A Teaching Strategy to Increase Student Understanding of Fundamental Concepts

by Ingrid Waldron

In order to increase student understanding of fundamental concepts, Eric Mazur, Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard, has developed a teaching strategy which is particularly useful in lecture courses in scientific and quantitative disciplines. This strategy involves the use of concept questions, multiple choice questions designed to test the students' understanding of fundamental concepts.

Using Concept Questions: After an important concept has been explained in lecture, a multiple-choice concept question is displayed, and each student indicates which answer he or she believes is correct (high-tech method: computer terminal at each seat, or low-tech method: show of hands). If most students choose the correct answer, the lecturer may give a brief explanation and move on. However, if a substantial proportion of students have chosen a wrong answer, then the students discuss the question with their immediate neighbors in the lecture hall, explaining the concept(s) and their reasoning to each other and trying to agree on the correct answer.

At the end of these brief student discussions, the lecturer again asks the students to choose the answer for the concept question. The proportion of students who chose the correct answer increases after the student discussions, which suggests that the students are successfully teaching each other. In addition, the lecturer provides further explanation of the concept(s) to clarify misunderstandings indicated by the students' choice of answers or by students' comments in the small-group or class discussions.

An easy way to use concept questions is to include them in your lectures occasionally, when they seem particularly appropriate for the material being discussed. A more ambitious approach uses multiple concept questions in each lecture; a typical lecture period might consist of several segments of 10-20 minutes of lecture, each followed by one or more concept questions. For this latter approach to succeed, it is advisable to make several related changes in course design. If you are interested, please contact the faculty members listed in the last paragraph.

Advantages: There are several advantages to the use of concept questions. Students are actively engaged with the material and encouraged to think about the fundamental concepts. The discussions among students can help to clarify concepts and identify fundamental misconceptions which generally are not discovered or addressed in a typical lecture setting. At least one controlled study shows that teaching based on concept questions results in improved student understanding of fundamental concepts. Another advantage of the use of concept questions is that the change of pace and active student participation helps to maintain student interest and attention, in contrast to the substantial decrease in students' attention which has been found to occur as early as fifteen minutes into a typical lecture hour. Also, the lecturer gets immediate and useful feedback about what the students understand and what they don't.

The concept question approach seems particularly useful in large lecture courses in the sciences and other quantitative disciplines, and I encourage lecturers in such courses to try it at least once.

Additional Information: If you would like more information, you are invited to call me (8-8396), or Larry Gladney (8-4683) or Dennis DeTurck (8-9748), who have also used concept questions in their teaching. You are also invited to call or e-mail Eric Schneider in the College Office (8-6341/ to borrow an 18-minute video entitled Thinking Together: Collaborative Learning in Science, which includes a segment on Mazur's use of concept questions. Additional suggestions for other useful methods to encourage active learning are included in this video and in a book, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, which is also available from the College Office. The video can also be used as an effective stimulus for a discussion of teaching methods at a departmental meeting of faculty and graduate students.

This piece begins the second season of the Talk About Teaching series, developed by the Lindback Society and the College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Waldron is professor of biology in the School of Arts and Sciences and a former chair of the Lindback Society.