How the Pandemic Changed My Teaching: The Moral Dilemma of Going Back

How the Pandemic Changed My Teaching: The Moral Dilemma of Going Back

On February 16, 2022, we hosted a talk by Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard on how the COVID-19 pandemic transformed his approach to teaching introductory physics and why he is keeping many of the changes going forward.


Professor Eric Mazur’s class, AP50: Physics as a Foundation for Science and Engineering is a year-long project- and team-based introduction to physics. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a switch to remote teaching and learning, Professor Mazur had built the class around nontraditional teaching approaches designed to intrinsically motivate students. AP50 has no lectures; students instead read and annotate course content in Perusall. Projects replace exams as the summative assessments for the course, and students engage in a variety of scaffolded problem-solving activities that help them understand and apply course content and evaluate their learning. For more information about how AP50 was taught pre-pandemic, visit

Using Synchronous Time More Effectively

Immediately after shifting online in March 2020, the central question was figuring out how to transfer the classroom version of AP50 online. For Fall 2020, however, Professor Mazur reframed that challenge as an opportunity to consider the affordances offered by teaching remotely and, moving forward, how he could leverage those affordances to better support student learning in his in-person classrooms. 

Recognizing that students learn at different speeds, Professor Mazur moved as much of the class content as possible from a synchronous, instructor-paced format to an asynchronous, student-paced format. For every team-based activity, students first engaged with the associated assignment on their own, before class time. Students then spent most of the scheduled class time in Zoom discussions within their group checking and discussing the work they had already done. Once the team had come to a consensus, they could call an instructor or TA to their Zoom room to check their work. 

The check-off process functioned both as an assessment activity and an opportunity to correct misconceptions through a Socratic dialogue approach. Professor Mazur hired a group of undergraduate TAs to help with the check-offs, training them at the start of the term by asking them to shadow him and observe the Socratic approach in action. This check-off process saved considerable time compared to a traditional in-person collaborative activity wherein students who work quickly might dominate the conversations and each team may require different amounts of time to complete the assignment (with some teams not able to finish in the allotted time, and others finishing well in advance).

Adopting a More Transparent Approach to Grading 

Professor Mazur also adopted specifications grading in Fall 2020, splitting the course into 68 micro-units, each of which is graded on a pass/fail basis. To pass a particular micro-unit, students are required to complete both the individual and team-based portions of the assignment. The grading process is facilitated by tools such as Gradescope and Desmos, which allow instructors to confirm that students complete the individual work on time (before meeting with their groups). Desmos also lets students see their teammate’s initial attempts and work through problems together. Teams have multiple chances to earn partial credit by correctly solving the problem, and the platform reveals an explanation if they still get it wrong. 

Letting Students Set the Pace and Place  

In Fall 2021, when Harvard returned to in-person teaching, Professor Mazur decided to adopt a multi-modal approach in AP50, allowing student teams to meet in the classroom or remotely via Zoom. He also built in flexible timing, letting students meet when it worked for them and even doing check-offs outside of the regularly scheduled class times to accommodate students’ needs. As the semester went on, the class shifted from most students attending in person to most students attending via Zoom, but attendance remained near 100%. 

Overall Results

Compared to pre-pandemic cohorts, the Fall 2020 students saw larger gains in content knowledge and self-efficacy. Students also found the virtual class comparably challenging but more supportive, and they had higher feelings of growth, autonomy, and community than prior cohorts. The multi-modal offering in Fall 2021 saw comparable results to the fully virtual semesters.

About the Speaker

Eric Mazur is the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and Academic Dean for Applied Sciences and Engineering at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard University, Member of the Faculty of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Past President of Optica (formerly The Optical Society).

Mazur is a prominent physicist known for his contributions in nanophotonics, an internationally recognized educational innovator, and a sought-after speaker. In education, he is widely known for his work on Peer Instruction, an interactive teaching method aimed at engaging students in the classroom and beyond. In 2014, Mazur became the inaugural recipient of the Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education. He has received many awards for his work in physics and in education and has founded several successful companies. Mazur is widely published in peer-reviewed journals and holds numerous patents. He has also written extensively on education and is the author of Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual (Prentice Hall, 1997), a book that explains how to teach large lecture classes interactively, and of Principles and Practice of Physics (Pearson, 2015), a book that presents a groundbreaking new approach to teaching introductory calculus-based physics.

Mazur is a leading speaker on optics and education. His motivational lectures on interactive teaching, educational technology, and assessment have inspired people around the world to change their approach to teaching.

Written by Kate Weishaar