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This article focuses on the usage of experience talk in asynchronous digital learning discussions. In particular, experience talk is analyzed in relation to argumentative practices. The data come from an online university course, Academic Writing in Finnish, that was situated in the e-learning space Moodle. Methodologically, the study combines conversation analysis with methods of technology-mediated communication. Experience talk is examined both on the single-turn level and on the inter-turn level, as part of the sequential turn-by-turn process of argumentation. The results show that in single turns, experience talk is constructed in three ways that can be placed on a continuum with regard to their degree of narrativity: 1) minimal narratives, 2) descriptions of singular or recurrent experiences, and 3) interpretations of experiences. At the narrative end of the continuum the experience and the argument are clearly separate in the turn, while at the non-narrative end they are closely intertwined. On the inter-turn level, experiences are co-constructed in ways that accomplish agreement as well as varying degrees of affiliation between the participants. The analyzed practices are shaped by the institutional learning context as well as the asynchronous digital context.


This article discusses interaction and argumentation in a particular type of mediated setting, that of digital learning discussions. Previous studies have addressed different kinds of contributions that students make in asynchronous learning platforms such as blogs and discussion forums (e.g., Lapadat, 2007; Meyer, 2003). Contributions are, in general, divided into two main categories: factual and social. Factual contributions include moves like questioning, argumentation, knowledge construction, and reflecting on course readings, whereas social contributions are moves like greetings, acknowledgments, and self-disclosures (cf. Lapadat, 2007). This division resonates with other dichotomies that have intrigued scholars, namely dichotomies like private-public (Joinson, 2001), professional-personal (Shanahan, 2010), academic-student (Lester & Paulus, 2011), and interpersonal-individual (Guiller & Durndell, 2007). However, a growing number of studies see digital learning as student-to-student interaction that is thoroughly social (e.g., Barton, 2012; Piirainen-Marsh & Tainio, 2009). In this view, students can participate meaningfully in various ways, relying not just on institutional or factual knowledge but also on personal knowledge, for example, by sharing their experiences and other kinds of personal information. What is more, these contributions are not isolated but rather are part of an interactional process, a collaborative activity.1

In this study, we treat digital learning discussion as a situation where participants study course issues through interactional peer-to-peer communication. In this view, argumentation is an interactional activity that is organized as a series of sequentially ordered actions and is thus realized both on the single-turn and on the inter-turn level (for different views of argumentation in digital learning, see Clark et al., 2007; Lapadat, 2007; Potter, 2004). Our focus in this article is on argumentative activity that is constructed through an activity we call experience talk. By ‘experience talk’ we mean contributions in an interactional situation where a participant relates or refers to what he or she has personally experienced.2 The aim of the study is to explicate how participants construct and co-construct their experiences in mediated turn exchanges. In addition, we show how experience talk is used for the purposes of constructing arguments in single turns and with regard to preceding and subsequent turns. In particular, we show how experience talk is part of agreement patterns. In our analysis, we apply the methodology of conversational analysis (CA) (e.g., Schegloff, 2007; on digital CA, see Giles et al., 2015), with special consideration of the asynchronous techniques used in the learning discussions.


Experience talk is a broad concept, in that experiences can be related in many different ways, from telling extensive stories to minimally referring to the experience. Also, experience talk has multiple functions in interaction. In the following, we review earlier studies of experience talk from three perspectives that are crucial for our study: 1) experience talk as self-disclosure and identity building, 2) sharing experiences, and 3) using experiences for the purposes of argumentation. We concentrate on online contexts, but also refer to some relevant studies from offline contexts.

First, experience talk has to do with the self. It has been studied as self-disclosure or identity building. For example, Sakr (2012) has discussed how participants construct their selves by writing in new kinds of media contexts. In Lampel and Bhalla’s (2007) study of self-disclosure in an online forum, it is a matter of the ideal (virtual) versus the real ‘self,’ as the writers try to attain a good status in the eyes of others. In a study of online dating, Manning (2013) showed how advertising life experiences is seen to have rhetorical value. However, experiences were listed in a vague manner in that context. Experience talk has also been connected to displaying expertise. Shanahan (2010), in his study of online comment spaces, made a distinction between personal and professional expertise and showed how personal expertise was supported by personal experiences, whereas professional expertise was supported by scientific knowledge or education. Displaying expertise is related to the rhetorical notion of ethos, i.e., how a writer in an online context constructs her or his authority and knowledgeability with regard to the audience (Frobish, 2013; Grabill & Pigg, 2012; Young, 2008). From this point of view, experience talk is one means through which the online writer can express a character that fits the situation and the group in focus (see, e.g., Walker Pickering, 2009).

