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Maximizing Instructional Time through Structured Conversations

Every school year teachers ask themselves, “How can I create a class where students collaborate with one another as well as with me?” The answer to this question is cooperative learning.

Cooperative learning is a successful teaching strategy in which small teams of students with differing ability levels use a variety of learning activities to improve their understanding of a subject. Each member of a team is responsible for learning what is taught and also for helping teammates learn, thus creating an atmosphere of achievement (Balkcom,1992) and interdependence. The comprehension process is accelerated when structures are in place that promote this level of dialogue (Bucalos & Lingo, 2005).

Many educators have heard of or may even be using varying forms of cooperative learning to promote student engagement. Cooperative learning incorporates many forms of student engagement; one of these is structured conversations. When teachers do most of the talking and when most interactions occur between a few students and the teacher, the students who are not involved in the conversation have tacit permission to disengage. And because they are not engaged, they become bored and often off task.  Students who are not encouraged to communicate frequently will not learn to communicate well. On the other hand, when students take part in paired or group discussions, they are involved and engaged in their own learning (Nash, 2009), and learning increases.

Students require explicit instruction to learn to participate meaningfully in structured conversation. When deciding to implement structured conversation into the class routine, the teacher should plan to provide explicit instruction on conversational techniques for the first two weeks of the school year (or longer), followed by refresher mini-lessons throughout the academic school year. Further, the teacher must provide the students with consistent positive verbal reinforcement throughout their learning day to reinforce effective structured conversation techniques. Structured conversations provide students with an opportunity to process information and develop communication skills (Nash, 2009).

Cooperative Structures That Support Structured Conversations

The cooperative learning structures listed below are examples of evidence-based structures that have been shown to positively influence student learning and engagement in an inclusive classroom.

Numbered Heads Together (Kagan & Kagan, 2009a)

Numbered Heads Together maximizes team cooperation and peer tutoring. Teams of four number off, one through four. Each teammate has an assigned number. The teacher poses a higher-order thinking question to the class. The teams stand up and work together to answer the question and ensure that all members can adequately explain the team’s answer. Once the team has agreed that all members can explain their thinking, the team sits down. When all the teams are seated, the teacher randomly calls out a number, and the student assigned to that number explains his or her team’s answer. Students can respond using response cards, individual chalkboards, or orally. Numbered Heads Together increases individual and team accountability along with teamwork.

RallyRobin (Kagan & Kagan, 2009b)

RallyRobin involves partner responses within a team of four. The team is asked to turn to a team member to partner in order to provide a response to teacher-directed problems or questions. The teacher poses a problem for which there are several correct responses or solutions, and provides think time.  Students take turns with their partners to state responses or solutions. This structure may be implemented in different variations; however, the goal is to teach students how to engage in structured conversation.

Timed Pair Activity (Nash, 2009)

In Timed Pair Activity, the teacher gives the students a list of topics and asks them to pick a topic to discuss. The students are paired and given a set length of time to discuss the topic. This is an opportunity for the teacher to observe the conversation and to circulate around the room listening to all of the student pairs.

Teaching students to participate in structured conversation can help the teacher to regain lost instructional time and assist the students in facilitating their own learning while teaching them how to invest in their academic future.  Students who are taught to participate in structured conversations will be able to generalize this skill to every aspect of their lives.

Additional Resources

  • The College of William and Mary Training and Technical Assistance Center newsletter article Cooperative Learning Techniques for Active Student Engagement (Davis-Perry, 2014) provides additional methods to enhance active learning for all students.talkingaboutteaching
  • Caring and Control Create a Safe, Positive Classroom
    Retrieved from the IRIS Resource Locator
    Description: This is a video of a third-grade teacher who taught and implemented structures with in her classroom to assist with classroom management and learning.  Jim Knight conducted an observation of the teacher’s classroom and they meet to discuss what he observed and to provide feedback. For more information regarding this video, please refer to Susan Jones’ article in this Link Lines edition, Video Introduction: Building Positive Classroom Relationships to Engage Students.
  • The College of William and Mary Training and Technical Assistance Center newsletter article Cooperative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms: Students Who Work Together, Learn Together (Emerson, 2013) provides additional methods to enhance active learning for all students.


Balkcom, S. (1992). Cooperative learning (ED/OERI Issue Number1). Retrieved from

Bucalos, A. L., & Lingo, A. S. (2005). Filling the potholes in the road to inclusion: Successful research-based strategies for intermediate and middle school students with mild   disabilities. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 1(4) Article 1. Retrieved from

Kagan, S., & Kagan, M. (2009). Kagan cooperative learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.

Nash, R. (2009). The active classroom: Practical strategies for involving students in the learning process. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


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