Interactive Communication

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The PSLC Interactive Communication cluster


The studies in the Interactive Communication deal primarily with learning environments where there are two interacting, communicating agents, one of which is the student. The other agent is typically a second student, a human tutor or a tutoring system. They communicate, either in a natural language or a formal language, such as mathematical expression or menus. We are trying to find out why such instructional, dyadic, interactive communication is sometimes highly effective and sometimes less effective. Sometimes we study highly constrained forms of communication in order to vary isolated aspects, and sometimes we compare whole forms of communciation. Our hypothesis is simply that interactive communication is effective if it introduces the right content, or it steers students to consider the right content, or it increases the effectiveness of the cognitive processes used in encoding or studying a piece of content.

Background and Significance

Instructional dialogue has mostly been studied in classrooms (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991; Leinhardt, 1990) and workplaces (e.g., Hutchins, 1995; Nunes, Schliemann & Carraher, 1993). In order to investigate more tractable albeit still complex situations, most of our work focuses on dyadic dialogues, namely dialogues between: (a) a human tutor and a human student, (b) two human students, or (c) A computer tutor and a human student. Moreover, the dialogue are task-oriented (Grosz & Sidner, 19??) in that the participants are working together on a task rather than simply conversing with no shared goals or with opposing goals.

Given that many studies of the structure of dyadic instructional dialogue exist (e.g., Fox, 1993; Graesser, Person & Magliano, 1995; MacArthur, Stasz, & Zmuidzinas, 1990), we are focusing on what properties of interactive communication promote robust learning. Earlier studies (e.g., VanLehn, Graesser et al., in press; Katz, Connelly & Allbritton, 2003; Evens & Michael, 2006; Cohen, Kulik & Kulik, 1982) found surprisingly mixed results. Although most studies showed that interactive communication was more effective than less interactive instruction, it was not always better. Thus, the next step in this important line of research is to determine when different types of interactive communication are effective and why.


See Interactive Communication Glossary

To be developed, but will probably include:

  • Agent: Something that can perform the instructional activity. Typically a student, a tutor, a tutoring system or a simulated student. In the extreme case, an agent can be a passive medium, such as text or a video, that presents a performance of the activity. For instance, if the instructional activity is solving physics problems, then a worked example, such as the ones shown in a textbook, is an agent.
  • Communication.
  • Initiative. This measures the ratio of the work initiated by the two agents. A dialogue with lots of student initiative is one where the student spontaneously initiates work on the activity. A dialogue with lots of tutor initiative is one where the tutor either does the work or requests (in the speech act sense of “request”) the student to do the work. The “initiative” term comes from linguistics, whereas a synonymous distinction, learn control vs. teacher control, comes from education.
  • Zone of proximal development.

1) When instruction is laid out on a scale of difficulty from easy to hard, there is a region where the instruction is too hard for the student to learn effectively from it without help, but still just easy enough that the student can learn if given help, typically from a second agent. This region is called the zone of proximal development (ZPD), a term from developmental psychology.

2) Vygotsky (1978) maintained the child follows the adult's example and gradually develops the ability to do certain tasks without help or assistance. He called the difference between what a child can do with help and what he or she can do without guidance the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD). (sourc-North Central Regional Educational Laboratory)

3) The gap between a learner's current or actual development level determined by independent problem-solving and the learner's emerging or potential level of development.

Research question

The research problem addressed by this cluster is: What properties of interactive communication promote robust learning?


  • Some studies in the Interactive Communication cluster examine the impact on robust learning of different types of interactive communication, by contrasting two forms of interactive communication. Examples include compare scripted vs. unscripted peer collaborative problem solving.
  • Other studies compare instruction with and without specific kinds interactive communication, e.g., by having students work alone or in pairs, or comparing self-explanation done alone to dyadic, interactive explanation generation.
  • A third class of manipulation holds most of an interactive communication constant and varies only a small part of it. For instance, a video may be viewed with and without interactive prompts inserted at key points. It should perhaps be noted that, as in the physical sciences, this study-it-in-isolation strategy is risky. Just as a heart extracted from an animal doesn’t behave exactly like one that still resides in the animal, the process studied in isolation may not behave exactly like the one that occurs in interactive communication. Nonetheless, significant progress has been made in the physical sciences by using this isolation strategy, so it may help the science of learning as well.

Dependent variables

Measures of normal and robust learning.


When student engage in collaborative learning with another agent, the learning will be more robust is the manipulation either (1) introduces essential content, or (2) guides students to cover content that they would otherwise avoid, or (3) increases the effectiveness of the cognitive processes used to encode or study the content. These 3 methods are described in more detail below.


If we view a short episode of interactive communication as a learning event space, there could be three reasons why one treatment might be more effective than another:

(1) The learning event spaces might have different paths with different content. For instance, if one person contributes critical information that the other person lacks, then their joint learning event space has paths that are absent in the learning event space of the second person if that person were working solo. That is, the topology of one space might be better than the topology of the other.

(2) If the learning event spaces in the two conditions are the same, then the interactive communication treatment might cause the students to traverse different paths than the control students. That is, the path choices of one treatment might be better than the path choices of the other.

(3) If the learning event spaces are the same and the students take the same paths, they still might learn more in one condition than another because of the way that they traversed the path. For instance, having a partner observe the student as the student traverse a path might cause the student to be more attentive to details and to remember more. That is, the path effects might differ in the treatment vs. the control.


  • The self-correction of speech errors (McCormick, O’Neill & Siskin) [Was in Fluency and in Coordinative Learning]

Annotated bibliography