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We Can Do It

Teamwork in the classroom—and in life

“What’s different is that we’re learning things together, rather than just on our own. This is the only class where it doesn’t feel like I’m competing against my classmates.”

“When you see someone else have an aha moment, it makes you think maybe you could do it, too.”

“I remember the first time I explained something to someone else. It made me feel great. It made me feel like maybe I could do this.” 

“Asking your teacher a question can be intimidating. It’s different when we ask each other.”

These are some of the comments students in Applied Physics 50: Physics as a Foundation for Science and Engineering shared when I dropped into their Zoom team meeting and, on a break, asked what made this class special. 

I’d taken a version of the same college course, taught by the same professor, more than 25 years ago. If memory serves, Eric Mazur was the most dynamic and passionate of lecturers—the sort who wins teaching awards—and yet, if interviewed then, I wouldn’t have said anything like what his students were saying now.

“That’s because the year you took my class, I had my epiphany,” Eric told me. “I was proud of my lectures. I had gotten quite good. My end-of-semester ratings were terrific. My students were solving difficult problems. But one day, I gave my students a few very simple conceptual questions. They bombed them. So I knew that, in fact, I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was.”

Without pause, Eric has been redesigning introductory physics every year since. The classes I recently observed resemble the professional workplace: rather than solving hypothetical problems on their own in hopes of acing a high-stakes exam at the end of the course, students were working on open-ended, real-world problems, relying on each other as collaborators, and occasionally consulting more senior experts (teaching assistants) for advice. And, as in life-beyond-school, there is no final exam.

One benefit of instruction centered around teams and projects? The gender gap in self-efficacy—evident at the beginning of the semester—is erased by the time students complete the course. 

Try building the confidence of the young people in your life by giving them real problems to solve and creating incentives to work with—not against—each other. During this difficult time, there is no shortage of problems to solve. There are meals to cook and neighbors to help. Perhaps when our young people work together for the greater good, they will teach us adults a thing or two along the way.

With grit and gratitude,
Angela

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