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.’
Mazur noticed that even after a full semester of his introductory physics course, his students could not answer basic conceptual word problems—so he began experimenting. Now, Mazur requires students to study his lecture notes before each class and submit questions they have online. Then, they go over questions—the areas students struggled with—in class. Students submit their answers for each problem using smartphones during class and they are compiled. Mazur looks at the results and if between 30-70 percent of students got the right answer, students find someone around them who got a different answer and try to convince them. By doing so, students are actively engaged in learning the material, and even better, they have to explain what they did, which is a very powerful way to learn something.
University classes should be taking this approach rather than lectures, because it’s much more effective. This is especially important now, because as time passes, “lectures”—the transmission of information—is increasingly a commodity available for a very low price or free online. Universities must become more than a place where students go to sit quietly and listen to a professor talk for a couple hours.