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C Varenhorst

Sanjoy Mahajan on teaching through modes of reasoning

February 28, 2014

At Thursday's joint xTalk/HHMI Education Group, Dr Sanjoy Mahajan led a lively exploration of different approaches to teaching and the impact of those approaches on long term learning and retention.

He contrasted the topical approach against that of teaching through modes of learning. In other words, instead of listing a set of topics to cover and systematically teaching them in sequence, Mahajan suggested the notion of teaching around modes of reasoning: looking for the main principles underlying a discipline and teaching problems and projects related to those principles.

To illustrate this, Mahajan presented the attendees with several problems and began the process of learning by crowd-sourcing the answers:

  • Does the width of a block of wood affect it's tone when it is vibrated?
  • Does the weight of a cone change the rate at which it drops?

After polling the attendees for their attempt to answer the problem, Mahajan led them through a reasoning process that revealed the important concepts.

When Mahajan uses the technique of teaching through modes of reasoning, students are not always happy. They see themselves working mulpiple aspects of one problem, and are concerned that they are not exposed to other problems. However, assessment of learning gains for these students shows more solid understanding and better retention than their traditional counterparts.

Mahajan summarized the benefits of a pedagogy using modes of reasoning as one that:

  • Promotes transfer of concepts
  • Supports long term retention of concepts
  • Makes the course finite, gives contour to the subject matter.

In addition, Mahajan shared several other techniques that enhance learning:

  • Long-lasting learning thrives when concepts are linked and connections are made between related principles and subject matter.
  • Modes of reasoning helps ferret out the few core ideas of a field thus providing a solid foundation for further exploration.

For information on on future xTalks pleae visit

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