Harvard’s Eric Mazur Wins $500,000 Award on Teaching Theory

Harvard University’s Eric Mazur is the first recipient of the $500,000 Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education for developing a peer-instruction teaching method more than 20 years ago that is now used in classrooms worldwide.

Peer instruction “embodies the innovation in teaching excellence that the Minerva Prize was conceived to recognize and promote,” Roger Kornberg, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and governor of the nonprofit Minerva Academy, said today in a statement.

Mazur, a physics professor, urged teachers to take a step back from lecturing and let students engage in interactive discussions about the subject material. A study of dropout rates of physics classes at Harvard published in 2008 in the American Journal of Physics found the rate was 3 percent using the method compared with 12 percent without it, a feat Mazur said is important to promote learning in science, technology, engineering and math.

“We are all born scientists,” Mazur said in a telephone interview. “The desire to understand the world around us gets turned off,” often because students are intimidated by the complexities of science learning. Peer instruction creates the confidence to succeed, he said.

‘Public’ Education

Mazur has delivered his tome on peer instruction, “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer,” more than 600 times around the world, and almost 1,500 papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals about the method. His book, “Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual,” has been translated into four languges, and he has been recognized by the Optical Society of America and the American Association of Physics Teachers. The method has spread to subjects ranging from math to art, and to elementary and secondary education.

“We have a moral obligation as scientists to not only educate future generations of scientists, but also to educate the public,” said Mazur, who came to Harvard in 1982 after getting a Ph.D. from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

Mazur is one of 14 academics inducted this year as founding members of the Minerva Academy, which awards the prize, an elite group that provides a forum to exchange ideas on enhancing higher education. While members are eligible for prize consideration, if nominated, they don’t participate in the review and award process.

The Academy is associated with the Minerva Project, a for-profit, primarily online university founded by Ben Nelson to reinvent undergraduate education. The program encourages students to live and study in as many as seven international cities throughout their studies. The inaugural class begins in the fall of 2014. The Minerva Project received $25 million in seed money in 2012 from Benchmark Capital.

(An earlier version of this story was corrected because the inaugural class was erroneously said to be starting in 2015.)