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Using Peer Instruction To Strengthen Physics Teaching With Natalia Murillo-Quirós

Natalia Murillo-Quirós is Professor of Physics at the Tecnológico de Costa Rica.

Natalia Murillo-Quirós was frustrated. Since she began teaching at Tecnológico de Costa Rica, the physics professor sensed that her students were not taking full advantage of her class.

Overall performance was stagnant, and students seemed to commit the same errors on exams over and over again.

Murillo-Quirós has a deep appreciation for the field of physics and its potential to answer questions about the world and how it ticks. The desire to share this message is one of the factors that led her to teaching in the first place. With some dismay, she realized this message hadn’t reached her own students.

Something needed to change.

Determined to awaken her classroom, Murillo-Quirós and a handful of her fellow professors sought out Laspau to participate in the University Innovation program, Strengthening Physics Teaching, in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the spring of 2015. During the program, Murillo-Quirós participated in discussions with professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Northeastern University, and Olin College to learn new teaching methodologies that would help her better engage her students. Murillo-Quirós even had the opportunity to sit in on physics classes and see the teaching methods in action.

After her three day-long intensive with Laspau, Murillo-Quirós returned to Costa Rica armed with a new teaching model: Peer Instruction for Active Learning. Created by Harvard Physics and Applied Physics professor, Eric Mazur, one of the program’s featured speakers, the Peer Instruction method, as the name suggests, asks professors to center their curriculum around discussions instead of lectures so students may learn from their peers. With this new idea in mind, Murillo-Quirós encouraged her students to read material before class and to come prepared to participate in class discussions.

After just a short time with the Peer Instruction for Active Learning, Murillo-Quirós noticed a real change in her classroom. Students now appear more confident come exam day and seem more interested and in touch with course materials. No longer is Murillo-Quirós’ classroom a place of sleepy students but one alive with engagement and interaction.

“With this model, I have feelings that I have never had in eleven years of teaching,” Murillo-Quirós explains.

Putting a new teaching method into place has brought some difficulties, perhaps the most notable has been the resistance to change by the students, who, after having learned via lectures for years, may feel uncertain at the moment starting a discussion and defending their ideas. I insist that, even though it may get them out of their comfort zone, that’s a good thing, because it prepares them for their professional lives beyond the classroom. As the semester progresses, they gain a better understanding, however, at the beginning students often need constant encouragement.

Another factor to consider is the work involved for the professor in changing the teaching methodology, including creating new classes. Any teacher will understand how time-consuming it can be and Murillo-Quirós recommends generating networks with colleagues and sharing resources to help reduce the amount of time needed.

Even taking into account the challenges she has experienced and those that may come, Murillo-Quirós feels the time she has invested has been worth, “After applying peer instruction in my classroom, I can’t, nor do I wish to, return to lecture style classes. It wouldn’t make sense for me as a professor.”

Encouraged by the positive change, Murillo-Quirós plans to continue using Peer Instruction with the hope of spreading her love for problem solving and physics to future students.

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