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.