July 18th, 2012

Do Your Students Understand the Material, or Just Memorize and Forget?


Have you ever heard of Eric Mazur? If you teach physics and are into that discipline’s pedagogical literature, in all likelihood you have. But Mazur, who teaches physics at Harvard, is someone all of us should know. The reference at the end of this post contains a succinct and compelling introduction to his work.

Mazur started out teaching like most of us—he lectured, pretty much all the time, until he discovered a problem. His students had learned Newton’s third law of motion—or at least they could recite it (as all physics students can). He decided to test their understanding of it with a conceptual problem involving a collision between a heavy truck and a light car. To his surprise, his students couldn’t answer the problem or they struggled mightily, not only with this but virtually any conceptual problem he gave them.

It seems the students were memorizing the material but not understanding it, and so Mazur decided to change his instructional approach. He replaced teaching by telling with teaching by questioning. He now structures class time around short conceptual questions. He starts with the question which students must first answer individually, then they report their answers and discuss them with each other, explaining, defending and questioning their answers. Mazur (and teaching assistants) circle the classroom asking questions and otherwise guiding student discussions. He might offer a brief presentation but students are the ones solving the problems.

Interestingly, Mazur started using this method of teaching long before it was trendy. In fact, when people discuss the reform of science education, Mazur is frequently mentioned as one of the first who found a better way. And it is a better way, as documented by multiple studies conducted by Mazur and his colleagues and by other college faculty who use the approach or variations of it. Mazur writes, “Data obtained in my class and in classes of colleagues worldwide, in a wide range of academic settings and a wide range of disciplines, show that learning gains nearly triple with an approach that focuses on the student and interactive learning… Most important, students not only perform better on a variety of conceptual assessments, but also improve their traditional problem-solving skills.” (p. 51) His article includes references to this research.

Mazur admits in the article that he lectured on for some time, ignoring signs that there was a problem. Of course, the problem was not with the lectures. His student ratings (which no doubt asked whether he was organized, offered clear explanations, responded to questions and treated students with respect) were high. He lectured well, but students didn’t learn well from listening. When faced with a problem that needed understanding, what they memorized didn’t help them find their way to a solution.

Unfortunately, this continues to be a problem for many students and in many classes. If you don’t think it’s a problem with students in your classes (and it may not be), then dare to do what Mazur did: test your students’ conceptual understanding. See if they can apply what they’ve been taught and if their exam scores document that they’ve learned.

And if they can’t, you can start by blaming the students (although that’s not as easy if you teach at an institution like Harvard). Students are ultimately responsible for what and how they learn. But teachers influence that process in highly significant ways. When I took an undergraduate nonmajors chemistry course with 20 beginning students (part of a learning communities program) in which I was designated the “master learner,” I resolved not to memorize content but to truly understand it. I wanted to be a good model. But the content came so fast. It was all new and very different from anything I’d learned before. I didn’t have time to figure everything out and so started writing down things I didn’t understand on note cards. By the time the first exam rolled around, I had way more note cards than I could get through, even if I pulled an all nighter. So I memorized like mad and did just fine on the exam. Needless to say, I didn’t have much luck persuading the students that we may have done alright on the exam, but we hadn’t really learned the material. They were fine with memorizing and forgetting.

Reference: Mazur, E. Farewell, Lecture? Science, 323 (2 January, 2009), 50-51.

  • aModerateProf

    It's pretty standard — the constant fight between covering the material needed for the subject standards, and getting students to retain. This is especially crucial when students are getting a lot of material that requires a different way of thinking, as you discovered in that very low-level chemistry course.

    Mazur may or may not be relying on students to do their homework and be smart enough to get some concepts before they come to discussion, but I'm fairly skeptical that his approach is actually helping the students who are at the lower end of the bell curve to learn enough to handle the follow-on courses.

    • dmarkwa

      Why, why why always go to the corner cases? Even if it was true, that some at the end of the bell curve don't do so well, the other 65% may in fact do much better. THAT is the argument that drive me crazy. We may have found something that increases student understanding for 65% of the kids, but toss it out because "maybe" the 35% still struggle. We accept that each learner is different, which includes some who are not pre-disposed to any kind of learning. So instead of using that as a lever to impede change, move them to a another class, and change the approach for them. They are, after all, paying for the education. We ought to be delivery what they have paid for.

    • Helen Gordon

      I would suggest you try it. I did and Mazur is right…."you can know all the names of the bird…and still know nothing about the bird." Forgot who said that…but I did exactly what he challenges us to do and it was incredible how much the students retention increased.

