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Education after COVID-19: from instructor to mentor

Education after COVID-19: from instructor to mentor

Lecture at the opening of the 2020 academic year

Helping students individually, mainly being there as a mentor. That is the future of the university lecturer according to professor Eric Mazur, education expert and Balkanski professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University. In his keynote speech on Monday during the online opening ceremony of the academic year, he shared new insights that COVID-19 brought him.

When Mazur first started teaching, forty years ago, he thought himself to be a good teacher. “The students appreciated me and did well in their exams.” This turned out to be an illusion. As soon as he started asking questions in a different way, it became clear that the students hadn’t really understood the subject matter.

“I had never thought about how I was teaching. I taught as I had been taught: by giving lectures. But by doing so, I was only passing on information, while learning is so much more than that. Taking in the information is one thing, understanding it is another. That is what students now do by themselves, during self-study at home, while it is the toughest and most important part of studying.”

Mazur reversed the order. His students were given the reading assignment and his notes beforehand. He asks them questions during the lecture. “I hold a small poll; what is the right answer? I then have students with different answers enter into a discussion. Convince each other: why do you think you are right?” His own variation of Problem-based Learning. “As time passes, you see the penny drop. At the start, 50 per cent knows the right answer, at the end of the lecture, it is 80-90 per cent. Students can explain things to each other much better than I can. They have just learned it themselves, and know where the difficulties lie. They are not blighted by the curse of knowledge – knowing the subject matter so well that you skip steps in the explanation.”

Had he continued in the old way, Mazur says, he would have simply recorded his lectures in March. “Then I would have had a model that didn’t work so well, and made it even worse. Whereas this way of teaching is well suited to conversion into online education. By putting students in a Zoom meeting into separate ‘rooms’ (in which they can have a one-on-one discussion separate from the large group, ed.), I can imitate the experience of the lecture hall. You maintain the feeling of being a community.”

But it can be even better than that. “By teaching online, I have realised how often we still synchronously – so with all students at the same time in the same place – give instruction according to the lecturer’s  pace, purely because we are in a lecture hall and the environment invites us to do so. I want to ask myself, even after COVID-19, in every case: can this be done at the student’s pace. Can this also be done at a time when it suits the student?” For example, when a student finds a section difficult, can he or she take more time and be given more explanation, whereas a quicker student skips that and moves on immediately?

Because, Mazur says, the more you can do that, the more you can free yourself up as a lecturer to give more individual support to students. “So that you can help them in the areas where it really matters. That is my aim for the coming academic year – Harvard has decided to only provide online education until the summer of 2021.”

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