The Mazur Perspective

An interview with Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur, by Marty Abrahamson

    Good questions are the perfect catalyst for classroom interaction. But what is a good question? The buzz over conceptual questions has been great but it is often unclear exactly what people mean when they talk about conceptual questions. What better person to help shed light on the matter than Dr. Eric Mazur inventor of the ConcepTest*.


 Eric Mazur, Harvard College Professor and Gordan McKay Prof. of Applied Physics at Harvard University

MA: Ideally, the Socratic method involves questioning students in such a way that they are led to express their ideas and figure things out for themselves.** Can I assume that you believe ConcepTests, or conceptual questions in general, are best for accomplishing this?

EM: I would say that one-on-one with open ended questions is the best way. When combined with small group discussion, however, ConcepTests are an excellent way to force people to think, and to do so with a minimum amount of cost and time. If we had infinite time, of course, a better instruction could be devised. So given the constraints we have on the amount of material to cover and the time available, the answer to your question would probably be, "Yes".

MA: What makes answering ConcepTests so difficult?

EM: Children start life full of curiosity, they are all scientists - people who ask, "Why, why, why?" all the time. At some point in their middle school years, or maybe earlier, I don't know exactly, their curiosity gets turned off. From that point on, rather than ask, "Why, why, why?" people concentrate on facts. They want to know the fact, or the answer, so that they can memorize it. So when faced with a conceptual question, instead of thinking, what you do in your brain is begin looking for a fact. You look to see if you have seen the answer to that question before, and if it's a good conceptual question you will not have seen the answer to that question before. So they are difficult because people are not used to seeing them.

MA: What makes coming up with good conceptual questions so difficult?

EM: Any change is difficult! When you have been doing something in a certain way for a long time, and are suddenly asked to change, it's difficult. I think that's the only reason... I wouldn't look for more behind it.

MA: Would you say the majority of questions used by instructors are factual recall questions?

EM: I am convinced that most of the questions being asked are factual recall questions.

MA: Would it make sense to you that High School teachers would need to ask more factual recall questions?

EM: Well, high school and secondary teachers are often short on time and these are the easiest questions, right?

MA: Yes, I guess so, but I have actually heard from teachers that they think it is necessary to ask a certain number of factual recall questions in order to teach their students effectively.

EM: Well it has been shown that people memorize when tested with factual recall questions, and they memorize long enough to pass an exam, but research has shown that just after the exam everything is gone. In other words, they forget it again and what good is that?

MA: No good at all I suppose. I guess there are many objectives that an instructor may have in mind when asking a question or set of questions. All of these objectives tend to overlap. Questions, for example, may serve to motivate students to prepare. The students response to those same questions may provide the instructor with useful feedback. In considering the questions, the students may become aware of a discrepancy in their logic, or may be somehow inspired to deepen their understanding. Despite the fact that it is possible to accomplish all of these objectives and many more with a single question, do you think that it is useful to have a specific primary objective when designing and planning the delivery of a question?

EM: Oh, yes ! I often actually use students' questions. I actually use this now with a teaching technique called "Just-in-Time Teaching" ***. Basically, the students read before class and then they tell me in an e-mail what they find difficult or confusing. I use that to prepare my lecture. In other words rather than lecture on what I find difficult, I will take some of their confusion and bounce it straight back at them.

MA: OK so your objective in asking a student their own question is

EM: ... to engage them appropriately! If they have a question, I know that it will engage them. I might have a question but it could be too hard, and if it is too hard it is an ineffective question because it discourages them rather than engaging them.

MA: Yes, but their own questions, the ones they ask you, aren't too hard for them <I begin to chuckle> that's interesting <the irony continues to get me and I laugh>..

EM: Exactly, they are exactly at the right level for them. You see the problem is recall questions are too simple. I could ask them , "Which of the following is Ohm's law? A) V = IR, B) I = VR" and so on. That's not a very interesting question and is unlikely to stimulate discussion, because it's recall. The other option is to ask them some sort of very deep philosophical question about Ohm's law that I might find very interesting, but that might be way too hard for them to answer, and then again it's not effective. The middle road is to give them enough of a challenge to stimulate their thinking, but in such a way that about half the students in the class get it right, so that they can help others learn.

MA: So you don't ever ask questions in class purely for the purpose of finding out whether or not students understand a certain thing?

EM: I used to, basically that's the only thing I could do, but those questions were always based from my own experience, and my experience is very different from that of most of my students, because my students are not going to become physics professors at Harvard University. In fact most of my students are not even going to become physicists, they're pre-meds or engineers. So my questions are generally not as appropriate as their own questions, because these questions are generally not as good at engaging them. Now, because I have asked so many questions over the years, I have a much better feel for what constitutes a good question. I can target the students much better than I could before.

MA: I would like to thank you on behalf of our readers for your insights. ®

About Eric Mazur and the Mazur Group

Dr. Mazur is author or co-author of more than 120 scientific publications. He has written on education and he believes that better science education for all - not just science majors - is vital for continued scientific progress. To this end, Dr. Mazur devotes part of his research group's effort to education research and finding verifiable ways to improve science education. Dr. Mazur's teaching method has developed a large following, both nationally and internationally, and has been adopted across many science disciplines.

* Mazur, Eric, "Peer Instruction: A User's Manual", Prentice Hall, 1997

(This book explains how to teach large lecture classes interactively, using ConcepTests and Peer Instruction.)

** Hake, Richard R., "Socratic Pedagogy in the Introductory Physics Lab.", The Physics Teacher, 30, 546-552, 1992.

*** Novak, Gregor M., et al., "Just in Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology", Prentice Hall, 1999.


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