In an online educational setting, Guiller and Durndell (2007) discussed the relationship of explicit personal writing to the self. They see the relationship as a matter of a discussion between self-awareness and deindividuation. They noticed that students often share similar experiences, and this feeds collaboration and agreement in the group (cf. Baym, 1996). In Swan’s (2002) study, sharing personal information and previous knowledge, including experiences, was seen as one of the ways students participate and collaborate in asynchronous discussion (see also Lapadat, 2007). Swan also noticed that this kind of activity increases during the online course. Thus, it can be said that experience talk is often reciprocal in online learning groups. This reciprocity can also be seen in other kinds of online settings, such as support groups (e.g., Barak & Gluck-Ofri, 2007).

This brings us to our second point. Experience talk is not just about the self. Experiences are shared; they are constructed as part of interactional exchanges (e.g., Peräkylä & Silverman, 1991). This has been shown, for example, in studies of conversational narratives (e.g., Georgakopoulou, 2004; Ochs, 2011; Page, 2010). As De Fina and Georgakopoulou (2008, pp. 381−382) have maintained, such narratives are interactional in that they orient to both previous and upcoming talk or writing, and they are part of a variety of social actions.

In many online contexts, sharing experiences is an intrinsic part of the activity. For example, Graham and Wright (2014), in their study of “superparticipants” (frequent posters) in a political discussion forum, showed that the participants used stories and experiences to foster conversation and to stimulate debate. A different kind of experience sharing has been found in studies of online counselling and support groups. Kaufman and Whitehead (2016), for example, discovered that sharing experiences was treated as a supportive activity. However, it could also be met with resistance when it was connected to knowledge claims. Thus, sharing experiences is a delicate matter. Vayreda and Antaki (2009) made similar remarks in their study of an online support group for mental illness. They found that participants expected to share similar experiences, but in many cases co-participants were more likely to give advice than to share their experience. In online learning settings, Lester and Paulus (2011) have studied sharing experiences in blogging. In their study, students were told to “share prior beliefs and personal experiences” in order to interact and to reflect on the quality of their learning (p. 674). In accordance with the previously mentioned studies, the authors discovered that students do share experiences, and they do it both to fulfill the academic task and to collaborate and support each other. The supportive function can be seen in their minimizing of their academic expertise. Also, importantly for our analysis, experiences in their data were presented mainly by describing them, not by telling full stories.

One way of sharing experiences is the phenomenon Sacks (1992) called second story. By that he meant a practice whereby a story is responded to with another story in which the teller is in a similar role to the teller of the first story. Telling a second story is a powerful way of displaying affiliation (Norrick, 2000; Sacks, 1992). Second stories can also be used in peer support groups. Arminen (2004) shows how members of Alcoholics Anonymous tell second stories in their meetings to show that they are “in the same boat.” Second stories, particularly if they are told in institutional contexts, may be quite truncated. Lehtinen (2005), for example, shows how Bible study participants produced descriptions of categorical experiences. In digital contexts, second stories have been investigated by Giles and Newbold (2013) in mental health discussion forums. Peer discussants used second stories for social support purposes, and Giles and Newbold found that it was an effective strategy: Experiences were received better than, e.g., direct advice by co-participants.

