Tec de Monterrey

MONTERREY, Nuevo León.- On the opening day of the International Conference on Educational Innovation (CIIE), Eric Mazur, Dean of Applied Physics at Harvard University, shared his experience as a teacher facing the problem of making his students own the knowledge that he was trying to share with them as information.

“Conveying information is important, but we should focus on students assimilating that information (…) on building the mental structures that allow them to understand what that information is for, that it has meaning,” said Mazur in his keynote at CIIE, which brings together rectors and specialists from different universities all over the world.

The physicist said that he faced this dilemma in 1991, when he saw his students worrying about the exam on his subject and saw how difficult it was for them just to pay attention in class. They would be passive in asking their questions and resolve any doubts with their peers. Mazur saw then how even giving a magnificent explanation of his subject made his students even more confused about the topic.

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He also noted how the more specialized someone becomes in their area, the further their level of explanation gets from being accessible to those who don’t know about the subject. Mazur had his students quiz each other and give each other explanations so that they could reach a conclusion among peers on the exam questions, for example. When he saw that his students had a simple, up-to-date way of explaining the subject, he observed that it’s easier for students to own knowledge if the explanation comes from their peers, from their classmates.

“They’d just recently understood the topic and I’d learned it years before. Peer instruction is more up-to-date,” he said, talking about the principle of what he’s called since then interactive teaching (peer instruction).

This educational principle coincides with the elements promoted by the new Tec21 Model, which debuted this year and will see the completion of its first semester in action this December. This model features challenge-based learning, flexibility in the manner of acquiring knowledge, encouragement of a memorable university experience, and contact with inspiring teachers.

Mazur tested the method before an audience of more than 3,500 people from Europe and Latin America, whom he asked to answer a physics question.

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Audience members discussed their answers and gave arguments to back them up to those sitting next to them who had different answers. With this test, he demonstrated that audience members were more interested in discussing the answer than just passively waiting for him to give them a solution.

Eric Mazur invited audience members to work in teams to exercise logical thinking. Photo: Tec de Monterrey

“Before I told you the answer, you’d made a commitment to knowledge, you’d given your answer, you’d moved from the response you chose through reasoning and you’d invested yourselves emotionally in the process of discovering the right answer,” explained the physicist when talking about his method.

Eric Mazur is a prominent physicist known for his contributions to nanophotonics. In the area of education, he is well-known for his method of peer instruction, an interactive form of education that involves students going beyond the classroom.