An Overview of Teaching and Learning Research with
Classroom Communication Systems (CCSs) **
A. Louis Abrahamson, Better Education
Inc., 4824 G. Wash. Mem. Hwy., Yorktown, VA 23692, USA (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Over two thousand years ago, Socrates realized
that people understand more by answering a question, than by
being told an answer. Now, science has helped to explain reasons
behind this counter-intuitive idea, and shown why it works so
well. But, there is a problem with Socratic teaching: it works
well only in small classes. The CCS is an invention which ameliorates
this problem and makes (forms of) Socratic teaching effective
in classes of any size. This paper briefly summarizes five years
of CCS research with pedagogical techniques in a range of disciplines,
educational levels, and institutional settings.
Background - Knowledge, Learning, & Teaching
In 1979 David Hestenes asked a far-reaching
question in a paper entitled, "Wherefore a Science of Teaching?"1
Nineteen years later the question has lost its shock value. Our
understanding of knowledge, learning, & even teaching is
deeper and more satisfying. We are beginning to answer Hestenes
A three-page paper is not the place to give
an overview of "constructivism" 2,3, or
comparisons between the knowledge structures of experts &
novices4 (tells a lot about how we "know"
and "understand"), or "active learning" 5,6,
or how algebraic and geometrical representations together, deepen
students understanding of mathematics7. Similarly
for "Rule-of-Three" and the "Way-of-Archimedes"
8, but all these are important steps in beginning
to shed light into our very own source of light - the human mind.
Brief Description of a CCS
A CCS is more than a networked classroom but
this is a good place to start. A computer network links a teachers
computer to student units - which may be as humble as graphing
calculators. Special software controls the system and allows
it to function as an integrated tool. In one CCS (Classtalk)
the teachers computer runs two monitors, one with private
information, the other with public information for display to
the whole class. There are five question types (multiple choice,
numeric, short & long text, & algebraic expressions).
Student answers are sorted into "bins" in the teachers
computer. For example, in multiple choice there is one bin for
each choice. The purpose of binning is to provide a quick way
for a teacher to assimilate positions that students in the class
have taken. Seat icons mapped on the screen as in the physical
classroom contain individual data (name, responses, records,
photo, etc.) about students seated there. Bins are color-coded
and seats change color to show into which bin a students
Binning can also be more complex. In the case
of algebraic expressions, these are parsed, variables identified,
random number sets plugged into each variable, and the expressions
evaluated. Expressions that evaluate to the same set are assumed
to be the same. A sub-binning may look at functional form. Bins
may be predefined by the teacher or created on-the-fly from student
responses. Histograms show aggregate class response, and teachers
typically show these to the class to stimulate discussion. Three
different small group collaborative environments exist: individual,
consensus, & consensus with dissent (which is modeled after
the US Supreme Court). The teacher's computer software operates
in three domains, future (curriculum preparation), present (active
class), and past (class records). Curriculum may include questions
(including binning info., individual student feedback, scoring),
quizzes, presentation material, notes, etc..
Future systems are likely to include many
more features which promote thinking, active learning, collaboration,
and motivation in classrooms.
Stories from some CCS Classrooms
Harvard Introductory Physics
Eric Mazur is Gordon McKay Professor of Applied
Physics and Professor of Physics at Harvard University. He has
taught introductory physics at Harvard since 1984 usually in
classes of about 250 students. In 1991 Mazur developed Peer Instruction9,
the basic goals of which are to exploit student interaction during
lectures and focus students attention on underlying concepts.
Instead of presenting all material at the same level of detail
as covered in textbook or lecture notes, lectures consist of
a number of short presentations on key points each followed by
a "ConcepTest" - short conceptual questions on the
subject being discussed. The students are first given time to
formulate answers (and enter them via a CCS) and then asked to
discuss their answers with each other. This process (a) forces
the students to think through the arguments being developed,
and (b) provides them (as well as the teacher) with a way to
assess their understanding of the concept.
In this lecturing format Mazur uses about
one third of each lecture period for ConcepTests. He does not
reduce the amount of material covered in the course, but instead
requires students to read the textbook & lecture notes ahead
outside lectures. At the beginning of each class students receive
a brief quiz (via the CCS) on the reading assignment. Mazur can
see before he begins the class how well the assignment has been
The advantages of Peer Instruction are numerous.
Students report that they understand the subject better, enjoy
classes more, do more thinking in classes, come to class better
prepared, and feel that the professor is more in touch with their
difficulties in the course. In addition gains in conceptual understanding
are double those when he taught the course conventionally9.
Univ. of Massachusetts Physics & Harvard Business School
Prof. Elon Kohlberg at the Harvard Business
School uses techniques similar to those pioneered by the team
at UMass led by Profs. Bill Gerace & Jose Mestre. Both address
key issues by presenting relatively difficult conceptual questions
likely to cause splits in class position and stimulate discussion
in their 100-person classes. In the following example from one
of Kohlbergs classes, the first histogram was split more-or-less
evenly three ways. Kohlberg said, "I see that there are
some differences of opinion on this topic. Would someone whose
answer fell into the green bin like to explain your reasoning?"
then he continued in a similar way for the other bins
. "Now would anyone like to change their answers?"
the new histogram was split two ways
is interesting, I see we are still in disagreement,
At this point a good-looking young man in
the front row - his face flushed red - said, "You can see
we dont know where youre going with this. Why dont
you just tell us what you want?"