Further, experience talk has been analyzed as part of argument sequences, as one type of evidence for arguments. This phenomenon has been discussed both in rhetorical studies (e.g., Grabill & Pigg, 2012; Hong & Park, 2012) and interactional studies (e.g., Baym, 1996; Hutchby, 2001; Niemi, 2013). For example, Grabill and Pigg (2012) show how participants in online public forums use experience talk for displaying expertise that is based on experiences, not education or factual information. In that way they position themselves as “interested observers” rather than academic people. Lewis (2005) studied online newspaper comments in the political section and found that the discussants occasionally use experience talk as part their arguments. The arguments usually follow a three-part structure that consists of reaction, position, and support; experience talk is located in the support part of the argument. In argumentation theory, evidence based on experience can be seen as a representative of the category of example. Argumentation through examples is, according to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1971), a strategy through which a general argument about reality is made on the basis of a particular case. Such evidence that is based on the speaker’s experience of the world differs from, for example, evidence based on statistics or research (e.g., Hong & Park, 2012). It relies on the credibility of the speaker (cf. Young, 2008).

Experiences as parts of arguments have also been investigated in learning settings. Niemi (2013) has observed that a student in the traditional classroom can use experience talk in constructing arguments (see also Penttinen, 2008). Even though the student, in this case, was aiming at passing as a competent participant, the teacher treated the student as slightly incompetent. In a digital learning setting, Guiller and Durndell (2007) made a similar observation: Arguments based on personal information were treated as less convincing than authoritatively designed contributions. In contrast, Lester and Paulus (2011) argued that the students in their data used experiences skillfully in interactional argumentation. The students displayed awareness of possible counter-arguments that could be made by their peers (cf. Potter, 2004). Furthermore, many studies have shown that online learners orient to the arguments of others in various context-sensitive ways. Arguments may be based on literature or authorities, but also on particular cases. Experience talk is an example of the latter kind: The personal experience is presented as something the other participants can identify with and share (e.g., Sampson & Clark 2008). Through different argumentative moves participants on asynchronous learning platforms display their skill in understanding, reacting to, and anticipating the contributions of others.

It may also be noted that studies of academic argumentation in online (e.g., Laurinen & Marttunen, 2007) and other settings (e.g., Sandoval & Millwood, 2005; Waring, 2001) have concentrated on academic argumentation as an art involving the display of criticism and, thus, disagreement. In this study, however, we will show how experience talk is first and foremost a strategy for agreeing.

We build on the earlier research and investigate experience talk as part of argumentation and collaboration in online peer learning. Specifically, we approach our data with the following questions: 1) What kind of experience talk is used as part of argumentation in single turns? How are the experiences linked to the arguments? 2) What kinds of patterns of experience talk are evident in argumentative sequences, particularly in agreement sequences? What kind of supportive links do the participants use in order to continue the argumentation through asynchronously-mediated turn exchanges?


The data for this study come from a digital learning context, and they comprise mediated asynchronous peer-to-peer interaction. The data were collected during the years 2009-2010 from an online university course, Academic Writing in Finnish, taught by the first author. There were five course groups in all. The course was based in the virtual learning space Moodle. It was available only for registered students who used their real names in the discussions. There were 16 participants maximum in each course, and they were obliged to perform a variety of individual and group tasks during the six weeks of the course. Permission was asked of the students for the use of their contributions in the study. Additionally, pseudonyms are used in the examples instead of real names, in order to preserve the anonymity of the students. The discussions analyzed for this study are many-to-many whole class discussions in which students had to reflect on course readings; the duration for each task-oriented discussion was typically one week.

The discussion topics of the course were linked to themes of academic writing and Master’s thesis writing. For this article, discussion threads that involve feedback, choosing and defining a subject, theoretical and methodological background, and concepts and conceptualization were analyzed. The data set for the analysis is 28 threads that include approximately 350 turns.3

The structure of the threads is as follows: The initial turn (or several initial turns) introduced the predetermined topic based on the course readings. In these turns, self-selected participants started the discussion by presenting the topic, as well as by posing questions and requesting feedback, experiences, and examples in order to get co-participants to respond and continue the discussion. This procedure was suggested in the task instructions provided by the teacher. In the subsequent turns, co-participants continued discussion on the topic through performing different kinds of actions, such as presenting opinions, evaluating, and sharing personal or factual information. These turns could be, in the technical sense, produced by replying to the introductory turns or to any of the subsequent turns. The nature of the turn as a reply to a specific previous turn could be seen in its position on the screen.

