Instructional Communication

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The ability to speak clearly, eloquently, and effectively has been recognized as the hallmark of an educated person since the beginning of recorded history. Systematic written commentary on how to develop this ability goes back at least as far as The Precepts of Kagemni and Ptah-Hotep (3200-2800 B. C. E.). This document, the oldest remnant of the Egyptian Wisdom Books of the Middle and New Kingdoms (used as a manual of advice to train individuals headed for positions as scribes and officials), contains forty-five maxims, one-third of which are related to effective communication, such as (1) keep silent unless there is something worth saying, (2) wait for the right moment to say it, (3) restrain passionate words when speaking, (4) speak fluently but with great deliberation, and (5) above all, keep the tongue at one with the heart so the truth is always spoken.

Under the label of "rhetoric," the theory and practice of oral discourse was a central concern of Greek, Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and early modern education. In the United States, teachers of communication, from the beginning, devoted considerable intellectual effort to the development of theory and research that was supportive of effective communication instruction—efforts focused on the strategies, techniques, and processes that teachers could use to facilitate the acquisition and refinement of communication competence.

Communication instructors sought to share this knowledge with their colleagues in other classrooms. Donald K. Smith (1954) suggests that speech courses for teachers were offered at Indiana University in 1892; within two decades, the appearance of such courses at other universities was general.

Early efforts applied communication theory and research generated in noninstructional contexts to the tasks of the classroom teacher. What had been learned, for example, about the principles of effective speech making or group discussion was applied to the tasks of preparing a lecture or leading a class discussion. More recently, and largely in conjunction with the development of the International Communication Association's Division 7 (the Instructional and Developmental Communication Division, founded in 1972), communication educators have focused on developing communication theory based on empirical research that is conducted in the instructional context.

This entry explores the subset of communication studies known as communication education. Communication education is the study of communication in instructional (pedagogical) contexts. It is concerned with the study of three categories of phenomena: (1) oral communication skills—instructional strategies that communication instructors use to facilitate the acquisition of communication competence (e.g., What can communication teachers do to help students learn how to be more effective in job interviews?), (2) instructional communication—communication skills and competencies that are used by all instructors in the process of engaging in teaching and learning (e.g., How can all teachers communicate in ways that help their students learn?), and (3) communication development—the normal developmental sequence by which children acquire communication competence (e.g., Are there certain stages that individuals go through as they learn how to detect deception?).

The primary focus here will be on the second component of the phenomena covered by the term "communication education"—that is, on what communication scholars have learned about the process of communication as individuals interact in instructional settings.

The development of instructional communication theory and research in the United States has been guided by two primary forces: the nature of the communication discipline and the broader context of academia's social and behavioral science research traditions.

Robert Craig (1989) suggests that communication is a discipline wherein the essential purpose is to cultivate communication as a practical art through critical study. The defining characteristic of the discipline is, in his view, "the intimate tie that exists between the discipline's work and practical communicative activities" (p. 97). As a result, the discipline seeks to understand the structure, patterns, and effects of human communication and to use this knowledge to facilitate a higher quality of communication for both individuals and for society. For instructional communication scholars, this has produced a primary focus on the communication skills of teachers—that is, on how teachers can be helped to become more effective communicators in instructional contexts. A focus on the communication skills of students-as-learners exists, but this emphasis has been secondary.

In their research, communication scholars have operated within the broader context of teacher effectiveness research. This context was generated out of the social and behavioral science research traditions of academia. Jonas F. Soltis (1984) suggests that instructional research has emerged from the perspective of roots in three dominant twentieth-century philosophical traditions: logical empiricism (positivism), interpretive theories (analytical, phenomenological, and hermeneutic), and critical theory (neo-Marxist). Soltis argues that "empirical (causal), interpretive (meaningful), and critical (normative) dimensions characterize pedagogy and hence all need to be studied if pedagogical research is to be honest to its subject matter" (p. 5).

One of the first descriptions of instructional communication research was provided by Ann Staton-Spicer and Donald Wulff (1984) who identified, categorized, and synthesized 186 empirical studies of communication and instruction reported in the national and regional communication journals during the years 1974 through 1982. This overview of instructional communication research was updated in 2000 by Jennifer H. Waldeck and her colleagues.

