Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Eric Mazur- peer and online learning

Mazur is Professor of Physics at Harvard but perhaps better known as an educator. He has taken a data-driven approach to his teaching and moved from lecture to peer learning then online learning, in response to that data. He uses pre-and post tests to assess the methods he uses.

As an evangelist for peer learning and online learning, he is an academic who has taken his research mindset into his practical teaching. Spurred on by research, such as Freeman (2014), showing that active learning results in higher attainment than lectures, he has constantly striven to improve his teaching, all on the back of proven, measurable results.

Peer instruction

Explained in his book Peer Instruction (1997) Mazure xplained how he used clickers to improve his teaching for many years. Rather than deliver long lectures, without interruption, he stops at key points and asks diagnostic questions. These questions tend to be natural language questions that really test the underlying principles of physics, rather than the application of formulas. Teachers/lecturers can use them diagnostically to assess the overall state of knowledge of the class. This, as Dylan Wiliam states, needs the use of clever 'hinge’ or diagnostic questions, that really do test understanding, as opposed to recall. This is precisely what Mazur does at Harvard with stunning results in attainment. If the histogram shows that many of the class have not understood the point, he arranges them into groups so that peer-to-peer learning can take place, asks the question again, then moves on. The data he’s gathered suggests that this approach has led to significant increases in attainment and some universities have since adopted this approach. Note that it is the feedback process that is important. Mazur claims that coloured cards work just as well.

Mazur also found that seating in classes has pedagogic consequences. Move poor performing students to the front of the class and they improve attainment, yet the attainment of high performing students is unaffected when they are moved to the back but when moved to the corners, the whole class does better.

Online learning

Mazur described the Nobel winners who teach as “being no better than dinner party commentators when it comes to teaching and education”. He has spent decades pushing active learning and interactive learning and after he redesigned and shifted his course at Harvard completely online during the pandemic, claimed “I have never been able to offer a course of the quality that I’m offering now. 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.”. Minimizing synchronous elements he found that learners had better attainment gains and felt better supported than face-to-face students. He suggested that, after seeing the gains, it is “almost unethical” to return to classroom teaching.

His approach is to use lots of regular, but small assignments, make it acceptable for students to fail and redo work, rely on peer pressure for engagement and completion. Students work through a structured online textbook, posing and answering questions online for each other then groups do assignments and present, in their own time, as groups. It is this freeing learners from the tyranny of the clock that he sees as a vital ingredient in his methods. Another advantage of being online is that there is no front to back seating in rows. “When you teach online, every single student is sitting in the front row” says Mazur. This tradical shift from peer learning in lectures to peer learning online, marked a second major another shift in his thinking.


Mazur is a world-class physicist and teacher. Rare in Higher Education, he has applied his experimental and data-driven approach in physics to teaching and learning. This has resulted in a series of practical teaching methods that have been widely applied in Higher Education and other contexts.


Mazur, Eric (1997). Peer Instruction: A User's Manual, Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-565441-6

Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H. and Wenderoth, M.P., 2014. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), pp.8410-8415.

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

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