PI project: discussion forum patterns

by Paul Maharg on 05/05/2005

Been thinking more about the discussion forum exchange with the student, Sarah (name anonymised) I talk about in the Dublin paper.  This exchange between Sarah and myself is interesting because it doesn’t conform to the usual pattern of tutor-student communication.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what usually happens.  The classic modality of classroom exchange between teacher and student is that of iniitiation, response and follow-up (IRF).  Sinclair and Coulthard (1975), for instance, commented upon its use by teachers who initiate an exchange by questioning a student or the whole class.  One or more respond, and the response is taken up and elaborated in various ways by the teacher, either by follow-up or evaluation (IRE – see also Mehan 1979, Wegerif 2004)).  As Sinclair and Couthard observed, in such exchanges teachers rarely ask what we might regard as genuine questions that seek knowledge – what they are trying to do is to start dialogue or test student knowledge.  The rhetorical exchange has other characteristics.  It enables teachers to control the pattern of interaction with the class, and ensures that classroom talk is organised along strongly teacher-centred lines, as Edwards & Mercer pointed out (1987).  This can have the side-effect that teachers cannot clearly discern the pattern of student communications, which might appear beside the point or desultory in comparison to the rhetorical strength of the IRF model (Lemke 1990). 

We need to see IRF in the context of purpose and communicational structure: what are students required to do?  What do they perceive that they need to do, and to what purpose?  The IRF can be a useful tool of exchange, where close analysis requires tutors to lead, but it can also lead to authoritative interactions that stifle student peer-to-peer interactions (Land & Hannafin, 2000).  Wells has pointed out that students can control the interaction by literally seizing the initiative in the IRF (1993). 

If we examine the exchanges between students & Charlie and me on the PI discussion forum we discover quite a different mode of interaction.  Almost none of them are initiated by tutors: students raise the issues.  The agenda belongs to them.  The questions are genuine: they are seeking knowledge that they cannot obtain elsewhere.  Sarah, for instance, is seeking information about medical mandates that she can’t find elsewhere.  Her question arises out of a problem she can’t solve, even by checking through the archive of previous years’ forums.  It is the tutor who responds, with genuine information.  It’s notable that there are not many follow-ups: either the question has been answered clearly, or else there are subsidiary issues that are raised in students’ minds and they too need answered.  It is the issues arising from a transaction that are the focus of discussion, not the tutor’s initiating question. 

IRF has therefore been reversed, and this is true of most transactional learning environments, where there is genuine information exchange unmediated by tutors.  Nor should this be surprising: as Ravenscroft pointed out (2000) students make best use of the web’s capacity for information and communication when they interacted through collaborative environments that had been designed for that purpose.  And as Rasmussen et al pointed out, often IRF will have only a ‘limited value for the goal of understanding how and what the students learn’ (848, 2003)


Edwards, D., Mercer, N. (1987) Common Knowledge: The Development of Understanding in the Classroom, London, Methuen, Routledge

Land, S.M., Hannafin, M.J. (2000) Student-centred learning environments, in Jonassen, D.H., Land, S.M. (eds), Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments, 1-25, Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Lemke, J.L. (1990) Talking Science: Language, Learning and Values, Norwood, NJ, Ablex PublishersMehan, H. (1979) Learning Lessons, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press

Rasmussen, I., Krange, I., Ludvigsen, S.R. (2003) The process of understanding the task: how is agency distributed between students, teachers and representations in technology-rich learning environments?, International Journal of Educational Research, 39, 839-849

Ravenscroft, A. (2000) Designing argumentation for conceptual development, Computers in Education, 34, 241-55

Sinclair, J. McH, Coulthard, R.M. (1975) Towards an Analysis of Discourse: the English Used by Teachers and Pupils, London, OUP

Wegerif, R. (2004) The role of educational software in teaching and learning conversations, Computers and Education,

Wells, G. (1993) Re-evaluating the IRF sequence: a propsal for the articulation of theories of activity and discourse for the analysis of teaching and learning in the classroom, Linguistics and Education 5,1-37

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