Eric Mazur

Harvard University
2001 DTS Award

Dr. Eric Mazur
Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics
Harvard University

Mazur Group

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Eric Mazur.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

I have a lot of visitors come into my classroom, often a delegation from another college or university. What they see, I think, is great enthusiasm– perhaps even chaos. They will see that the ball is not in my court, that I teach by questioning rather than by talking. This method of stimulating students to think can give a rather chaotic impression, but the students are thinking for themselves, rather than just transcribing what I might be thinking– or just starring into infinity and not thinking at all. What we are about is using a strategy called "peer instruction," incorporating cooperative learning exercises into otherwise traditional lectures.

Many visitors leave ready to try this approach, and over the past ten years, more than 350 other instructors– in different settings and disciplines– have successfully adapted our work. Even though people sometimes say, "this can work for Harvard, but not for us," that is not the case. Students on campuses of all sizes and circumstances become eager to talk with each other, and we are finding that they can verbalize what they are learning better to their peers than to a seasoned instructor, who might be burdened by years of experience with being able to understand conceptual difficulties that students might be having.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

Let me bend this question. I had an eye-opening experience one day about a decade ago. After reviewing the national results from the Hestesness ‘force concept inventory' survey that showed low level of student understanding of critical concepts in the field of physics, I thought– not my students. I then set out to show that in a well-taught class like mine, using the usual lecture-mode, students performed on a high level. So I presented the survey to my students. When one asked, "how should I answer? how you taught us or how I usually think about these situations?," I began to realize that my students were using all sorts of mathematical learning tricks to cope, rather than coming to a deep understanding of the concepts behind the physics. So it became a research project for me, to determine how students could do so well in exams and yet not understand the physics. I had not heard, at that time, of the work of Lillian McDermott and others who realized that this was a rampant problem in physics classrooms. Since then, a significant part of my work with post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students has been connected to physics education research.

Were there risks in doing this? What made you persevere?

What made me persevere was basically the data that I began assembling that documented that my students were learning better when I used interactive methods. And now, with ten years of documented success from in my classrooms, together with data we've gathered from the almost 400 instructors around the world who have adapted this method, to not persevere would be unconscionable.

I never saw the risks, only the rewards. One day, when I was asked a question by a student that I did not how best to explain, 100+ students started responding to her, in true peer instruction style. That was reward enough.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

I have always seen myself, right from the start in 1990, as part of both the education and research communities within the larger physics community, rather than being in one or the other. And, I have tried to play a role in bridging these two communities. None one could contest my ability as a researcher, and I was very vocal, in both AIP and AAPT, that teachers be seen as researchers. I had a major role in the work of revising national education standards, and in revising and changing the nature of the AP physics exam. This tight connection between teaching and research in my scholarly career has allowed me to do things I might not have otherwise been able to do. For one, when I began applying for grants I had data to document that I needed support to gather more data to determine that some approaches work better than others. This was, if you remember, before review panels at funding agencies were taking seriously major efforts to incorporate new pedagogies into the undergraduate learning environment.

There is today a lot of activity in research in physics education, I think it is because the early work of Arnold Aarons and Lillian McDermott produced data that appeal to physicists. But we still, however, have a big divide between the education and research communities. Tthe problem is that too many physicists still use the old approach– teaching by telling, not aware of the activity within the education research community that shows how to ask questions in introductory physics that show problems in learning. Of course, this is not restricted to how physicists teach, but this is the community I know best.

But you asked about connections, and I think the most meaningful connections have been to the students with whom I've worked. I have always been devoted to teaching and have spent a large amount of time on teaching even when I was teaching a traditional course,. I realize now better now, however, that it is not so much the quantity of time, but the quality of time. I have come to realize also the importance of paying attention to the service courses, and not only because these are the big cash cows. Physicists have paid extremely little attention to non-majors and to education of and outreach to the general public. The standard horror story of the cocktail party response to a physicist, "oh, I never could understand physics," is just one illustration that physics is not well-understood beyond an inner circle.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

There should be less focus on the end-of-the-semester student evaluation. (There should be a national effort to evaluate our evaluation of courses!) Change is always painful, and such questionnaires only measure the choreography within a classroom, or perhaps even only the charisma of the faculty member. Most instructors teach, anyway, without thinking about what in all the material they are presenting will be of most valuable to those planning on becoming a doctor, or to the English major considering a career as a high school teacher. Yet, everyone is a slave to these evaluations which might have little value in determining if the students have acquired the skills that provide robust background for many careers.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts?

Well, for a start, we need to rethink entrance exams and/or how advanced placement (AP) records are considered by undergraduate institutions. We should be teaching less, at greater depth, and instruments like the AP exam locks the process of education in place, preventing change from happening. We need to be working more closely with high school teachers in thinking this through; they should be asking us, "what can we do to better prepare our students for your courses,?" and we should be asking them for ideas about how to work with their students who are coming into our introductory level courses and labs. What I find disturbing is that the students who come into my classes with high AP courses think they are entitled to a good grade from me. They are not, generally, interested in doing real physics.

What is the project you are undertaking as part of your DTS award? How can others be involved>?

This is exciting. Our plan is to make peer instruction easier to implement for those who wish to adapt our approach, and to provide easy access to resources that reinforce active-learning habits for students in these PI classes. Specifically, our plan is to develop Internet utilities that allow instructors to download class-ready materials and to automate production of a web site for the courses they will be teaching using the Peer Instruction approach. The design will enable faculty to construct a web page on the fly, and produce beautiful postscript slides that will be ready for their class, is based on a set of questions we already know that physics, chemistry and astronomy faculty ask in the process of implementing PI, and as it responds to more faculty questions, we will be able to store the growing set of questions on the server and really create our own PI learning community. What we would like is for faculty across the country to work with us in testing the Web-based materials as we develop them.