Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Moving From Lecture to Learning

Think of something you’re really good at.  Something that is important in your career and something you are proud of. It could be your ability to manage a classroom well. It could be that you have found the key to get children to begin reading. Maybe you are great at making videos. Whatever that thing is, take a minute to think about how you learned to be good at this thing.

Chances are you are like everyone else who went through this exercise and the word “lecture”or “note taking” aren’t top of mind as the answer to that question. That’s because, as renowned Harvard Professor Eric Mazur explains to us, lectures alone are an ineffective way to support learning. So ineffective that he actually gave up lecturing several years ago when he came to this realization.  

Mazur explains that students don’t need to come together to watch someone talk and furiously copy down notes. Today a speaker can provide lecture notes, transcript, presentation materials, and video for review. A great example of that is CS50. Technology has changed our access to information. Ignoring that fact, or worse, trapping students in their teacher’s past by putting structures in place that ban technology is a disservice to students.  

More and more educators, understand, from master teachers like David J. Malan, that the backbone of a really good class, can be a really good website with a team of former students supporting current students. Educators must acknowledge that when we can give students the lecture notes, transcripts, and presentation, that can, and should, mean a change in teaching and learning. Rather than capturing what a presenter is saying, we can immediately start making meaning of it. When we hear something powerful, we can use social media to share that with like-minded people and start a global conversation.

Dr. Mazur uses a technique where students aren't just listening to the instructor to take in information. Instead, they become knowledge seekers trying to uncover answers to important questions that will help them unlock key concepts needed to understand an area of study. As a result, unlike the traditional lecture hall where all eyes are on the professor, his students are engaged in numerous, simultaneous conversations making meaning of what they’ve heard.

While a chaotic environment such as that may sound like a disaster to some teachers, and many administrators, Mazur says it’s a rousing success: The students are discussing a question which challenges them to think about the material and justify their reasoning to classmates. When you talk about and figure out the answers with peers, learning happens much more effectively than having a teacher trying to transmit information from his brain to his students.

Students are given the instructional videos/lectures and/or notes/reading materials in advance. Class time is spent figuring out real concepts by having a Professor who knows the right questions to help students figure out the meaning behind the answers. This works much more effectively than being given information or memorizing material from a textbook.

Interactive pedagogy, turns passive, note-taking students into active, de facto teachers who explain their ideas to each other and contend for their points of view. Research shows this type of interactive learning triples students’ gains in knowledge.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Give the students a relevant and meaningful question.
  2. Ask students to think the problem through and commit to an answer which is submitted using a polling software like Kahoot or Poll Everywhere. This requires the teacher to come up with great questions that will not come naturally for many students.
  3. If between 30 and 70 percent of the class gets the correct answer, students find a neighbor with a different answer and make a case for their own response. Each tries to convince the other. At this time the teacher circulates through the room, eavesdropping on the conversations especially trying to identify incorrect reasoning, to remember the difficulties beginning learners face.
  4. After two or three minutes, the students vote again, and typically the percentage of correct answers dramatically improves.
  5. The cycle repeats until most all students have gained understanding.

This diagram outlines the process:

One reason this works so well, Mazur realized is due to something called “The Curse of Knowledge.” In short this means that experts know information too well to explain it to those just learning it. Furthermore, they learned this so long ago, they don’t recall what the difficulties were in learning the concept. Students who have newly learned information and reached their ah-ha moment are perfectly positioned to help their peers learn new concepts.  

You can listen to Dr. Mazur discuss his epiphany and explain why he teaches this way in the 14 minute video below.


  1. This is excellent! I love Dr. Mazur's video. He nailed it. I especially respect his willingness, after so many years of supposed success, to admit his inadequacies and keep peeling the onion until he got it right. We all need to challenge our own tired old assumptions and be skeptical, questioning scientists with our own work. He is a model for life-long learning. Thank you for this.

  2. In india i m in Gujarat (West india).we have still old fashion teaching methods, where kids are forced to memories and get highest score to compete with others...but I think as we have very updated technology nowadays ..our education system should be updated too.

  3. Excellent!! I loved Dr.Mazur's video too.

  4. Just superb! I have always been against "by the book teaching", where teachers get up in front of a class and start lecturing while students take notes. Students are so used to the same concept. In the end, students will only remember what they wrote down and not every word the professor said. Dr. Mazur's technique of uncovering answers to important questions make it possible for students to resolve real world issues.

  5. Great Article. 100% student engagement.


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