Empirical Inquiry

Since at least 1896, scholars have used empirical research methodology to shed light on what it means to be an effective teacher. As have their colleagues in other social and behavioral sciences, these researchers have operated largely within the language and logic of logical empiricism—a perspective that some have called "the orthodox consensus." Modeled after the approach of the natural sciences, logical empiricism has produced a variety of approaches to instructional communication research ranging, for example, from naturalistic descriptions of teacher classroom behaviors to tightly controlled experiments that manipulate such variables as teacher clarity and teacher humor in order to assess their effect on student learning. Underlying the many varieties of positivist logic are several assumptions:

  1. Reality exists independent of both the research and the flux of sensory experiences. The knower and the known are separate entities.
  2. There is a deterministic order to reality-for people as well as for natural objects. Reality is neither random nor chosen.
  3. The major function of the researcher is to construct general laws or principles that govern the relationship among classes of observable phenomena.
  4. The general laws or principles composing scientific knowledge should be consistent with empirical fact. Scientific investigation is properly concerned with establishing an objective grounding for systematic theory.
  5. Through continued empirical assessment of theoretical propositions and their deductions, scientific understanding can progress. Scientific knowledge is cumulative.

Operating from the assumptions of logical empiricism, instructional communication researchers have, with overlap, worked within five major research traditions: trait-rating, trait-observation, structure, process-product, and mediating-process. While each has been a dominant tradition at some point in history, all still contribute to instructional communication research.

Trait-Rating Tradition

The earliest attempts to identify effective communication strategies of teachers used students as observers. H. E. Katz (1896), for example, asked large numbers of students to describe the "best" teachers they ever had and subjected the list to a form of content analysis that yielded lists of the behaviors of "good" teachers (e.g., they care about students; they are clear when they lecture; they are fair in their grading). Beginning in about 1917, researchers began to ask these questions of "experts"—school administrators, professors of education, and others—whose opinions were presumed to have greater validity than those of students. A popular, related approach consisted of examining rating scales in an attempt to locate elements considered important enough to be used to rate teacher performance. Communication scholars have focused their interest largely on asking students for their views of the communication traits of effective instructors.

While early work explored the application of the speaker credibility construct to the role of teacher (e.g., expertise: teachers know what they are talking about; trustworthiness: teachers care about students and want to help them; and dynamism: teachers are good storytellers), more recent work has explored both broad, general categories (e.g., communicator style and sociocommunicative style) and narrower traits (e.g., teacher immediacy, teacher argumentativeness, and verbal receptivity). Among the significant programs of research in this domain are ones generated by Robert Norton's conceptualization of communicator style, Janis Andersen's adaptation of teacher immediacy, and Dominic Infante's formulation of argumentativeness.

Trait-Observation Tradition

Dissatisfaction with using someone's opinion (whether a student or an "expert") as a criterion measure of good teaching is not new. The empirical basis for this dissatisfaction was provided by Arvil S. Barr and others as early as 1935, when they demonstrated that correlations between ratings of teachers and mean pupil gains on achievement tests were low (ranging from -0.15 to +0.36, with a mean of +0.16). These findings led researchers to explore the possibilities of systematic observation of teachers, and they turned to the child study movement of the 1920s for their methodology. Because they were studying children who were too young to be tested or interviewed, and because the most convenient place to work with such children was the classroom, child study movement researchers pioneered the use of direct observation of classroom behaviors. The earliest teacher effectiveness study that used this approach (attempting to describe what a teacher does rather than how well he or she does it) was Romiett Stevens's 1912 study of questioning behavior. Based on four years of observation, she discovered, for example, that teachers talk 64 percent of the time; 80 percent of classroom talk is devoted to asking, answering, or reacting to questions; and teachers ask one to four questions per minute, with an average of two. While a number of developments prevented this research tradition from becoming immediately popular, in 1954 Barr was able to devote an entire issue of the Journal of Experimental Education to a review of seventy-five relevant studies done in Wisconsin under his direction. Within the communication discipline, Jon Nussbaum and his students and colleagues have been responsible for focusing attention on the observation of such teacher classroom behaviors as use of humor, self-disclosure, and narratives. Other variables that have received attention include teacher clarity, teacher explanation, teacher affinity-seeking, and teacher fashion.

