Conceptual Understanding Procedure (CUP)

Follow the links to explore this resource for classroom teaching

What is a CUP?

A Conceptual Understanding Procedure, or CUP, is a teaching procedure designed to aid development of understanding of concepts that students find difficult. They have been developed in a physics context but could be equally designed for other areas of study such as chemistry, mathematics or biology.

They are constructivist in approach, i.e.they are based on the belief that students construct their own understanding of concepts by expanding or modifying their existing views. The procedure also reinforces the value of cooperative learning and encouragesthe individual student to play ís an active role in their own learning.

CUPs are set in real-world rather than idealised situations. For example, in the study of motion, students are expected to qualitativelyconsider the friction between objects moving relative to one another, air resistance, and energy losses to the surroundings, etc. rather than assume they are working in an idealised situation that models friction as negligible. CUPs were developed in 1996 by Pam Mulhalland Brian McKittrickfrom the Faculty of Education, and David Millsand Susan Feterisof the Department of Physics, (now School of Physics) at Monash University).

Student Worksheets for CUPs

Master copies of both A4 and A3 sheets are provided in Adobe Acrobat format. (The Acrobat Reader is available free on the Web.) These are suitable for senior high school and first year university/college.

Title Worksheet Master Concepts targeted
1. Driving to Hilary's A4 sheet, A3 sheet Displacement, velocity and acceleration in 1-D.
2. Throwing a hockey ball A4 sheet, A3 sheet Velocity and acceleration during vertical flight.
3. Hitting a golf ball A4 sheet, A3 sheet Action/reaction pairs (Newton's third law). Dependence of motion on net force.
4. Dropping a golf ball and a foam ball A4 sheet, A3 sheet Forces acting on falling objects.
5. Forces on a can of peaches A4 sheet, A3 sheet Forces on an object resting on a surface.
6. Swinging the billy can A4 sheet, A3 sheet Forces on an object moving in a vertical circle.
7. Rudolph's trouble with Newton's third law A4 sheet, A3 sheet The motion of an object depends on the net force on the object.
8. Hot stuff A4 sheet, A3 sheet Heating and temperature change.
9. What is the current? A4 sheet, A3 sheet The current in basic series and parallel circuits.
10. What is the reading on the voltmeter? A4 sheet, A3 sheet The potential difference voltage between points in basic series and parallel circuits.
11. Energy of a soccer ball in flight A4 sheet, A3 sheet Conservation of energy.
12. Momentum and in to traffic accidents A4 sheet, A3 sheet Conservation of momentum.
13. Where did the light go? A4 sheet, A3 sheet Reflection and refraction at an interface

What does a CUP consist of?

The procedure involves students exploring a qualitative question requiring an answer in a diagrammatic form. It has three distinct stages:

  • Individual analysis
    Each student thinks about their response to the question on an A4 sheet
  • Peer analysis in Triplets
    In groups of three, students discuss their responses and try to reach consensus. The group response is shown on an enlarged version of the question printed on an A3 sheet.
  • Whole class analysis
    The A3 sheets from each group are displayed so the whole class can view them. The teacher facilitates a whole class discussion in which groups explain/ defend/ modify their responses, the aim being to reach a whole class consensus.

How do I use a CUP?

The links below have been designed to address this question

  • A step-by-step guide for using CUPs in your classroom (pdf 45Kb)
  • FAQs about CUPs
  • What do teachers and students say about using CUPs?
  • Related articles and websites


  • What is the most demanding part of using CUPs?
  • What if my students don’t reach consensus by the end of the session?
  • What if my class reaches consensus but they’re wrong?
  • How do I overcome the temptation to just tell them the ‘right’ answer?
  • Won’t my students find it embarrassing having to explain their group’s response to the whole class?
  • Why not skip the working alone phase and start with the small groups?
  • Won’t it take too long for students to learn this way?
  • Why do you suggest three as the small-group size?

What is the most demanding part of using CUPs?

Most teachers find the third stage, the interpretive discussion, to be the most challenging. You need to facilitate the student discussion of the understandings shown on the A3 sheets rather than simplytelling them the scientific view. The potential for developing a strong conceptual understanding is more likely to be realised when students have had a chance to grapple with the range of ideas in the class. This requiresthe teacher to relinquish familiar techniques of leading students straight to the accepted scientific view by word or even body language.

A second challenging stage occurs when you put up all the A3s and wonder “What I am going to do with such a range of ideas?” Two suggestions:

  • As essential preparation before the CUP session, spend some time thinking of the correct and incorrect conceptions you think students are likely to present.
  • As you move around during their small-group discussions, observe the similarities and differences they are recording on their A3s.

What if my students don’t reach consensus by the end of the session?

In such a case, students will probably leave the class dissatisfied unless you provide some reassurance. Summarise the stage reached, e.g. “We haven’t reached agreement.That’s OK. You’re at the stage where four groups think … and the other groups think … Think a bit more about it before our next class, where we’ll complete the discussion.”

What if my class reaches consensus but they’re wrong?

As designers of CUPs, we have never heard of a whole classreaching an incorrect consensus, though of course it is possible. In that case, rather than just telling the class they’re wrong and giving them the accepted scientific view, you may need to devise otherstrategies, e.g.

  • throw in an idea, with which they would probably agree but which challenges their incorrect view they have reached,
  • show a relatively straightforward demonstration which might advance their thinking,
  • do some direct teaching that addresses, in a different situation, the concepts that are the stumbling block in the CUP.
The time students have already invested in thinking about the CUP exercise means they are likely to be highly receptive to approaches that promote alternative ways of engaging with the concepts involved.

