Photo courtesy of

Eric Mazur, Professor of Physics and Area Dean of Applied Physics at Harvard University, gave a lecture Friday at Corwin Pavilion addressing the ineffective nature classroom assessment in the 21st century.

Hosted by UCSB’s CalTeach Physical Sciences and Engineering, the lecture covered the disparity between assessing learning via classroom exams and teaching meaningful skills relevant to modern day demands. In his talk Mazur analyzed strategies of assessment currently used in universities based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, an organization of objectives teachers assign for students, pointing out that most examinations focus on memorization, a skill that sits at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Mazur said students are focusing only on getting a sufficient grade in a class rather than on actually comprehending and retaining the material in a meaningful way.

“All the students need to do is remember the equation,” Mazur said. “I think a lot of our assessment fits this unfortunate pattern. Why are we having our students just study so they remember it for two days then forget it all? Shouldn’t we have them remember for life rather than just to pass the test?”

Mazur also said the current forms of assessment encourage cramming and cheating, another sign that students are not motivated to truly learn.

“Little children who learn a lot, from tying their shoes, to putting a fork in their mouths, they don’t cheat, why would they cheat?” Mazur said. “They are trying to improve themselves, understand the world around them. Why would a motivated learner ever cheat? You’re cheating yourself,” Mazur said.

Mazur said one of his main concerns with the current system of educational assessment is that it does not translate over to the real world and that assessment needs to be changed to encourage understanding of the subject beyond memorization as well as to teach real problem solving skills that will be demanded by jobs of the future.

“We don’t know the jobs that our students are going to take, many of the jobs that are here today did not exist twenty years ago,” Mazur said. “The students we are educating today will have jobs that don’t even exist now, we don’t know what is good for them.”

Mazur also presented several alternative ideas on teaching strategy, encouraging teachers to cut memorization out of the equation by using methods he uses in his own classroom, such as giving students access to whatever information they want and using more interaction between students by allowing them to work together and solve challenging problems. Graduate student in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education Amelia Greenland said she was especially intrigued by Mazur’s critique of isolated learning.

“My favorite part was the isolation. I think that is so true, and it rang in my mind when he said that,” Greenland said. “In real life you’re never isolated, you’re always connected to some information or able to collaborate.”

Faculty member in chemistry and biochemistry Darby Feldwinn said she is concerned that, despite the benefits, more in-depth practices in assessment would be difficult to implement in the classroom, for both faculty members and students.

“It would be great to have us do this student-based learning here on campus, but figuring out how it works requires us to play a little bit with our classes,” Feldwinn said. “That’s sometimes challenging, both at the faculty level and on the student level because it will be very, very different for what we’re expecting out of the students. As much as we’re going to struggle with it, they’re going to struggle with it, too.”

Associate biology professor Rolf Christoffersen said he thinks the setup of classrooms can be an obstacle for discussion-based learning, an issue he worked successfully to resolve in his classes last year.

“I think there’s a limitation, at UCSB at least on the physical plan, and how we lay out our classrooms,” Christoffersen said. “The TA historically just tries to get a discussion going, but you can’t. When twenty-five students are sitting in rows looking at one table, nobody will speak. Last year I had them start sitting at these tables with five students at a table facing each other, and the TA is the coach, and it totally transformed the discussion section.”