Structure Tradition

Scholars in the late 1940s began to focus their attention on ways of structuring the classroom environment in such a fashion as to minimize the effect of teacher differences and maximize student learning. The method of classroom discussion, for example, was compared with the method of lecturing, while programmed instruction was compared with stimulation and games. Predictably, in retrospect, because this body of research ignored the complexity and dynamics of the classroom environment, a great deal of research failed to show that one approach was superior to others for any grade level.

A major exception was the use of the personalized system of instruction, as set forth by Fred Keller (1968). In this approach, students are helped to master course content by breaking that content down into smaller units and then helping them master those units with one-on-one tutoring from students that have successfully completed the course. A wide variety of additional instructional strategies have been explored, including use of videotapes, textbooks, interactive distance-learning networks, collaborative learning, and e-mail message strategies.

Process-Product Tradition

Researchers in the 1960s began to isolate and examine elements of teaching behavior that could be used to compare various methodologies (e.g., level of question asking is a variable appropriate to both discussion and programmed instruction). They ultimately isolated more than one thousand such variables. This approach produced an explosion of both descriptive and experimental systematic observation research that centered on identifying links between instructional strategies (processes) and learning outcomes (products).

While early summaries of research within this tradition were largely negative, more recent summaries have been more optimistic. The best-developed program of such research within instructional communication is the "power in the class" series produced by James McCroskey and his colleagues. In the seven essays that compose the original series (and multiple additions), the authors report studies that explore a wide variety of issues related to teacher use of and student reactions to behavior alteration techniques employed in the classroom. In summarizing this body of research, Virginia Richmond and K. David Roach (1992) conclude that instructor compliance-gaining strategies have a potent influence on learning factors in the classroom, from the elementary school to the university. Power bases and compliance-gaining strategies that emphasize positive relationship and relevant knowledge experience (e.g., "because it's fun," "because it will help you later in life," "because you will feel good about yourself if you do") are far superior in overall effects on student learning than are those that have a coercive and rules-oriented flavor (e.g., "because I will punish you if you don't," "because your parents will feel bad if you don't," "because I had to do this when I was in school").

Mediating-Process Tradition

Adapting to the cognitive emphasis (i.e., a concern for what individuals are thinking rather than what they are doing) that is used in other social and behavioral sciences, instructional communication researchers have studied the cognitive processes that mediate instructional stimuli and learning outcomes. For these researchers, process-product relationships are of interest primarily as a basis for reasoning about the kinds of mediating responses that make such relationships possible. Thus, learning that certain kinds of teacher questions lead to certain kinds of student behaviors is treated as a stimulus to explore the thought processes of students and teachers that might produce this relationship.

While some of this work has focused on the pedagogical judgments, plans, and decisions of teachers, most has focused on student perceptions and information-processing responses (e.g., student perceptions of differential treatment by teachers, perceptions of abilities of peers, use of an attribution framework for studying achievement, perceptions of the academic climate). In the teacher domain, for example, Staton (1990) and her colleagues have studied a construct labeled "teacher concerns." Within this body of research, teachers become socialized to the role of teacher in a process that can have three stages: concern for self ("Will the students like me?), concern for task ("How many tests should I give this semester?"), and concern for effect ("Will students learn more about this topic if I lecture or if I have them work in groups?"). Teachers begin to master the role of teacher with a concern for self and, it is hoped, move quickly through concern for task to concern for effect.

