Speaker’s Notes for --


"Applying Principles of Conversation Analysis

to the Facilitation of Student-Participation in Classroom Discussions",

A Talk by Dr Eric Miller


TLC Day 2012, First Anniversary of the Teaching and Learning Center, Thursday 23 August,

Multi-purpose Hall, Central Library



We want students to apply themselves, engage, discuss, think, question, imagine.  The question remains: how exactly to do this?


A class of students could be divided into groups of 2, 3, 4, or 5.  Students in each group could be requested to


Attempt to solve a problem / question / puzzle (it might be best if there might be multiple

possible solutions).  Make a list of possible answers, solutions, approaches.


Discuss their reactions to something that has been presented to them.


Discuss a case study.  Discuss ways in which a particular challenge was, or might be, handled.


Discuss how a goal was achieved, a process was done, or a challenge was overcome.  People like having examples to follow and/or improve upon.


Tell stories to each other (personal-experience, historical, news, imaginary, etc, stories).


Role-play characters in a situation (act-out an episode of a story).


Teach each other about something, or how to do something, etc.  This facilitates students absorbing, digesting, thinking through, and “owning” material.


Think silently for a minute (reactions, suggestions, etc) relating to material that has been presented to them.  Then share thoughts -- with a partner, or with the entire group.


Write a one-minute-paper (reactions, suggestions, etc) relating to material that has been presented to them.  Then share thoughts -- with members of a small group, or with the entire group.




Conversation Analysis.  What is Conversation Analysis?


“Arising within Sociology, Conversation Analysis (CA) emerged from the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ that swept across the social sciences in the 1960s, and placed a new emphasis on participants' orientation to indigenous social and cultural constructs.  CA seeks to describe the underlying social organisation -- conceived as an institutionalised substratum of interactional rules, procedures, and conventions -- through which orderly and intelligible social interaction is made possible” (Goodwin and Heritage 1990, p 283).


The World Wide Web, the Internet Network, Social Media, etc, did not exist in the 60s -- but this paradigm shift laid the intellectual groundwork for the eventual pervasiveness of these networks.


Socio-Linguistic Moment -- 60s and 70s.

Paradigm Shift, from Communication as a top-down, one-to-many announcement (broadcast, publication), to Communication as an interactive social event (the receiver of a message must signal reception and give other feedback before a Communication event can be considered complete).


From teacher-centric, to student-centric.

From study and design of Teaching methods, to study and design of Teaching-and-Learning methods.


Extend a conversation.


Change the subject.  Make a bid for a new topic.  If others might support that bid and go along with it, adopt it and extend it, then it is a successful bid.  If no one accepts, joins, and follows up regarding the suggested addition to the conversation -- then the bid sinks, fails, does not go anywhere, is a dead end.


Follow-up on a subject.


Return to a subject.


Boring -- repetition, irrelevant  (not relevant) (to the main point, to oneself).  Does not add anything new to the discussion.


He's all over the place.  What he is saying is beside the point.  He's missed the point.  He doesn’t get it.


Meta-communication -- when we talk about communication.


Conversation repair -- self-righting mechanism in social interaction -- apologising for speaking out of turn, cutting someone else off, taking someone's else's turn, jumping in without the previous speaker's permission.



In a conversation, you have to build your sentence phrase by phrase, monitoring the reaction of your listener, while aiming for relevance to the question.


One way that conversation proceeds is: questions, then answers.


How to become famous?  Engage in, join, a discussion that has already begun.  Challenge -- disagree with -- something a famous person has said.  Continue working on the same problem.  Build on past work, even (or especially) if this involves objecting to aspects of it.


What are some qualities of a good conversationalist?  Witty.  Makes unexpected connections.


"One contribution of Conversation Analysis is the concept of the adjacency pair. An adjacency pair is composed of two turns produced by different speakers which are placed adjacently (one is given, and the second follows immediately). The second utterance is identified as related to the first.


