9 September 2016: Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching & Learning begins its series of learning activities with a lecture by peer instruction expert Professor Eric Mazur

By Daryl Yang | Images provided by the Centre of Teaching & Learning mazur edited (banner)

On 22 – 23 August 2016, the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching & Learning (CTL) launched its programming for the new academic year by hosting Professor Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, and Dean of Applied Physics at Harvard University.

Professor Mazur, an expert widely known for his work on Peer Instruction, an interactive teaching method aimed at engaging students in the classroom and beyond, was invited to share the insights he gleaned from his past experiences as a university lecturer.

Professor Mazur is the author of Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual, a book published in 1997 that gives advice on how to teach large lecture classes interactively, and Principles and Practice of Physics, which was published in 2015 that offered an innovative approach for teaching introductory calculus-based physics.

“When I started teaching at Harvard, I asked myself many questions but one question I did not ask myself was the question ‘how am I going to teach my students?’” said Professor Mazur in his talk at the Yale-NUS Performance Hall, reflecting on his first experiences as an educator.

“It was clear what I was going to do: I was going to lecture. I was going to do to my students what my instructors have done to me. I am sure my instructors made the same assumption when they began teaching, and so did many of you in the audience.”

Professor Mazur explained that the conventional methods for evaluating teaching were inadequate and did not reflect how effective a teacher was.

“There are usually two ways for evaluating teaching – one, the end-of-semester evaluation when we ask students if they like their instructor and the course and two, how well students do on final exams. When I first taught a class on physics for pre-med students, I received great evaluations on both measures and thought I was the best physics teacher in the world.”

It was only many years later that his illusion unravelled after he read a journal article that claimed that students in the United States do not actually learn much physics in college or high school based on a questionnaire that tested the physical concept of force using words, rather than equations.

He decided to administer the test on his own students from Harvard and during the test, one student asked, “Do I answer the questions the way you have taught us or the way I think?” It was then that he realised that something was clearly not right in the way things were being taught.

“Learning should be about assimilation, not transfer, of information and the solution we have found is the flipped classroom method, where students actively engage with each other in solving questions and finding solutions together in the classroom, instead of passively receiving information from their professor.”

audience (cropped)

To illustrate his point, Professor Mazur asked the audience, which comprised a mix of professors and professionals from both science and non-science backgrounds, a simple thermodynamics question on the expansion of a metal plate. The hall quickly erupted into a flurry of heated discussion, proving his argument on how to actively engage students.

Professor Mazur explained that his approach works because the engagement of students meant that they became emotionally invested in the learning process, and not just the answer or the grade. By having students share and discuss their views, they moved from focusing on the answer to the reasoning and thought process instead.

“Education is not and cannot be just about transferring information or getting students to do what we can do. I want my students to stand on my shoulders to solve problems that even I cannot solve. Active engagement and social interaction are an absolute must in the way we teach,” he concluded to rousing applause.

The talks were attended by some 140 faculty and academics leaders from Yale-NUS, NUS, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and other tertiary institutions.

Mr Melvyn Tan, Assistant Director (Faculty Development), Teaching, Learning and Pedagogy Division of NTU said, “This series of talks by Professor Mazur is an excellent opportunity for educators to learn more about how active learning techniques and the use of meaningful assessment tasks can be used to engage learners and “reawaken” their curiosity about the world around them. We can really see how courses can be designed to encourage deep learning in addition to developing critical life skills students need for their future careers.”

CTL Director Professor Bryan Penprase was happy to see a good turnout from counterparts from other Singaporean institutions of higher learning and happy that Yale-NUS’ could help them connect and encourage further learning through such pedagogical sharing. He added that besides Professor Mazur, the Centre has plans to invite other prominent speakers to the College to share their expertise on teaching and course design.

He said: “Having Professor Mazur at Yale-NUS highlights that Yale-NUS is a cutting-edge site for science education and research. Our faculty and students really enjoyed meeting with Professor Mazur and discussing research in physics as well as his amazing advances in teaching and learning. In turn, we shared with him the College’s curriculum and teaching strategies.”

Since CTL was set up in 2015, the Centre has introduced various initiatives to help faculty optimise their teaching, and promote discussions and collaboration amongst faculty in areas such as teaching, technology application and course design. In its first year of programming, the Centre hosted 23 events and welcomed educational professionals from Singapore and around the world to share with faculty the best practices in teaching and learning. One such event welcomed Ms Debra Pires, Academic Administrator for the Life Sciences at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), to the Yale-NUS campus to talk about results from her Technology-Enhanced Teaching in biology, a talk which has had a positive impact on assessment design at the College.

“This academic year, we just moved into our new space which will feature a library of resources on teaching, and also have welcomed new staff to the Centre. With an expanded team, we are able to provide more services, and conduct more research on teaching and learning at Yale-NUS College,” Professor Penprase said.

The Centre will be kicking off a monthly lunch talk featuring topics from guiding students through their capstone, intercultural issues in the classroom and lessons learned from team teaching at Yale-NUS College.

“At the end of the semester, we will also roll out more in-depth workshops to help faculty design their new courses. We will also be actively meeting with faculty to discuss courses and make suggestions on crafting learning outcomes and assessments,” added Professor Penprase.

The videos of Professor Mazur’s talks are available on the CTL website. Click the link to find out more, or follow CTL on Facebook and Twitter!