The students were instructed to write at least four messages each week on two to four different topics that were active for that week. A related point is that the students were evaluated individually. Thus, while the task of the students was to work collaboratively and discuss the given topics, at the same time they had an individual goal of displaying their expertise for the teacher.

Analytical Framework

Methodologically this study relies on digital conversation analysis, meaning that concepts from the discipline of CA have been applied to digital discourse (e.g., Giles et al., 2015). In particular, we focused on turn design and sequential organization as part of mediated participation in the digital learning setting we were investigating. Thus, the students’ turns were analyzed with regard to how they functioned as multi-unit turns and with regard to how they were part of the sequential order, how they worked as answers to or continuations of previous turns (e.g., Schegloff, 2007).

Accordingly, the analysis consisted of two phases. First, we searched for turns that included some kind of experience talk. Experience talk was identified through expressions like olen tehnyt – ‘I have done’ or kokemukseni mukaan – ‘based on my experience.’ We then looked at the structure of the turns with regard to how the participants share their experiences and how experience talk is used to justify arguments. Based on this analysis, we ended up placing instances of experience talk on a continuum in terms of narrativity, ranging from clearly narrative cases to non-narrative ones.

At this stage, we made use of studies that have discussed conversational storytelling, narrativity, and narrative talk (Ochs, 2011; Ochs & Capps, 1996; Page, 2010), as well descriptions (Lehtinen, 2005; Pomerantz, 1984) and interpretations (Peräkylä, 2004) of experiences. We first looked at the following characteristics of the cases: whether they exhibited the prototypical three-stage narrative design, consisting of orientation, narrative, and evaluation; whether there was temporal change in the described experience; whether it was a single course of events or a recurrent one that was described; how personal agency was visible in the description of the experience; and whether the focus was on the experience itself or the interpretations that the speaker had made based on the experience. We divided the continuum into three overlapping categories that we called ‘narrative experience talk,’ ‘descriptions of experience,’ and ‘interpretations of experience.’ These categories are illustrated with examples in the next section where we present our findings. We also paid attention to how the experience talk was connected to the argument that the student was trying to make either explicitly or implicitly.

Secondly, we looked at experience talk with regard to how it was part of the turn-by-turn process of argumentation. In particular, we investigated patterns of agreeing. In this sense, experience talk could work as evidence for an argument made in a preceding turn (cf. Sandoval & Millwood, 2005). Moreover, experiences could be constructed as more or less similar to the ones presented in previous turns. We also analyzed how participants show agreement with the preceding turn in the initial part of the turn. This could be done either with explicit lexical choices or implicitly. We focused on agreement instead of disagreement because the initial reading of the data exposed only a few disagreement cases, and in those cases experience talk was rarely used. We limited our analysis to cases where the argumentation was accomplished through experience talk, and we have not paid attention to agreement turns without experience talk.


In the following analysis, we first look at single turns where experience talk is used and then consider sequences of turns.

Experience Talk and Argumentation in Single Turns: From Minimal Narratives to Experience-Based Interpretations

In this section, we describe the continuum of different kinds of experience talk, ranging from the ‘most narrative’ cases to the ‘least narrative’ ones. Also, we look at how these different kinds of experience talk are connected to the argument presented in the turn.

At the narrative end of the continuum, experience talk is delivered through the design of a small story that is comparable to those found in Facebook status updates (Page, 2010). The small story design includes the traditional three-stage story structure, but in a minimal manner. The telling, in particular, is minimal in that even though it includes temporal change, there is no extended story-like plot. Extract 1 is an example of narrative-like experience talk. The speaker (Marko) uses experience talk as an example narrative, which provides evidence for the main argument.

(1) Experience talk as narrative example (s09)

MARKO: In my opinion, when defining concepts one has to factor in the kind of readership the text is aimed at. The same scientific text can manifest itself completely differently for people with divergent experiences and know-how.

As an example I could mention the doctoral defense of an acquaintance of mine. It concerned a special field of medicine and I was listening to it. Later, I also had an opportunity to read the thesis. During the defense the medical professionals used field specific terms fluently among themselves, but I did not understand them at all. Even though I later read the dissertation, I did not understand the concepts fully despite the fact that they had been defined in the work.

