Classtalk and the Learning Cycle

by Prof. Dean Zollman, Dept. of Physics Education, Kansas State University

Almost twenty years ago I developed a physics course for future elementary school teachers. In the development process. Because of financial constraints I needed to teach a large number of students in a single section. Yet, I wanted a highly interactive course based on the Learning Cycle. The idea was to provide some way for the students to perform Learning Cycles within a large class setting.

My students start each cycle with a "self-paced" exploration. Self-paced is in quotes because they schedule their own time to complete the exploration, but, if they do not turn it in before class starts, they do not receive credit for it. They go into a room which has a number of experiments -- very similar to desktop experiments except in a laboratory environment. We work on a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule so the explorations are available after class on Monday and must be completed before class on Wednesday. Then, in class on Wednesday the whole group meets. We introduce a new concept, but we always start with questions related to what they observed and learned in the exploration.
In the early days I would just ask the questions in the large class setting. Sometimes I would ask open-ended questions to which some students responded; in other cases I asked for a show of hands. As is usually the case only a fraction of the students participated fully. I still start Wednesday's class with, "Any questions about the exploration?" Usually there are none, even though I know that the students should have some. So, I use Classtalk as the means of communication. I pose questions about the explorations. For example, when we first begin the study of interactions and momentum, I pose the questions:

What types of changes did you see in the exploration? Type in a word of two to describe the quantities that changed.

Was speed conserved in every interaction that you saw in the exploration?
A. Yes
B. No
C. I think so but I am not sure
D. I think not but I am not sure
E. I don't know.

For open-ended questions such as the first one above, I have attempted to set up bins with the words that I expect. However, that approach does not work well for an exploration. The students do not have a physics vocabulary, so many interesting answers use words I am unable to anticipate. So, I scan the answers as they come in. I am looking for commonalties in what they observed. I can then base my discussion on those answers.

The second question above is more specific. However, I wish to emphasize that I am not "testing" them, but trying to find out what they observed. I could use the question template with a confidence rating for this, but I find that my students prefer the format above where "I don't know" is an explicit response.

While the students are responding to the questions, I walk around the room. Frequently, students will ask me questions about the explorations as I walk by. They are unwilling to "look stupid" and ask the question aloud. I learn much about what I need to discuss from these one-on-one interactions during the feedback period.

The combination of the exploration experience and the feedback, creates a discussion atmosphere for the activities even though we're meeting in a room that holds 100 people. After the discussion and the introduction of new concepts we move on to a self-paced application which is due by class on Friday.

This class always starts with questions about the application. Again, the standard, "Do you have any questions?" almost never stimulates a question. So, I prepare more specific questions by watching the students complete the application. By seeing what is causing them difficulty, I compose questions that I can ask via Classtalk. For momentum conservation, one of the activities involves placing a spring-loaded cart against a pillar and releasing the spring. The question is:

Is momentum conserved in the activity where the cart interacted with the pillar?
A. Yes
B. No
C. I think so but I am not sure
D. I think not but I am not sure
E. I don't know

This question usually has a large number of "I think so " and "I don't know." So I then ask similar questions about a cart of small mass "exploding" away from a cart which has a mass that we increased during the application activity. This procedure helps students to connect the various parts of the application better than they have so far. Further, it gets them talking to each other about applying what they have learned.

When I teach smaller enrollment classes in the Learning Cycle mode, I can, of course, get discussion involving the whole class going much more easily. However, I still use Classtalk in a mode similar to the one discussed here. The technology assures me that everyone provides an answer and everyone is thinking about the topic at the same time.


Robert Karplus, "Science Teaching and the Development of Reasoning," Journal of Research in. Science Teaching 14, 169-175 (1977).

Dean Zollman, "Learning Cycles in a Large Enrollment Class," The Physics Teacher 28, 20-25 (1990). 2. Dean Zollman, "Preparing Future Science Teachers: The Physics Component of a New Programme", Physics Education 29, 271-275 (1994).


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