In physics and applied physics professor Eric Mazur’s classes, hundreds of students debate physics problems in small groups, consulting their laptops and phones as they search for the right answer.
This unusual teaching method is called peer instruction, and Mazur is just one of the many professors at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to employ unusual pedagogical styles in recent years.
Mazur developed his peer instruction method in 1991 after tests revealed that his students had not effectively absorbed many of the fundamental concepts taught in his physics courses. He said he concluded that students were not sufficiently engaging with the material and were earning passing grades through rote memorization.
“That is not what education is,” Mazur said. “That ‘aha’ moment when you understand the material rarely happens during lecture.”
His new method offered an alternative to the traditional lecture model of teaching. Through hands-on activities, it encourages students to think critically about the material presented in class.
To prepare for Mazur’s unique classes, students learn conceptual basics on their own by reading pre-lectures posted on the course website.
“What I am advocating is really moving information transfer out of the classroom. That’s the easy part. We need to focus attention on the difficult parts by actually practicing concepts in class,” Mazur said.