Elon replied, "Suppose you were in a
town & wanted to find a bar. If I told you where it was,
you might learn less about the town than if you had to find it
for yourself, - you also may have less fun doing it."
The young man hesitated, pulled out a scratch
pad and began writing. A few minutes later he presented an argument
that produced unanimity in the class.
Tabb Middle School, Tabb Virginia, 8th Grade -
Jan Andrews is an 8th grade math
teacher. Students push to get into her class to enter their homework
on a networked calculator. Jan uses a free-form five-question
skeleton set for collecting homework. Every day she identifies
five of the previous nights homework problems on the board.
She uses a free text binning because of its simplicity and manually
checks exceptions as they come in. Five minutes after the start
of class she knows who did their homework, who had problems,
& what these are. She will deal with them before moving onto
Sandhills Community College, Pinehurst, North Carolina -
Profs. Rick Swanson & Chris Roddy run
a class/lab of 20 students. They intersperse lecture with questions,
measurements, & discussion that can go in different directions
depending on students understanding. Students have TI-92s
which they use to take data or plug into the CCS network. Swanson
& Roddy cite a noticeably more positive classroom environment
and students like knowing how theyre doing compared to
others, in a non-threatening environment. Test scores have gone
University of Texas at El Paso, Political Science
Prof. Bob Webking teaches a 550 student class
in Political Science in the poorest congressional district in
the USA. As he pauses to ask a question one can hear a pin drop
in the lecture hall. He uses a CCS to have students express their
initial "common-sense" opinions. Then, through continued
questioning he leads them to see pitfalls that can result from
naïve points of view, points of view to which the students
are already aware that they are subject.
McIntosh Elementary School, Newport News, Virginia, 5th
Grade Reading Comprehension
Carol Wiatt is a 5th grade reading
teacher at a school attended by children from economically disadvantaged
families. She uses a CCS to have students input their interpretations
of a reading exercise. She shows them the histogram on a TV screen
and holds a class discussion about the different answers. On
other days they answer puzzles. Students get so involved they
barely realize that theyre reading the puzzles. At the
beginning of the 96-97 school year only 56% of children from
her three 5th grade classes were expected to pass
the state-mandated reading comprehension test. At the end of
the year 89% passed with over 30% of the students growing 5 years
(2nd to 7th grade level) in reading comprehension.
There appear to be three clear lessons from
- Good questions asked in the right context
have a remarkable property to transform a classroom. The environment
becomes more lively and active. The atmosphere changes and becomes
more "happy"! Students report that they understand
the subject better which is confirmed by quantitative studies.
They work harder in class, but enjoy it more. There is also evidence
that they do more work out of class. Teachers become more aware
of student problems with the subject matter.
- The benefits of a classroom communication
system (CCS) extend over a remarkable range of disciplines, educational
levels, and institutions. From 5th grade reading in
an inner-city to Harvard Business School, is quite a range. Currently
(to our knowledge) the disciplines included are physics, chemistry,
math, biology, sociology, economics, political science, &
- From a mathematics perspective, the pedagogy
dovetails remarkably well with the discovery-based learning &
exploration techniques pioneered with computer & calculator
graphing and computer symbolic manipulation. These techniques
are often associated with questions that encourage divergent
thinking. In the math classroom, a CCS gives the added power
to encourage convergent thinking by all students.
But the work is only in its infancy, there
is much to do!
- Hestenes, David O., "Wherefore a Science
of Teaching?", The Physics Teacher, 17, 235-242,
- Jaworski, Barbara., "Constructivism
and Teaching The Socio-Cultural Context", Oxford
University, Dept. of Educ. Studies, Seminar given to the Mathematics
Teaching and Learning Enquiry Group, Manchester, U.K. January,
- von Glasersfeld E. "Learning as a Constructive
Activity". In C. Janvier (Ed) Problems of representation
in the teaching and learning of mathematics. Lawrence Erlbaum,
Hillslade, NJ., 1987.
- Larkin, J.H., McDermott, J., Simon, D.P.,
& Simon, H.A., "Expert and Novice Performance in Solving
Physics Problems," Science 208, 1335-1342, 1980.
- Bonwell, Charles C., & Eison, James A.,
"Creating Excitement in the Classroom", ASHE-ERIC
Higher Education Report No.1, Washington, D.C., The George Washington
Univ. School of Educ. & Human Development, 1991.
- Hake, R.R., "Interactive-engagement
vs Traditional Methods: A Six-Thousand Student Survey of Mechanics
Test Data for Introductory Physics Courses", American
Journal of Physics, 1996.
- Waits, Bert K., & Demanna, Franklin,
in "Teaching & Learning Mathematics in the 1990s, NCTM
Yearbook - 1990.
- Hughes-Hallett, Deborah et al, in "Calculus",
textbook produced by the Consortium based at Harvard,
pub. John Wiley & Sons. - 1996
- Mazur, Eric, "Peer Instruction -
A Users Manual", book published by Prentice Hall,
- Dufresne, R.J., Gerace, W.J., Leonard, W.J.,
Mestre, J.P., and Wenk, L., "Classtalk: A Classroom Communication
System for Active Learning, Journal of Computing in Higher
Education, 7, 3-47, 1996.