Weekly Writing 4: Theory of Change

I watched the Eric Mazur video on interactive lecture in which he dropped pollen into an electrically charged circle and the pollen started to move clockwise. He then had students vote using classroom response technology. He had them vote on their own first, then discuss with their neighbors when the votes showed the crowd was split. They were actively trying to problem-solve and think through the possible answers. The peer assisted problem solving or “Peer Instruction’ is part of what he calls ConcepTests.

Similar to John Seely Brown’s example of architect workers’ projects in progress being visible to all, the thought progress of Mazur’s students is visible in progress through the multiple class polls. The students work in groups and try to capitalize on diverse ways of thinking to help explain to each other possible solutions and choose what they think fits.

Both authors seem to be promoting the idea that learning practices must change in the 21st Century to accomplish the goals of “better” learning environments. Specifically, we must abandon old ideas of students being passive vessels to be filled with knowledge through straight lecturing. To be ready to thrive in a working world that is increasingly organized into diverse and digitally connected teams, it seems logical that students are given the opportunity to learn in a simliar environment. As Brown (2006) notes in an illustration, this is “learning as enculturation into a practice” (p. 18).

In order for classroom models like this to work, though, we need to re-orient both students and teachers to what a classroom should look like and function like. As Brown (2006) also notes, teachers have to be trained “to produce activity-based learning rather than lecturing” (p. 19) which means changing the “epistemic frame” of courses such that teachers are mentors showing students “how to be” in a field (p. 20).

I am still pondering how this could be applied in my chosen field of interpersonal communication. Unlike “architect” or “physicist,” folks who study communication are not aiming for a specifically defined profession. Also, we all engage in communication every day whether or not we are studying “how to be” a communicator. It seems for my students it would be helping people to be better at certain life skills like empathy, explanation and negotiation, regardless of setting or profession. It is easy for me to imagine mentoring students through a problem-solving situation in which there is a known “correct” answer- mathemeticians agree on solutions for proofs; scientists agree on the laws of how electricity works. But in the social sciences, we are working with fuzzier concepts like what is ethical and respectful in a given social situation; more of a case-study model.


Brown, J. (2006). New learning environments for the 21st century: Exploring the
edge. Change, 38(5), 18-24.

Harvard Magazine [HM]. (2012, February 9). Eric Mazur shows interactive teaching [Video file].         Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wont2v_LZ1E

Mazur Group (2014). Home: Education. Retrieved from

4 thoughts on “Weekly Writing 4: Theory of Change

  1. amattacchione

    I teach early childhood education. Most of my activities require students to learn from each other. It actually is rather easy to do because like your course, my students will be working with people of differing ages. I think of the soft skills that are necessary to engage and design activities that have them practice with each other and provide feedback. I teach literacy and one method that has worked quite well is to provide a list of characteristics one demonstrates when reading to children, etc. Another method I use is to pair students up with information they produced from the last learning objective and have them talk about what they learned and their interpretation of that concept. So, they essential teach it to their partner based on their existing knowledge and then when they have both shared, they assimilate and accommodate their current understanding and then that gets discussed. I would agree that some courses lend themselves more easily to this style of learning.

  2. Owen

    Hi Alda,
    What do you think about peer assessment within the context of communications? Would one’s peers be good judges for communications work? Could communications students effective assess one another’s work/presentations, say if submitted online via YouTube movies or the like?

    1. Alda Post author

      Yes, there is scholarship indicating peer feedback is useful for communication exercises. In my public speaking classes, I remind students that their peers are their audience members, so talking about what they liked and didn’t like is good audience analysis. When I provide an “outline checklist” as a guide, the students do a good job of helping each other edit and improve their outlines. Sometimes I provide options for more anonymous feedback, like writing what the speaker needs to improve on a slip of paper. I then summarize the class comments for the speaker. As for submitting via YouTube, that is something I address in my writings for the 11th. I was in a business class that was online and we had to submit presentations via YouTube. We still had to come up with 5 audience members to be in the video too, so classmates tended to band together and be each other’s audience, which provided some face-to-face interaction outside of class. I prefer that model to presentations where it is only the student, alone in a room, talking to the camera. That seems more useful for a student wanting to make a good online dating video, not one who wants to learn how to pitch an idea at work someday!


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