How do I overcome the temptation to just tell them the ‘right’ answer?

Some examples of approaches you could use to help them continue to think about their understanding of the situation:

  • “Karen said that the graph here should be horizontal, but Daniel, your group has it sloping down. Could you tell us your reasoning?”
  • “Afsheen, your group’s first ammeter pointer is further to the right that your second pointer. Could one of you explain why?”
  • “Four groups have the FBAarrow downwards, but the other groups have it upwards. Sue, why does your group have it downwards?”
  • “They’re wrong, are they? Could you explain why you think that, Vinh?”
  • “Greg, you just said you’ve changed your mind. Could you tell us why?”

Won’t my students find it embarrassing having to explain their group’s response to the whole class?

Some more timid students will. Teachers using CUPs report this occurs much less than they expected, probably due to the students supporting the ideas of their group, not just their own. Also it is important to encourage an atmosphereof trust where all contributions are listened to and respected with you, as teacher, setting the example here.

Why not skip the working alone phase and start with the small groups?

It is essential that students have time aloneto consider their understanding of the situation presented so that subsequent learning addresses their initial conceptions.

Won’t it take too long for students to learn this way?

While CUPs employ valuable learning procedures that you probably use on other occasions, it is envisaged that CUPs would be used only occasionally, as they take 50 to 60 minutes normally. However, teachers using CUPs tend to say the time is well spent as the students modify many incorrect conceptions. The majority find theexercise challenging and enjoyable.

Why do you suggest three as the small-group size?

Research suggests that three is the optimum size for effective, engaged small-group discussion. Where the class size is not a multiple of three, four is preferable to two. Researchers also found that involvement increases when the group is of mixed ability and for female students where there are at least two female students in the triplet group.

What do teachers and students say about CUPs

These quotes were gathered during research into the use of CUPs at senior high school and first year university level. T indicates teachers and S students.

  • Working alone ( individual phase )

    S: Normally when we get asked something most people don’t think about it. They just say “We don’t know” and you just get told by the teacher, but in CUPs you’ve got time to think about it.

    T: One of the best parts to the CUP format was that the students had time to sit down individually and sort out what they were thinking before I led them to a discussion, and that allowed real insight.

  • Working in small groups (triplet phase)

    S: If we were just one big group then I’m sure some people just wouldn’t say anything. With the triplets you had to say something.

  • Whole-class interpretive discussion

    S: When you were in the whole-class discussion it’s not intimidating because it’s not just you because it’s a combined opinion on your A3.

    T: I reckon you get a really good insight into what they’re thinking. … All sorts of kids [contributing] that don’t normally… It’s quite a non-threatening sort of process.

    T: Normal class discussion is just one way. You’re directing it whereas this way they’re telling you what they really think.

    T: I don’t think it hurts to have a touch of confusion. You often learn best, don’t you, when you realise there’s something not quite right here!

  • Engaged active learning by the students

    S: Everyone usually got their say about what they thought was right … You had to understand it a bit better to be able to answer questions people asked you.

    S: Yeah, you had to actually thinkin class (laughs)!

    S: That’s the hardest I’ve had to think in any subject this year [this was two-thirds through the academic year] and it was great.

    S: You get different ideas. … Whereas if you just get told it and write it down … you feel “Yeah, sure, whatever.”

    T: You actually got to hear what the kids were thinking, whereas in a normal class discussion you leap on the first person that says something right, whereas in this you heard all those misconceptions. I found it really valuable to hear those things that they were thinking that I’d forgotten they would think, because I don’t think like that any more.

    T: Seeing them get that passionate about a discussion in physics was good.

  • Trusting atmosphere

    T: There was a sort of intimacy in the whole-class discussion. All the different [students contributing] … and obviously not threatened about it, and also enjoying it.

    T: The second CUP was easier because they knew there wasn’t going to be that embarrassing feeling of “I’m going to be put on the spot; I’m going to be laughed at.”

  • Enabling formative assessment

    T: For me the CUPs were very important in a formative sense of trying to … determine where … the greatest needs lie and how … to adjust my classes overthe next few weeks to address some of those needs. And … recognising where the shortfalls were in … kids’ understanding of problems.

  • Enjoyment

    T: I was delighted, absolutely delighted! At recess they were still going, no one moved.

    T: At the end of the class they did not want to leave until they had the right answer.

  • Challenges for the teacher

    T: Not telling them the right answer!

    T: Thinking on your feet when you put all the A3 sheets up, “What am I going to do with all this variation?”

    T: [From using CUPs] I became very much more aware that normally you’re forcing your agenda on the kids, so ou’ve got to try to avoid that, that’s the hardest thing.

Relevant articles and websites

  • Mulhall, P., & McKittrick, B. (2010). Using discussion to improve students’ understanding of electric circuits. Lab Talk, 54(3), 17-22.
  • Gunstone, R., McKittrick, B., & Mulhall, P. (1999). Structured cognitive discussions inn senior high school physics: Student and teacher perceptions. Research in Science Education, 29(4), 527-546.
  • McKittrick, B., Mulhall, P., & Gunstone, R. (1999). Improving understanding in physics: in effective teaching procedure. Australian Science Teachers' Journal, 45(3), 27-33.
  • Mills, D., McKittrick, B., Mulhall, P., & Feteris, S. (1999). CUP: Cooperative learning that works. Physics Education, 34(1), 11-16.
  • A comprehensive website on ‘alternative conceptions’ with other useful related links at the Australian Institute of Physics (Victoria) Education Committee’s website:

Who to contact about CUPs?

For further informationabout CUPs contact Pam Mulhall.