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Photonics researcher is first recipient of Minerva Prize for advancements in educational methods

Eric Mazur recognized for Peer Instruction method applying real-world approach to learning

20 May 2014
Eric Mazur at Western Washington University
Eric Mazur at
Western Washington University

BELLINGHAM, Washington, USA -- Harvard professor Eric Mazur, whose innovative educational approach is credited with helping to transform college physics classes, is the first winner of the $500,000 Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education, the Minerva Academy announced today.

Mazur, the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and Area Dean for Applied Physics at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a member of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, spoke at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham, Washington, last week about Peer Instruction methodology and how assessment methods are crucial to what and how students learn.

The highest level of learning occurs when students are faced with questions that reflect how the world really works, and have the chance to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate what they have learned, Mazur told his audience of faculty and students at WWU.

When students are assessed only on their ability to regurgitate memorized knowledge, they are working at a lower level and over time retain less of what they were taught.

Mazur pointed out that teachers get the results they test for, and study habits are determined by what is assessed, whether that is the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate, or simply knowledge and comprehension. At present, he said, "assessment is mostly focused on ranking and classifying. We must rethink assessment because if we fail to do so we will continue to educate the followers of yesterday."

As an example of lower-level learning, Mazur noted that flashcards are designed to transfer information, but studies show that only 35% of information from flashcards is retained after one week. And the lecture is outmoded, because it focuses on information transfer, he said.

While traditional textbook problems ask students to apply known procedures to derive unknown outcomes or answers, real-world problems work the other way: the desired outcome is known, but the procedure is up to the student to figure out.

He gave the example of someone needing to travel to another city to present at a conference the next morning but whose flight is cancelled. The problem is known: the flight has been cancelled. And the desired outcome is known: getting to the conference in time to present. What is unknown is the necessary procedure to achieve that outcome: how to find an alternative way to make it to the conference.

Computers do well at applying known procedures to find unknown answers, Mazur said. Just as robots have replaced assembly jobs, computers will make jobs involving memorization or rote procedures unnecessary. For humans, he said, "We should focus on authentic problems."

In Peer Instruction, assessment offers the opportunity for feedback, not ranking, and helps students develop the ability to assess their own learning. That's important, Mazur noted, because much "real" learning begins after graduation, and students need to know how to assess whether they are learning in real life.

The Minerva Prize, which opened for global nominations in April 2013, recognizes a faculty member from any institution worldwide who has made a significant impact on student learning experiences through extraordinary innovation in higher education.

"Mazur's development of the Peer Instruction teaching methodology, now broadly adopted, embodies the innovation in teaching excellence that the Minerva Prize was conceived to recognize and promote," said Roger Kornberg, Nobel Laureate and Governor of the Minerva Academy.

Nearly 1,500 papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals and numerous books have been written on Peer Instruction, including guides for educators to incorporate Peer Instruction into their classrooms. Mazur's 1997 book, Peer Instruction: A User's Manual, has been translated into four languages. He presents frequently on STEM education and Peer Instruction.

Mazur has authored approximately 30 research publications on optical physics for SPIE, and is on the program committee for the conference on Frontiers in Ultrafast Optics: Biomedical, Scientific, and Industrial Applications at SPIE Photonics West. He has received numerous awards, held several appointments as visiting professor or distinguished lecturer, and is a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of the Netherlands and the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities.

WWU posted video of Mazur's 13 May talk to educators as well as a talk to a physics audience:

More about Mazur's work is shown in a video from his BiOS Hot Topics talk at SPIE Photonics West 2011:

SPIE is the international society for optics and photonics, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1955 to advance light-based technologies. The Society serves nearly 256,000 constituents from approximately 155 countries, offering conferences, continuing education, books, journals, and a digital library in support of interdisciplinary information exchange, professional networking, and patent precedent. SPIE provided more than $3.2 million in support of education and outreach programs in 2013.


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