Adjacency pairs include such exchanges as QUESTION/answer, COMPLAINT/response (denial, apology, etc), OFFER/response (acceptance, refusal, etc), REQUEST/response (agreement, denial, etc), COMPLIMENT/response ("Thank you", etc), CHALLENGE/response, INSTRUCTION/response, etc


A basic adjacency pair is statement / ”mm”.  That is, when someone is speaking to one, one may, perhaps after each sentence, utter a sound such as "mm".  This sort of response may signal reception, understanding, and moral acceptance of the original message, and that one is ready for the next message.


One person has the floor.  Now we are opening up the floor.


Once a topic is chosen and a conversation initiated, then matters of conversational turn-taking arise. Knowing when it is acceptable or obligatory to take a turn in conversation is essential to the cooperative development of discourse. This knowledge involves such factors as knowing how to recognize appropriate turn-exchange points, and knowing how long the pauses between turns should be. It is also important to know how (and if) one may talk while someone else is talking -- that is, if conversational overlap is allowed.


All conversations do not follow the same rules for turn-taking, so it is necessary to know and respect the rules that apply in each situation.


One may at times need to "repair" a conversation that has been thrown off-course by an undesired overlap, or by a misunderstood or unaccepted comment.  Repair is most commonly achieved through some sort of apology by the transgressor.


(Paraphrased from: Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, American English: Dialects and Variation. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006)


Humans have a natural, organic, built-in faculty, function, of organising material (into a structure, a narrative, etc).  We like to put things together, make sense out of things.  We don’t like loose ends.




We need to design, to engineer, social situations in which the students are drawn in, and speak.


Say the first part of a sentence, and leave the end a blank.  The listener imagines an end, and if requested, might offer it.


Take advantage of, utilise, activate, the listeners’ natural mind processes, to complete a sentence begun by the speaker, and/or to organise material presented by the speaker.


It is actually a problem of alienation -- instructors and students alienated from each other.


Ways of Achieving Student Participation in the Classroom.


With student involvement and engagement.




Channel student tendency to talk with his neighbor (informal, one-to-one, colloquial dialect, short-hand, contractions) (this is disruptive to the instructor and to the group), to group discussion (formal, standard English -- one may be judged regarding one's linguistic and intellectual competence, seriousness) this contributes to the group).


Self-discipline.  Compassion for all in the group (especially for the Instructor).  Takes responsibility for the group process -- as opposed to being self-centered and clique-ish. 


Group Psychology, Dynamics of Small Groups.  Pairs tend to form, and this detracts from the group unity if left untended -- one needs to draw the pair-mates to share themselves and each other -- to share their group -- with the entire group.


A leader, remarkable, outstanding, extraordinary, unique, one-of-a-kind, out-of-the-box, unusual, different, odd, strange, un-heard-of, shocking, bizarre, an aberration, an outcast.


Pairs form -- and they can be a resource for the group, or a threat to the group.  Through mutual admiration and support, pair-members may suddenly seem to have a higher level of social status, power, and authority, as compared to solitary, un-affiliated, and independent group members.


When forming groups of 2 -- let people share with person sitting next to them (most comfortable, highest comfort level); or some other method, by which people are forced to go out into the worked and interact with new and formerly distant people.


In groups of 3 -- 2 may talk to each other, and the other 1 may observe them talking.




Try a variety of social and physical configurations.


Have students 1) think it, 2) write it, 3) tell it to one other student, 4) tell it to the group.


Students need to believe their input is wanted, and that they will be safe, as conversation participants in the classroom.  Does the Instructor really value input from students?


Outsource to students, delegate to students


A speaker should ask for questions and comments.  If s/he only only asks for questions, s/he is not allowing listeners to bring up new subjects and add to the agenda.




Bookend Lectures: Faculty members can insert short interactive sessions after every 10-20 minutes of lecture.


Pioneered by Jeffrey Froyd and others. the change as a move from an ―Instruction Paradigm in which universities delivered instruction to students (faculty expose students to knowledge) to a Learning Paradigm (in which universities produce learning through student discovery and construction of knowledge.)


Bookend -- an imperfect metaphor.  What we want is Lecture - Small-Group-Activity - Entire-Group-Discussion (to process and integrate what has happened).


Cycle -- lecture-activity-discussion

Lecture.  Small-group activity.  Entire-group discussion.