  • Hydro Prof

    Conceptual understanding always is my goal as a professor, but memorization still has a role to play. Throughout my teaching career I have employed active learning. I lecture to introduce a topic and then involve the students in applied activities so they can learn by doing. What I have seen change over the past 20 years is that students will no longer memorize. Memorization is a first step to understanding; consequently, students are not gaining conceptual understanding either. Students resist learning the terminology of my discipline, so we do not have a shared language. If they don't know the definitions for the terms watershed or hydrologic budget, then they tend to be unsuccessful in preparing the hydrologic budget for a watershed. Conceptual understanding comes from doing the hydrologic budget for a watershed, and I offer my students multiple opportunities to do just that at varying levels of independence. However, by the end of the semester many students still can't define either watershed or hydrologic budget. This was not the case 10 years ago. I see a direct correlation between memorization and conceptual understanding. As memorization goes, so goes conceptual understanding.

    • aModerateProf

      Likewise. It doesn't seem like Prof. Mazur is entirely eschewing memorization — students still need to know what Newton's three laws are — but there's no way that his approach will work for students who resist learning the vocabulary.

      I find that to be true in my discipline. I can give them practice in conceptual ways of organizing the material all day long, but at the end of it they still need to organize the material. If they don't, they will fail.

      • dmarkwa

        And they need to WANT to organize the material. That's part of our job too! Kids learn what they want to learn. Raising our family, we had a son who didn't want to read, until he wanted to build a QUAD from a used one the neighbor was selling. When he wanted to get that running, he had absolutely NO problem reading long into the night. If what you give them isn't compelling enough to get them to read, whose got the problem? Why is it always the student?

        Just admit that you failed the communications test. You couldn't articulate the concepts in ways they understood or that caused them to be motivated enough to WANT to understand. I am not saying this is easy. I teach too, and find the same problems that you speak of. But since I started owning the communications problem, and sharing with other instructors, and reading and pondering walks to and from campus, and reaching out to trusted others, like instructional designers, learning scientists, etc. some answers have come and my approach has improved. Yes, solving these teaching problems "gets in the way" in a publish or perish environment. I get that for some. But passion for the reason we got into a field to begin with, can drive us to find those students who will carry the flag into the future, and to some extent, our ability to rethink and iterate on approaches toward an improved teaching model, are important for the future of the field too.

        • aModerateProf

          We all fail the communications test now and again. My students do understand my explanations, and tell me so; sometimes they comprehend too well. They think they understand the subject so well that they don't need to practice, which is akin to thinking you know how to make a free throw after the coach guides your arms through the motions a few times, helping you to put it into the basket.

          Students tend to bring us a highly limited, utilitarian mindset that says "I don't see how it relates to my life right now, so I'm not willing to find out or trust that it will." How do you get past that? If students come to the course with an attitude that they are going to fail, how do you talk them out of it? The "Math Barbie" problem is widespread.

          My perspective is doubtless skewed because I teach a widely-disliked, challenging, required subject for a number of majors; most of the students are not majors in my discipline and don't really want to see the relevance of anything so difficult to their chosen field.

          The other problem with what you have written is that the bottom 35% are the reason that many colleges are still solvent. If we use an approach that works well for the top 65%, but fails the bottom 35%, we will go broke. Oh, and at small schools, we only have one chance to approach everybody. We don't have the luxury of different sections or courses for different ability levels.

          • dmarkwa

            Widely disliked, challenging, challenging, required subject for a number of majors. And small schools that only offer one section, one chance for the students. That is a tough problem set. That could be a fun one to solve.

            Don't know what you are teaching, but there has to be some set of consequences for not understanding the topic or why is it a required class for so many majors? Perhaps beginning with the consequences of not knowing? or not having the skill set? I bet some of those consequences could be quite interesting if not funny. Or admit the futility and teach to the test. They will love you for it. There has to be a context for why this is important to the world. What is that context? Maybe the class is more about learning strategies than it is anything else?

            I actually like Allen's approach. Context, Challenge, Activities and Feedback.

            1. too many classes I have taken are inductive in nature. 'trust me, you will need this or understand this someday." This is a huge motivation killer. Some topics, like clinical psychology, rest upon such an approach. But many other topics just do better when, in creative ways, you get the context out there. Where it fits in the world and why it's important.

            2. Challenge – challenging preconceived notions, often with consequences of their own choices, even in class, can get things going.

            3. Activities. Authentic activities in authentic settings that help the free throw shooter practice.

            4. Feedback. Everyone likes to feel like they are on track, but we often don't give them much feedback that is low impact on their final grades. Feedback early while they can still make necessary adjustments without grade impact is appreciated and adds to instructional momentum.

            I wish we were neighbors or friends. This sounds like a great challenge.

    • Helen Gordon

      For me, it is not the memorization….they all need to memorize key facts in order to problem solve more complex issues…it is the LINKAGE between the memorization and the application of the material. My role is to make the linkages for students…to pare down the content (there is always so much) and to help them apply the core facts to real life situations. To do this, I use "repeat to remember" and remember to repeat….and use less slides, more visuals, more "story telling" and case studies and more opportunities in class for "out loud" problem solving and application of the material. If the linkages are not made in the material for them….then the material will not be moved from short term memory to long term memory where it is anchored. I am currently following the material developed by Dr. Toni Krasnic at George Washington University to work on linkages…I think it is helping. But it is not the end of our summer term, yet. Stay tuned. Most (not all) of the students like it…because some of them want to come to class, get their PP slides, and zone out.