Interpretive Inquiry

Despite the fact that logical empiricism has been (and continues to be) the most widely espoused and employed epistemology and methodology in instructional communication research, a number of criticisms against the position have led researchers to develop alternative methodologies. While the language used to describe these methodologies varies with orientation, interpretive researchers who focus on the classroom share several assumptions:

  1. Face-to-face interaction is a rule-governed phenomenon (i.e., if a teacher asks a question, it is expected, but not required, that students will provide an answer). Rule-governed means that culturally determined expectations for performance exist and that these expectations guide participation and act to constrain the options for what will or can occur. These expectations do not, of course, predict with certainty the exact form of the participation or even the occurrence of participation.
  2. The contexts of interaction are constructed by people as they engage in face-to-face interaction. Thus, contexts are not given in the physical setting (e.g., "doing seatwork"); they are constructed by the participants' actions as part of the interaction.
  3. Meaning is context specific. Closely related to the concept of context as constructed, this assumption suggests that what a behavior "means" is determined by considering how it is used, what precedes it, and what follows. All instances of behavior are not considered functionally equivalent.
  4. Comprehension is an inferencing process. Meaning is viewed as a process of extracting the verbal and nonverbal information so that a person can "make sense" of the evolving events and gain access to the cognitive, social, procedural, contextual, and communicative knowledge that is provided during face-to-face interaction.
  5. Classrooms are communicative environments, and the teachers are the only natives. That is, the teachers know the rules for behaving in this environment because they create the rules; the students do not start with a knowledge of these rules and must learn them. Therefore, emphasis needs to be focused on identifying communication strategies that enable students to adjust to environmental complexity and learn "from" the classroom.

While interpretive inquiry starts with a different view of what it means to be human (active as opposed to reactive—that is, an assumption that individuals make real choices about their behavior as opposed to being shaped by nature and nurture) and while it disagrees with many of the underlying assumptions of logical empiricism, it shares with logical empiricism the view that inquiry should be objective. Individuals who study classrooms from an interpretive perspective are concerned with collecting and analyzing human behavior in natural settings and with exploring what is learned from (and how people learn through) interacting with others. In other words, interpretive research is concerned with how people learn language, learn through language use, and learn about language in educational settings.

Staton (1990) and her students have conducted research that is representative of this work being done in instructional communication. They have undertaken qualitative research in natural settings to explore issues of how students and teachers learn their respective roles. In terms of students, their research examines how people learn the role of "student" across the span of the child and adolescent student career. The central questions addressed are (1) What does it mean to be a new student?, (2) What is the nature of the communication process by which these individuals take on new student roles in new school environments?, and (3) What are the critical dimensions of the particular status passage?

Critical Inquiry

Critical theorists view both empirical inquiry and interpretive inquiry as ideologies (i.e., based on arbitrary belief systems rather than on observable facts) that focus on finding effective means to achieve educational ends that are taken for granted, that preserve the status quo, and that reinforce the power of the dominant class without regard for what kind of social and human life the current forms of schooling produce. They argue, for example, that researchers who use empirical inquiry and interpretive inquiry are studying how teachers can be helped to be more effective in getting students to learn rather than asking whether or not they might better explore how to help students be more effective learners. Critical theorists reject as a myth the idea of value-free research into human social, political, and educational phenomena; they stress instead the need for inquiry that takes into account the historical-ideological moment in which people live and the influence it has on them. Critical scholars, in short, are interested in making people aware of and helping people challenge the values that are inherent in the status quo of the educational enterprise. Research that focuses on creating an awareness of the role of sexism in classroom interaction is an example of this type of inquiry.


Having explored instructional communication research within empirical, interpretive, and critical perspectives, it is possible to find representative studies for each and every category. Nevertheless, it is striking that the vast majority of the work done by instructional communication scholars involves survey research conducted within the empirical tradition; that is, the majority of instructional communication research explores the dynamics of the college classroom by asking students to report what happens there. In addition to a narrow methodological focus, the focus is narrow in that the emphasis is on the teacher (rather than the student) in the college classroom (rather than in the lower academic levels or in the world of work).

Instructional communication is an exciting and active area within the communication discipline. It has generated a dedicated core group of scholars who are producing quality, programmatic work of methodological sophistication. Much of that work has focused on establishing relationships between paper-and-pencil reports of teacher characteristics and student learning. While successes in these efforts have been and continue to be important, the usefulness of instructional communication research is likely to be enhanced by encouraging a greater diversity of research emphases and traditions—especially within the interpretive and critical frameworks.

See also:Academia, Careers in; Communication Study; Language and Communication; Public Speaking; Rhetoric.


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Gustav W. Friedrich