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gwern comments on Truly Part Of You - Less Wrong

59 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 November 2007 02:18AM

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Comment author: gwern 12 July 2012 06:21:32PM *  2 points [-]

To Mazur’s consternation, the simple test of conceptual understanding showed that his students had not grasped the basic ideas of his physics course: two-thirds of them were modern Aristotelians. “The students did well on textbook-style problems,” he explains. “They had a bag of tricks, formulas to apply. But that was solving problems by rote. They floundered on the simple word problems, which demanded a real understanding of the concepts behind the formulas.”...Serendipity provided the breakthrough he needed. Reviewing the test of conceptual understanding, Mazur twice tried to explain one of its questions to the class, but the students remained obstinately confused. “Then I did something I had never done in my teaching career,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why don’t you discuss it with each other?’” Immediately, the lecture hall was abuzz as 150 students started talking to each other in one-on-one conversations about the puzzling question. “It was complete chaos,” says Mazur. “But within three minutes, they had figured it out. That was very surprising to me—I had just spent 10 minutes trying to explain this. But the class said, ‘OK, We’ve got it, let’s move on.’ “Here’s what happened,” he continues. “First, when one student has the right answer and the other doesn’t, the first one is more likely to convince the second—it’s hard to talk someone into the wrong answer when they have the right one. More important, a fellow student is more likely to reach them than Professor Mazur—and this is the crux of the method.

...There’s also better retention of knowledge. “In a traditional physics course, two months after taking the final exam, people are back to where they were before taking the course,” Mazur notes. “It’s shocking.” (Concentrators are an exception to this, as subsequent courses reinforce their knowledge base.) Peer-instructed students who’ve actively argued for and explained their understanding of scientific concepts hold onto their knowledge longer. Another benefit is cultivating more scientists. A comparison of intended and actual concentrators in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields indicates that those taught interactively are only half as likely to change to a non-STEM discipline as students in traditional courses.

http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/twilight-of-the-lecture