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From: Beth McMurtrie

Subject: Teaching: Why an Active-Learning Evangelist Is Sold on Online Teaching

This week:

  • I describe how Eric Mazur redesigned his physics course during the pandemic — and became convinced that online teaching is better.
  • I point you to our recent virtual forum, which can answer some of your questions about active learning.
  • I share stories about teaching you may have missed.

Online, Everyone Is in the Front Row

Eric Mazur is something of a teaching celebrity. A professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard University, he has been preaching about the value of active learning for decades. His two-semester course in applied physics, an introductory class designed for non-majors, is built around project-based learning, group work, and peer-to-peer instruction. He is, in short, a seasoned expert on effective teaching strategies.

Still, Mazur was just as surprised as anyone when the pandemic hit and he had to scramble to move his course online for the remainder of the spring-2020 semester. And, like so many others, he took time over the summer to redesign his course for a fully remote experience once Harvard decided to remain online.

Rather than just move what he usually did online, he decided to take advantage of the new format. That meant making changes including minimizing synchronous and instructor-paced activities.

Now, says Mazur, the results are in and he’s convinced: online teaching is better. Not in all circumstances, to be sure. But in his applied-physics courses, students showed larger learning gains and felt more supported than students had in in-person classes. In fact, they appear to have learned so much more effectively in this new format that he wonders if it’s “almost unethical,” to return to the classroom this fall.

“I have never been able to offer a course of the quality that I’m offering now,” he says. “I am convinced that there is no way I could do anything close to what I’m doing in person. Online teaching is better than in person.”

Given how fraught active learning can be — students often rebel against group work, and professors can struggle to ensure that students are prepared for class — what did Mazur do that made his course function so well?

To find out, I sat in on two classes last month.

The first thing to know is that Mazur leaves very little to chance. His courses have long been highly structured, with students expected to complete dozens of low-stakes assignments over the course of the semester, which works out to several per week. They are also given several opportunities to redo their work if needed. Peer pressure is another motivator to stay on track, as group work requires members to function effectively together.

The class met twice a week, virtually, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the option of attending a morning or afternoon session. In between, his 80 students worked on problem sets and read the online textbook. Mazur uses Perusall (which he helped create), an interactive program that allows students to pose questions in the text as they read each chapter, then respond to others. He never jumps in. “If I do, I kill the conversation,” he says, noting that students would then just wait for him to supply the correct answer. On any given week, each chapter was marked up with about 1,000 comments, questions, or responses.

All of this meant that by the time they got to class, students had been marinating in their work for several days, both alone and together.

Once in class, Mazur says a quick hello and takes care of some housekeeping before students head off into their group Zoom rooms, where they review that week’s physics problems. When they are ready to present their work to an instructor, the group sends a message through Slack. Then Mazur; his co-instructor, Doeke Romke Hekstra; or a teaching assistant hops into the room.

One benefit of this setup, says Mazur, is that students go at their own pace. He has thought a lot about how classroom-based work, even when it is student-led, is hostage to the clock and the instructor. Not every group works at the same pace, yet everyone has to wait until others are ready, or rush ahead when they fall behind. When groups set their own pace, it gives them the space to work through problems or get help as needed. The value of self-paced learning is also evident outside of class, says Mazur, who built more asynchronous work into his online course.

“I have never seen students work this hard for my course,” he says. “Never. And so consistently.”

Another benefit to online teaching, says Mazur, is the intimacy you can achieve in a Zoom room, where everyone gets equal attention. (In his course, students tended to keep their cameras on in part because of the emphasis on group work.)

In a traditional classroom, students in the back of the room can be overlooked.

“When you teach online, every single student is sitting in the front row,” he says. “There is a connection I never had with students before.”

I saw this in action as I tagged along with Mazur, and, later, a teaching assistant, as they met virtually with small groups. Those discussions, which might last 10-15 minutes, had the feeling of a tutorial.

In a typical room, for example, Mazur will ask every student in turn to explain a different problem, which he breaks into four components. First they have to restate the problem. Then they have to explain how they plan to solve it. Then they solve it. Then they review the results.

When Mazur finds faulty logic in any of those steps, he asks open-ended questions to get at the root of their confusion. Once he pinpoints it, he gives a brief explanation of where they went off track and asks them to try again. (And, yes, in case you’re wondering, Harvard students come up with just as many wrong answers as everyone else.)

Because the rooms are set up to share screens and use interactive tools, the work echoes what can be done in person with paper or a whiteboard. If a student incorrectly draws the path of light rays through a lens, for example, Mazur can quickly sketch the correct way so that the student recalculates her answer.

Mazur says he designed all of the class activities to match his learning goals, which include self-directed learning, content mastery, teamwork, and professionalism. (To learn more about how he structures his course, including assessment and team work, visit his course Canvas page.) The only part of the course Mazur felt suffered was the lack of collaborative, hands-on work, normally done in the campus maker space, and the inability to run a project fair.

At the end of each semester, Mazur asked students to evaluate the course and him as an instructor. On both measures, scores came in higher this year. Using pre- and post-tests, he also saw greater learning gains and an increase in self-efficacy, compared with students in his prior in-person classes.

He also asked students how challenged and how supported they felt. They felt as challenged as students had in earlier face-to-face classes but far more supported. Similarly, this year’s students expressed a greater sense of growth, autonomy, and community in the online course than students did in previous in-person classes. Mazur is still analyzing what this all means and what elements of the course design were particularly effective.

None of this has been easy, of course. As Mazur put it, he spent a “monstrous amount of time” putting the course together this year. But he’s so convinced of how valuable this model is that he asked Harvard to allow him to keep teaching online this fall. And he recently posted a video — titled “Remote Teaching Was a Disaster. Was It?” — reflecting on the past year and going into more depth on how he structured his course.

Active-Learning Insights

If you’d like to learn more about Mazur’s teaching philosophy, and about the future of active learning, you can watch a recording of a virtual forum that Beckie and I moderated last week, Active Learning for a Post-Pandemic World. (It’s free, but to watch it you need to register.)

In addition to Mazur, our guests were Lindsay Masland, assistant director of faculty professional development and an associate professor of psychology at Appalachian State University, and Chandralekha Singh, a physics professor and director of the Discipline-Based Science Education Research Center at University of Pittsburgh.

There’s much more to say about the future of active learning. So next week, Beckie will highlight some of the takeaways of the forum.

ICYMI

  • A university suspended dozens of sections of a diversity and ethics course because someone claimed a student had been made to feel “humiliated and degraded” in class “for their beliefs and values.” But as our Nell Gluckman reports, that incident likely never happened.
  • José Antonio Bowen, the former president of Goucher College and a teaching expert, talks to The Chronicle’s Goldie Blumenstyk about the need to embrace change and the value of inclusive teaching.
  • A leading provider of remote proctoring, ProctorU, says it will no longer sell systems based solely on artificial intelligence, Inside Higher Ed reports. Instead, a person with the company will analyze video results — which professors could do, but rarely did, in the fully automated version.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beth

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Beth McMurtrie is a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where she writes about the future of learning and technology’s influence on teaching. In addition to her reported stories, she helps write the weekly Teaching newsletter about what works in and around the classroom. Email her at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, and follow her on Twitter @bethmcmurtrie.