P stands for many things in my life. It's my first initial. As a nephrologist, it's liquid gold. It can stand for physician or physiologist, either of which I will admit to.
It rarely stands for Physics in my world.
Yet Sunday, a packed room experienced Confessions of a Reformed Lecturer, a performance by Eric Mazur, Professor of Physics at Harvard. He brought his peer instruction technique into the convention center, convincing a large group of physiologists about their validity (and teaching a spot of basic physics along the way).
Last fall I taught my 6 hours of renal pathophysiology using the flipped lecture technique with peer instruction. I converted my talks to video, asked the students to watch these and read the handouts ahead of class, and then be prepared to use the material in class. During the assigned "lecture" time I would post a case-based problem and then ask the students to discuss among themselves what was going on and commit to an answer. We would then discuss the right and wrong answers and the logic behind them. Those who attended and worked in small groups seemed to "get it." Some students sat isolated in the back and did not participate in discussions. Many did not show up at all. If they can learn the material without being in class, I am OK with that.
Several months later the evaluations for my coursework came in. They were the worst of my career, even worse than my initial efforts with plain old lectures.
Damn! What happened? Flipped lectures were the answer to it all, the "mom and apple pie" of education.
Turns out a lot of educators, including Eric Mazur, get students who do not appreciate this method. For their tuition dollars, they expect us to use the time we have together "in a more responsible way." *
So back to the Bernard presentation or performance (you can view his slides here). He asked each of us to think of something at which we excel. Then he asked us how we got so good at it. Overwhelmingly, the audience said practice. Mazur gives this talk over and over, in countries around the world, and the answer is always the same. Lectures and reading may transmit knowledge, but they do not make us good at using it.
Part of this is because we do not engage our brains in lecture. Wearable sensors for electrodermal activity (a strong correlate of sympathetic activity reflecting emotion, cognition, and attention) show that students flatline during lectures. Their tracings during lectures look like those while watching TV. Students appear to be more engaged while asleep than in class! Labs, homework, and studying all appear to invoke more physiological engagement! (For the original study and a peek at a tracing click here.)
By the end of the hour he had us all convinced that plain old lectures would not do. However, he had not addressed my question: how do you get student buy-in? How do you convince them that they have to learn to use the material themselves?
I swam upstream through the crowd, and Mazur was kind enough to point me to his website, Peer Instruction. All it takes to register is a valid email address and an ability to fill out a captcha. Soon I had access to the blog, Turn to your Neighbor, a source of amazing treasure for educators. If you teach anything, anywhere, you need to have access to this information! Many posts deal with the issue of student buy-in. I have only begun to scratch the surface of the treasure buried there.
I am already plotting how I can keep my interactive format with peer-instruction next fall but without so may bad evaluations! This was by far one of the most practical sessions I have attended on teaching (and I saw Khan speak last November).
Congratulations, Dr. Mazur, for a well-deserved award, even if your discipline is "the wrong P," at least in my humble opinion.
And I will never forget what happens when you heat a metal plate with a hole in the middle.
*Seriously, from one of my evaluations