators of the 21st century
and the second (with his other hat on) is entitled: Wrapping light around a hair

Both will be on Saturday 09 April in the Limerick Institute of Technology.
Program and registration details are here.

Can’t wait.











    1. Thanks Doug. I think that list pretty much trumps mine. If you don’t mind I will add it to

      Agreed also re getting students on board. I showed them one of the videos of Mazur himself talking about how he realised that his students were only learning superficially despite picking up good grades. The counter to this is that so few exams look for anything beyond the ‘plug and chug’ model that often this level of knowledge goes unrewarded.
      But that’s for another day.

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