Teacher Talk, and Not About the Content

Most of the talk in courses is about content, but there is also talk about noncontent matters. We may try to create a sense of community in the course; we may try to motivate students, before or after exams; we may try to explain why we’re using certain teaching strategies; we may talk about how our discipline studies things; and we may offer professional advice. And even though talk about content is the focus of the course, most of us recognize that this other noncontent talk is an important part of student learning.

Despite its importance, how much do we actually know about it? How much time do we devote to it? Can there be too much noncontent talk or not enough? Is more needed at the beginning of the course than at the end? Should it be planned, or can it just be delivered spontaneously as needed? Questions like these motivated a group of biologists to undertake a unique study of noncontent talk.

They systematically investigated the language used by two instructors team-teaching a 270-student introductory biology course, a course that they thought would include a healthy sample of noncontent talk. In 2011, most sessions of this course had been videotaped for analysis. At that time, the course instructors knew nothing of these researchers’ interest in noncontent talk, and so what they did in the course was not influenced by the research questions. “While the course would not be defined as a traditional lecture course, it was also not a cooperative-learning environment, flipped classroom, or a peer-led teaching and learning classroom.” (p. 3) The instructors routinely used clickers and various discussion activities.

The researchers had 29 sessions of more than 35 minutes available for review. Transcript analysis of the class sessions revealed 666 quotes that involved messages not related to the content of the course. These five major categories of noncontent instructor talk emerged:

Building the instructor/student relationship: The category included talk that showed respect for students, that passed on secrets for success in the course, and that boosted students’ self-efficacy. Sample comment: “I want you to be taking notes in class, but I don’t want you to be trying to copy down slides. Holy cow, we post those, right? You need to be writing down things that are confusing to you or things you want to remember, things you want to ask. . . That’s what you need to write down.” (p. 6)

This was the most prevalent category of noncontent talk, representing 35.4 percent of the total quotes. The most common subcategory was showing respect for students. Sample comment: “I can’t promise I’ll remember your name when I see you on campus, but I’m going to try.”

Establishing classroom culture: Here the quotes “were involved in setting the tone for the course as a whole or for specific activities within the course.” (p. 4) The talk pre-framed class activities, telling students what they were going to be doing and for how long; described scientific habits of the mind; gave credit to colleagues; indicated that it was okay to be wrong or to disagree; and worked on building community among students. Sample comment: “I’m more curious about your approach to how you think about [this assignment] than I am whether you get the answer right or not.”

These comments represented 33.6 percent of the quotes, with pre-framing the activities being the largest subcatego

Explaining pedagogical choices: These comments “generally focused on clarifying for students why both the content and the course structure were relevant to students’ lives and student learning.” (p. 5) The comments connected biology to what was happening in the real world, disclosed how people learned, and promoted lifelong learning, among other messages. Sample comment: “We’re not ever going to leave any of this behind, if you think, ‘Oh, God. I’ll be glad when this section’s over.’ This is the rest of your life in biology.” Eighteen percent of the comments were made in this category.

Sharing personal experiences: These comments shared general personal information, such as birthplace, or they recounted student experiences. Sample comment: “That’s where I used to sit. I would sit in the back, and I would never say a word.” Eight percent of the comments made were included in this category.

Unmasking science: This talk described the kinds of questions science can answer, how those questions are answered, and the need for diverse perspectives within the scientific community. Sample comment: “Science is about making predictions. Science is not about memorizing things.” Fewer than 6 percent of the comments fell in this category.

The amount of noncontent talk ranged from six comments per session to 68, with an average of 26 per session. However, the two teachers did not use the same amount of noncontent talk or the same kind. The data reveal “distinct profiles” for each of the instructors.

This is not work from which any kind of generalizations can be drawn, but it is extremely valuable as a first attempt to characterize the kinds of noncontent messages being conveyed, in this case by two instructors teaching a biology course. The research team believes that correlations may exist between some of these noncontent messages and things like student resistance and the emotional distance between teachers and students that has been shown to influence learning. More work remains to be done, but this first attempt should encourage us to take stock of the noncontent messages we’re delivering and contemplate what role they may be playing in the learning experiences of our students.

Reference: Seidel, S.B., Reggi, A.L., Schinske, J.N., Burrus, L.W., and Tanner, K.B. (2015). Beyond the biology: A systematic investigation of noncontent instructor talk in an introductory biology course. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 14 (Winter), 1-14.

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