Eric Mazur: Teaching for comprehension 

By Karen Herland

Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur shared his insights on pedagogy  in two different lectures earlier this month on behalf of the CTLS. Magnifying glass

Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur shared his insights on pedagogy in two different lectures earlier this month on behalf of the CTLS.

Almost 20 years ago, Harvard physicist Eric Mazur had an “aha” moment about his teaching practice that forced him to rethink the traditional unidirectional teaching model of the sage on the stage: “I was dragged out of my ivory tower, and I’ve never been the same since.”

Mazur talked to several dozen Concordia educators in the first of a series of lectures on pedagogical practice organized this term by the Centre for Teaching and Learning Services (CTLS).

Mazur described his early approach to courses as “not how you teach it, but what you cover.” He was assigned an unpopular and fairly basic intro to physics course for pre-med students. By all traditional measures, he excelled. His evaluations were exemplary, and his students scored well on exams.

All of that came grinding to a halt when he heard about the efforts of another professor to measure students’ comprehension of physics via the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). Essentially, most introductory-level physics courses devote the first few classes to explaining motion and forces. Once students are familiar with those concepts, the course (and presumably their knowledge) builds from there.

The FCI was a fairly rudimentary 30-question quiz. Students took the quiz at the beginning and end of their course to see how well they understood those primary concepts. Mazur’s confidence in his own teaching ability took a tumble when his students did not fare nearly as well on the quiz as he had assumed they would.

After continuing to test students a variety of ways, he understood that students who did well in conventional tests (using recipes to solve problems) did not necessarily do well with conceptual questions. However, the reverse relationship proved much more positive.

“I realized education was not merely a transfer of information. It was about how well students could assimilate information and transfer it to their own experience.”

Mazur decided to radically change his teaching methods. Now he supplies students with written materials. In class, he punctuates short lectures by throwing questions back to students. After students have thought about and responded to these more conceptual problems, he invites them to convince each other of their position.

“Mary will usually be able to convince John because of the force of logic.”

Not only does this peer education model reinforce and circulate correct responses, students are in a better position to convince each other. Their shared unfamiliarity with the subject allows them to more readily anticipate whatever barriers to understanding they might encounter from their peers.

Mazur said this call/response form of teaching also allows for a “continuous assessment and feedback. You know if you need to continue or move on.”
Although he acknowledged that this form of teaching requires experience to formulate good questions and gauge where trouble spots might be, based on students responses, Mazur remains committed to this more interactive model.

CTLS hopes to have the video of his lecture up in early February on their website. In the meantime, go to for more on the other lectures and workshops they are offering this term.


Concordia University