Discussion forums & IRF / IRE

by Paul Maharg on 24/05/2006

We use discussion forums on the PI Project in the Diploma in Legal Practice (see, eg, ‘ICT and professional legal education’ under ‘Publications’).  I’ve referred to this blog posting before, but it’s interesting as an example of what can happen between student / tutor online, and how online is different from f2f. 

A student, Sarah (pseudonym), is unsure how to form a strategy for obtaining medical information about her client. She sought an answer on the forum (watching her question were around 130 other students…).  This is her posting, headed ‘Medical Records’:

We have been discussing the best way to obtain medical evidence of the injury sustainned by the claimant.  Since the accident resulted in a hospital visit, we feel that the records made by the hospital and the GP at the time of the accident would be relevant.  I notice that there has been a lot of prior discussion in past years regarding medical mandates although this seems a very detailed topic.  Would it be competent for the client to obtain copies of his medical records and simply pass them onto our firm? 

From my point of view as a facilitator, this is an interesting posting.  Sarah has obviously thought about the issue before posting to the forum.  She has scanned the archived forum, and has a sense from them of how she might proceed.  She thinks she wants to see the records, but is not entirely sure.  She is also aware that obtaining mandates, writing to hospital administrators and the like takes time and effort and understandably she wants to streamline this process; but in a way that fits with practice.  She has arrived at a solution that seems to sever the Gordian knot of information retrieval at a stroke.  But she is unsure if this is ‘competent’ on several levels: can one communicate with the client in this way?  And are students allowed to do this on the PI project?  Reading her posting, I was aware that I would need to address all these issues.

My response was as follows:

This is an interesting point, Sarah.  I’ll deal with your ingenious solution first.  It’s doubtful whether the client will be in a position (either from a medical or a legal point of view) to pass on to you the information that you’re seeking.  He’s also liable to wonder why he’s paying you to represent him when he has to visit medics, come away with records, be told that these are not quite what you were looking for, and asked to go back again for more. 

If your firm were to ask for medical records from hospital or doctor, the same general point about medical competence would apply.  Suppose that the hard-pressed admin staff in Ardcalloch Royal send you sheaves of your client’s medical records.  Which are relevant to the accident?  And are you going to be able to interpret (or even decipher) medical short-hand, scribbled notes, medical jargon, etc? 

Best to request a medical report; and for that report to be focused on specific points that you want clarified as to the nature and extent of injury, and other related matters.  And for that, your doctor or consultant will need your client’s mandate.  Don’t get too involved in it: mandates can be more complicated, but they aren’t in this project.  Just a simple two-liner will do.  Your client will return it, signed, and you can forward to whomever with a letter stating what you want.

Now compare this with what might be regarded as the normative syntax of a tutorial.  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 the students 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.  Here 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.  Nor should this be surprising: as Ravenscroft pointed out (2000) students made 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 Publishers

Mehan, 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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