Open Questions have no correct/incorrect answers, such as,

"What do you remember about what has been presented so far?"

"What did you feel/think about the material, and how it was presented?

"What did you like/dislike about the above?" 

‘Might you suggest any changes?"

"if you might have made the presentation, is there anything you might have done differently?"

If a story might have been involved --

“Do you feel the story shows any positive behaviour?” (That we should seek to imitate). 

“Do you feel the story shows any negative behaviour?” (That we should seek to avoid). 

"Might there be something about the story that you might like to change?”

"What messages, morals, and meanings do you get from the story?"

(Encourage each listener to formulate this for him/herself).




Best students are those who seek to connect the dots -- how today’s lesson relates to yesterday’s lesson, and to everything else he/she has learned up to this point.




Linguistic (professor, instructor, lecturer) and physical insfra-structure are resistant to the shift to flexibility and collaboration (between students, and between faculty and students).  In the new paradigm, the faculty is a facilitator.  “We do not teach students what to think, we teach them how to think”.  Helping students to find themselves, to find their own voices.


Not participating in a conversation.  Alienated.


“Passive-aggressive” means being aggressive by being passive.  Being silent, with holding oneself, can be a way of expressing anger.  “Giving the cold shoulder”.  Turning down an invitation.  Giving the brush-off.  Refusing to talk, refusing to play.


New contract, new rules to the relationship.  New duties, responsibilities, risks, opportunities.




Students yearn for assignments, tasks, that are manageable.


Challenging -- but they should have a sense of knowing what needs to be done, and how to do it.  They must feel equipped and prepared -- with the necessary skills, tools, and know-how.  They want to apply themselves.  The trick of giving training is to give lessons in manageable tasks -- not too easy, not out-of-reach.  Let the student experience a sense of achievement -- and then build on that with a connected lesson which extends and develops it.


So the task, the process, needs to be broken down into comfortable components


If it is too big, or general, abstract, they do not know where to begin.  They can not get into it


it should be small, and they should have been presented with examples of way in which it could be done.  then they can grow into the task comfortably.


Connection, building, relevance. 


Questions that need to be answered include:

Where is this going?  How is this connected to that?  What’s the point?  What’s the use?




Story and storytelling


Another form of interactivity -- through imagination, projection, identification, empathy, imitation.


Stories --

Case studies -- of problems and solutions.

Life Stories of great people in one's field (inventors, etc).


Listeners might complete a story in their imaginations.

Different possible endings.

If you were in that position, situation, what would you do?


Case studies.

How were important discoveries made?

How were important products brought to market?

What decisions and actions along the way led to success?


Enable the students to experience the situations faced by great thinkers and doers.  Let students experience the thought processes of these great figures.  Tell the story of how discoveries and inventions have been made.  This can be inspirational and also can give students ideas about what pitfalls to avoid when attacking a problem, and what possible avenues to take.


Bring into play the issues, the factors involved.


Use role-play and other techniques to help students project themselves into situations -- use imagination, projection, critical-reasoning


What were the problems, dead-ends, and breakthroughs along the way?


What was an important discovery?  What led to this discovery?  What were some of the frustrations along the way, and how were they overcome?




Stay focused, stay on track, stay on task.  But sometimes it is best to let one’s mind wander.




We must get away from, get beyond the idea that student input functions to put the instructor down (“doubts”, “comments”).  The fear that comments are inherently negative.  The idea that student contribution would be doubts -- not being convinced of the validity, truth, or importance of what the instructor is saying.  Must get beyond an adversarial relationship between instructor and student, beyond hierarchy, competition, Freudian strife between father and son (both ready to kill each other to win the mother for themselves.


Fox invites stork for soup -- flat bowls.  Stork invites fox -- high, narrow cups.  Each system, technology, utensil is designed to frustrate the other party.


Remember.  Observe.  Question.  Imagine.  ROQI.


Articulation, pronunciation, enunciation.


What exactly do you want to teach to the students in a particular lesson?


Pattern recognition.




Methods for generating discussion in the classroom.


How to tap the creative and critical-reasoning powers of students?

How to get them involved?  How to get them to contribute their input to a discussion.


