Conjure up in your mind that you are a Harvard student. You are sitting in class listening to your professor’s lecture…
What kind of professor are you imagining? One that is boring? One that is engaging?
Whatever you are imagining, I am sure it is an image of competence. You probably have full confidence in your hypothetical Harvard professor’s ability to accurately teach you a new concept. However, one Harvard professor, Eric Mazur, learned that what he thought was an effective teaching strategy was not.
Mazur was sure that by explaining to his class that atoms move away from each other in response to heat they would easily understand what would happen if you had a metal plate with a hole in it and you microwaved it. The hole would… shrink? Get bigger? He expected all of his students to get the right answer. However, most of them did not.
So, what went wrong? That statement seems clear enough. The correct answer seems pretty intuitive… the hole would get bigger. It’s not that Mazur wasn’t clear and it’s not that he didn’t have a thorough understanding of what he was teaching, he most assuredly did. His problem therein lied in the mode of his instruction.
Lecturing, ineffective? No… couldn’t be! Don’t you sit in a lecture anxiously engaged from start to finish hanging on every word and detail, not wanting it to ever end. Maybe in some cases that is true, but on the whole, thoughts of listening to a lecture evokes the same common feelings in most people: long, boring, and drone. Feelings such as these:
Shocked to discover that many of his students struggled to understand what he thought was a simple concept, Mazur took his question to a group of his fellow Harvard professors’. Did they respond with a higher rate of correct answers? Unfortunately for the art of lecturing… they did not.
So what could Mazur do instead? How could he help people understand a simple concept? Especially since explaining it in what he thought were simple terms didn’t work.
Mazur, determined to find a way to effectively teach what would happen to that hole in the metal plate if microwaved, came up with a new way to illustrate the concept. He explained that atoms move away from each other in response to heat, then he told the students to imagine a group of people standing in a circle (representative of a large plate). He then said that these people want to move further away from each other because they are getting too warm (as the atoms would do in response to heat). After this example lesson he had his students talk amongst themselves and decide what they think would happen to the hole in the metal plate in response to heat.
This time, his class had no problem understanding the correct answer: the hole would get bigger; just as people would move further away from the center of the circle if they were trying to get away from each other.
Of course, he could’ve made his example even more effective if he had actually had the students get in the circle and act out the visual. Multisensory instruction, or “bundling modalities,” has proven itself to be a very effective type of instruction. By connecting multiple senses to one concept stronger connections are made in the brain.
View our free webinar that discusses the importance of bundling modalities: "Why Johnny Can't Remember What He Read," by Jay Kelly, MA >
What have you found helps your students better understand your instruction?