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Ending the ‘tyranny of the lecture’

By Dennis Pierce, Editor
July 27th, 2011

Students need to assimilate information before they can apply it to a different context, Mazur said.

At an educational technology conference in Boston, Harvard University physics professor Eric Mazur explained how he uses “peer instruction” to help his students engage in deeper learning than traditional lectures can provide—and he unveiled a brand-new ed-tech service that can help educators take this concept to a whole new level.

Mazur used a simple experiment to drive home his point that lecturing is an outdated—and largely ineffective—strategy for imparting knowledge.

Speaking at the 2011 Building Learning Communities (BLC) conference, organized by educational technology thought leader Alan November and his ed-tech consulting firm November Learning, Mazur asked participants to think of a skill they were good at, then explain how they mastered this skill.

While the responses from the crowd varied—some cited practice or experience, while others said trial and error—no one answered “lecture,” Mazur noted wryly.

Educators need to transfer information, he said, but students also need to do something with this information to make it stick—not simply parrot it back during a test, but actually assimilate it and take ownership of it, so they can apply this knowledge in a different context. If students can’t do that, he said, then they haven’t really learned anything.

For thousands of years, schools and colleges have focused on the first step in the learning process, information transfer, while leaving the critical second step—assimilation—to students outside of class, Mazur said. But that’s essentially the opposite of how school should work, he said, because the transfer of information is the easy part—and educators instead should be focusing their time on the second part of the learning process.

Before the invention of the printing press, Mazur said, lecturing was an effective way to impart information to many people simultaneously. But with the ability to mass-produce books—and especially now, with video clips that can be viewed online—information transfer can take place effectively outside of school, leaving valuable class time to ensure that students understand the material and can apply it in various contexts.

That’s what a growing number of educators are doing by adopting an inverted, or “flipped,” model of instruction, in which students are exposed to the content for homework and then practice or apply it under the guidance of the instructor—and Mazur explained how he does this in the physics classes he teaches at Harvard, with very effective results, through peer instruction.

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