How to lead a guided discussion in the classroom?

How engage students in conversation in the classroom?

Interactivity in the classroom.

Interactive, Collaborative, and Participatory Teaching-and-Learning


“We do not teach students what to think.  We teach them how to think.”

"Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand."


Critical reasoning.  Figuring out what questions to ask in relation to a situation, problem, issue -- the questions are mmuch more important than the possible answers.


We do not give a person vegetables, we teach him how to grow vegetables (and help to equip him with the needed apparatus for the process).


How to problem-solve and trouble-shoot.  How to ask questions that will lead to important, significant, and useful answers.  How to think inside and outside the box, to approach a problem from every possible angle, in the process of discovering or creating useful solutions to that problem, question, and challenge.


Two types of questions are: 1) those that call for answers that are true/false, correct/incorrect (including multiple choice) (Closed Questions); and 2) those that call for students to express thoughts, feelings, and opinions (Open Questions).




Interactive Classroom.

Active Learning.

Cooperative Learning.

Collaborative Learning.

Question-directed Instruction.

Problem-based Learning.

Inquiry-based Learning.

Inquiry-guided Learning.

Peer-led Team Learning.

Peer Instruction.

Team-based Learning.

Small-group Learning.

Student-centered Learning

Project-based Learning.





Involve the students’ entire self -- the verbo-motor mechanism, ad the self as a member of a community.


"Our goal is for students to be able to apply the knowledge that they gained in their previous biology courses to complex current problems.


Creates personal experiences.


In a learner-centered learning environment, learners are treated as co-creators in the learning process, as individuals with ideas and issues that deserve attention and consideration.


In Problem-based Learning, the primary role of an instructor is to facilitate group process and learning -- not to provide easy answers. By relinquishing the control of answers, instructors are able to learn with students, and they often find renewed interest and excitement in teaching. The challenge in teaching a Problem-based Learning model is creating strong problems that lead students to realize the intended course learning outcomes.




Benefits of active learning.

But -- how to do active learning?

Students come to own the material, digest it, take responsibility for it.

A good way to learn a subject is to teach it to someone else.


What are some reasons teachers and learners do not practice active learning?

What are some dangers of active learning?


Needed: examples of active learning.


One does not teach a class, one teaches students.

One does not speak to an audience, one speaks to individuals who are temporarily sitting together.




Are there any doubts?  We want investigation, delving, searching, seeking, questioning -- even though this may be embarrassing to authority figures at times.


We must have been so clear that there are no doubts.


How to unlock, unleash, open the floodgates?


Participation.  Involvement.


As teachers, we have all had the experience of presenting ideas and information, and then the students do not speak.  No questions, no comments, no doubts.


One problem is the very conceptualising what a student’s participation might be: if it is the expression of a doubt, this might be seen as a negative criticism of the instructor, an implication that what he instructor has presented was unclear, incomplete, or flawed in some other way.




We Instructors are all familiar with the frustrating experience of speaking to a class and then asking for questions and comments -- and receiving silence. It is a given that when students participate in classroom discussions guided by the Instructor, students learn more. However, the problem remains: how can one get students to engage with the material and discuss it in class? Possible answers to this question may involve the study of “Conversation Analysis” -- a field of Socio-linguistics, within Discourse Analysis, concerning ways in which people start and end conversations, introduce new subjects, claim relevance of new ideas, take turns, etc. In this interactive talk, numerous specific methods of drawing listeners into discussion of the material being presented would be introduced, demonstrated, and discussed.



Dr. Eric Miller teaches in IIT-M's Dept of Humanities and Social Sciences. He teaches subjects such as Literature, Drama, Public Speaking, Interactive Telecommunication (especially Videoconferencing), and Folklore. His PhD is in Folklore, from the University of Pennsylvania (the discipline of Folklore is a subset of Cultural Anthropology that focuses on traditions, and on how these traditions are evolving in the present). Dr Eric is a scholar of story (narrative) and storytelling, and studies storytelling traditions from around the world as they occur in performance, ritual, everyday conversation, and other contexts. He is originally from NYC, and has settled in Chennai. His website is www.storytellingandvideoconferencing.com .