Eric Mazur selected to receive Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education

$500,000 award recognizes decades of classroom innovation and impact

Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications.)

Cambridge, Mass. – May 20, 2014 – The Minerva Academy today announced Eric Mazur as the first winner of the Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education. In recognizing Mazur for his significant contributions to improving higher education, the Academy specifically noted his development of Peer Instruction, an innovative teaching method that incorporates interactive pedagogy into the classroom and has been recognized worldwide for driving dramatic improvements in student learning outcomes.

Mazur is the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and Area Dean for Applied Physics at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). The Minerva Prize recognizes one faculty member from any institution worldwide who has made a significant impact on student learning experiences through extraordinary innovation in higher education.

Members of the Academy unanimously and enthusiastically agreed on the selection of Dr. Mazur as the first recipient of the Minerva Prize,” said Dr. Roger Kornberg, Nobel Laureate and Governor of the Minerva Academy. “His development of the Peer Instruction teaching methodology, now broadly adopted, embodies the innovation in teaching excellence that the Minerva Prize was conceived to recognize and promote. We are pleased to bestow this honor upon an individual who has contributed so greatly to the advancement of teaching and with such passion for improving student learning outcomes.”

The Academy considered a large number of impressive nominations from around the world. The three primary criteria in selecting the winner were: the innovation itself; the impact of the innovation on students, faculty and institutions around the world; and how the innovation has inspired both faculty and students more generally to achieve improved learning experiences. In addition, the Academy members considered the strong positive influence Mazur has had on the learning of his own students.

Mazur was honored earlier this year along with 13 other esteemed academics, including Harvard President Emeritus Derek Bok, when he was inducted as a Founding Member of the Minerva Academy. Academy members were invited based on their contributions and innovative thinking in the area of teaching excellence. The rules for the Minerva Prize stipulate that Academy members are eligible for consideration, but any Academy members who may be nominated are not allowed to participate in the review and selection process.

More than 20 years ago, Mazur developed a question-based active learning method called Peer Instruction as an alternative to the traditional lecture-style class. With Peer Instruction, the instructor “flips” the classroom, utilizing class time to engage students in interactive discussions about the subject material. In classes that utilize Peer Instruction, students prepare for class by either reading or watching videos covering the desired content. Classroom time is devoted to deepening the understanding of the material from the pre-class assignment. Presentations by the professor are interspersed with conceptual questions designed to expose common difficulties in understanding the material. Students are given a few minutes to think about the question and formulate their own answers; they then discuss their answers in groups of three to four, attempting to reach consensus on a viable answer. This process forces the students to think through the arguments being developed and enables them (as well as the instructor) to assess their understanding of the concepts.

Two decades of research support the effectiveness of Peer Instruction across disciplines. Nearly 1,500 papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals and numerous books have been written on Peer Instruction, including guides for educators to incorporate Peer Instruction into their classrooms. Mazur’s 1997 book, Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual, has been translated into four languages. According to an article by Dancey & Henderson in 2010, Mazur’s Peer Instruction methodology has helped transform more college physics classrooms than any other effort. In addition to disseminating Peer Instruction methodology, Mazur founded the Peer Instruction Network, a global network for educators who utilize Peer Instruction.

Eric Mazur’s innovative thinking has been disruptive in the best sense of the word,” said Cherry A. Murray, Dean of Harvard SEAS. “He has used a scientist’s mindset to formulate and perfect a new approach to teaching that complements what we already know about how students learn. That's catching on internationally because it prepares graduates to engage with difficult problems beyond the classroom walls."

Earlier this year, following more than two decades of labor, Mazur’s college textbook, Principles & Practice of Physics, was published by Pearson.

Mazur will receive the Minerva Prize at a gathering of the Minerva Academy in October 2014. He will receive a $500,000 cash prize as part of the award.

Topics: Academics

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