      • aModerateProf

        Seems to me that HydroProf said the very same thing, but you don't seem to want to agree with hir. HydroProf's observation was that students don't want to learn the basic vocabulary that will allow them to enjoy the subject and make it relevant to their lives.

        My observation was that some students have psyched themselves out so that any difficulty leads them to quit.

        Professors have been making linkages for their students since the Peripatetics. But students have (until now?) always been expected to work at constructing and owning their own linkages.

  • aModerateProf

    A further comment on the article: one problem with so-called "student-centered" learning is that college classes are treated like high-school classes, in which much or most of the practice required for mastery takes place in the classroom. But college classes are not like that: students need to practice outside the classroom. The small amount of practice we can give them in class is not going to matter if they don't buckle down, like students were expected to of old, and do their homework.

    • dmarkwa

      Students pay for learning, and teachers need to find a way. When I was in business, we would often say, in jest, "Business is great except for the customers." So teaching is great except for the students? These are grand and difficult challenges. Finding a way to change ourselves and our approaches to meet the needs of our paying customers is really difficult sometimes. Just such a challenge often is the harbinger of amazing innovation. I hear myself saying this, and it seems like stiff medicine. But many teachers I have met with are very smart, and can and do find ways. I really learned this from Candice Thille at Carnegie Mellon.

      • Helen Gordon

        Well stated. Thanks!

      • aModerateProf

        Students pay for learning, and teachers need to find a way. Not really, not in the way they think — they can't buy someone to open their heads and pour it in.

        Students pay for the chance to be guided in learning, and for someone to help them with strategies to maximize their efforts. They still have to do a fair bit of it — in some subjects, most of it — on their own. If your business was a health club, you would know what I mean.

      • SaltProf

        My community college courses are filled with students who want me to find a way for them to learn the material without them having to study outside of the classroom. They are fine with looking over lecture outlines the night before an exam, however.

        There is a limit on what can be done during the time we spend in class. Unfortunately, many of my peers have given in to the threat of student evaluations and, indeed, have watered down their expectations to fit into the classroom. The real customers is the society that is paying for for the community college system. They have not been well served by dumbing down what it means to get a college education.

  • Diane

    Isn't the basic question here "how do people learn"? There is an entire body of insightful literature on this topic.

    • Fred

      Yes, and it all involves some initiative and work on the part of students.

  • varholick

    I teach math and accounting. These subjects require memorizing rules. The key for instruction is to help the student identify which tool is used to solve a given case. The student must know the rules and we must train them to identify which rule to apply.

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  • goldenrose

    One other observation: with all the new talk about Coursera and podcasting lectures from star professors around the globe, people are very quickly putting aside the point of Mazur's pedagogy: that lecture is a highly limited teaching tool that most of us should learn to use less of (though not eliminate). As boards, politicians and pundits jump on the bandwagon of technology reducing the cost of instruction, they seem very willing to return us to the domination of the lecture format in spite of all the evidence that it is a poor tool for achieving student learning goals.

  • SaltProf

    I teach CPR differently than I teach my science classes. There are very different objectives for those classes. In one case I want students to be able to correctly execute a sequence of actions. They don't have to understand anything about how CRP works. In the other case the students should understand the concepts, be able to formulate interesting questions about natural world then propose and execute way to answer those questions. Robots for CPR. Scientists for Science.

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  • James Ketchum, MD

    I relied on memorization of facts, with exact wording on flash cards, to obtain highest grades for male students in high school. I went on with this technique to get a high grade in neuroanatomy in med school, where I did not attend the six weeks of lectures and lab exercises that made up the second half of the 12 week, 12 hours a week, course at Cornell. By going through the Ranson and Clark textbook, extracting the key items, sentence by sentence, I created 860 flash cards and memorized them and then went to the final where I identified physical items I had not seen but had studied their descriptions in the textbook, and gave a lengthy essay response to the written question: "Give the location, structure, nuclei, connections, functions and other important aspects of one of the following: neocortex, cerebellum, spinal cord, hypothalamus, (and other major components of the brain). I chose neocortex and essentially replicated the chapter, passing the exam. The brain organizes facts as it acquires them and builds up relations, inferences, etc. without being taught "how to think." I agree and argue that conceptual understanding follows as facts are memorized. Trust me: take the time to make flash cars and memorize the exactly will give you a powerful memory and ability to use the facts without being told how!

  • Christopher Fike

    You really make it seem so easy along with your presentation however I in finding this topic to be really something that I feel I might by no means understand. It seems too complex and very vast for me.

  • Mark Newman

    Rote learning is a vital tool for the clueless, lazy teacher… I wouldn’t be without it!