ergy and momentum. At some point Minstrell guides the discussion to a specific example: he drops a rock and asks students how the event can be explained using their ideas about force. He asks students to individually formulate their ideas and to draw a diagram showing the major forces on the rock as arrows, with labels to denote the cause of each force. A lengthy discussion follows in which students present their views, views that contain many irrelevant (e.g., nuclear forces) or fictitious forces (e.g., the spin of the earth, air). In his coaching, Minstrell asks students to justify their choices by asking questions, such as “How do you know?” “How did you decide?” “Why do you believe that?”
With this approach, Minstrell has been able to identify many erroneous beliefs of students that stand in the way of conceptual understanding. One example is the belief that only active agents (e.g., people) can exert forces, that passive agents (e.g., a table) cannot. Minstrell (1992) has developed a framework that helps both to make sense of students’ reasoning and to design instructional strategies. (For a related theoretical framework for classifying and explaining student reasoning, see the discussion of “phenomenological primitives” in DiSessa, 1988, 1993.) Minstrell describes identifiable pieces of students’ knowledge as “facets,” a facet being a convenient unit of thought, a piece of knowledge, or a strategy seemingly used by the student in addressing a particular situation. Facets may relate to conceptual knowledge (e.g., passive objects do not exert force), to strategic knowledge (e.g., average velocity can be determined by adding the initial and final velocities and dividing by two), or generic reasoning (e.g., the more the X, the more the Y). Identifying students’ facets, what cues them in different contexts, and how students use them in reasoning are all helpful in devising instructional strategies.
One of the obstacles to instructional innovation in large introductory science courses at the college level is the sheer number of students who are taught at one time. How does an instructor provide an active learning experience, provide feedback, accommodate different learning styles, make students’ thinking visible, and provide scaffolding and tailored instruction to meet specific student needs when facing more than 100 students at a time? Classroom communication systems can help the instructor of a large class accomplish these objectives. One such system, called Classtalk, consists of both hardware and software that allows up to four students to share an input device (e.g., a fairly inexpensive graphing calculator) to “sign on” to a classroom communication network that permits the instructor to send questions for students to work on and permits students to enter answers through their input device. Answers can then be displayed anonymously in histogram