I am sure that the definitions were appropriately done in the dissertation, but my expertise was not at the required level. In other words, I was not part of the target audience.

Marko: Käsitteiden määrittelyssä tulee mielestäni ottaa huomioon se, millaisella lukijakunnalle teksti kohdistetaan. Sama tieteellinen teksti voi näyttäytyä aivan erilaisena eri kokemus- ja osaamistaustaisille ihmisille.

Esimerkkinä voisin mainita erään tuttavani tohtoriväitöstilaisuuden. Kyseessä oli lääketieteen erikoisala ja olin kuuntelemassa väitöstilaisuutta. Sain myöhemmin myös lukea väitöskirjaa. Väitöstilaisuudessa lääketieteen ammattilaiset puhuivat alan käsitteistä aivan sujuvasti keskenään, mutta minulta ne menivät täydellisesti yli hilseen. Vaikka luin myöhemmin väitöskirjaa, en ymmärtänyt käsitteitä täydellisesti, vaikka ne oli määritelty teoksessa.
Käsitemäärittely oli varmasti väitöskirjassa oikein tehty, mutta oma osaaminen ei ollut riittävällä tasolla. Ts. en kuulunut kohderyhmään.

Marko’s narrative has both a preface and an evaluation. He prefaces the story identifying the past event as an “example.” In the same sentence, he also characterizes the type the experience: It is an experience of attending a “doctoral defense.” In the end he comments on the meaning of the experience. Marko also makes visible that the experience is personal. He uses personal forms in Finnish, such as olin ‘I was,’ sain ‘I had an opportunity,’ and oma osaaminen ‘my expertise.’ The evaluation at the end of the turn is also made from Marko’s point of view – what he learned from the event and how he realized that he wasn’t part of the target group. The narrative also expresses minimal temporal progress.

But what kind of evidence is this minimal narrative? The main argument in line 1 is about the connection between the target audience and defining research concepts. The narrative and the argument are explicitly connected to each other through the story preface: The narrative is presented as an example of the speaker’s argumentative point. The evaluation at the end reconnects the narrative to the argument about “target audiences”: As the main message of the narrative Marko presents the observation that he “was not part of the target audience.” Also, if we look at the (minimal) telling part of the narrative, we can see that the writer has chosen to tell those aspects of the events that are relevant for his argumentative point: He tells how the “experts” talked “fluently” about the concepts, and how he as a non-expert did not understand.

Thus, we can see how a personal story, like the one in Marko’s turn, can work as evidence for an argument. It clearly shows how the participant has obtained the evidence – i.e., through her/his own experiences. The personal experience is also the basis for the speaker’s credibility and, as Hutchby (2001) has pointed out, her/his authenticity (see also, e.g., Grabill & Pigg, 2012; Young, 2008).

Next, we turn to experience talk that is not so clearly designed as a three-stage story or minimal narrative. We call these cases ‘descriptions of experiences.’ They concern either single events or repeated events from the past, and they usually use the simple past tense. Ownership of the experience may, however, be more implicit, and there is less stress on the temporal course of events. A description of a single course of events is illustrated in extract 2.

(2) Description of single experience (s10)

JOUNI: Hi, Choosing and framing the topic was something that I also had to face, in a quite concrete way. I wanted to include more and more things into the study, but then the degree of complexity would have grown considerably along with the time demands. The most substantive thing for me was to discover that “the other observed topics that are found during the study can be developed later on”. [Italics in the original]

Jouni:     Hei, Aiheen valinta ja rajaaminen tuli myös omalta kohdalta konkreettisesti vastaan. Mieli teki sisällyttää tutkimukseen enemmän ja enemmän asioita, mutta tutkimuksen vaativuus olisi kasvanut huomattavasti kuten myös aikavaativuus. Oleellista olikin todeta, että ”Tutkimuksen aikana muista havaituista aiheista voi jatkaa myöhemmin”. [Italics in the original]

In the extract, Jouni describes a course of events in working with his thesis. His turn begins with a preface to the experience, in which he introduces the topic and shows that he is talking about his own experience through the expression omalta kohdalta ‘I had to face.’ In the telling of the experience, there is also minimal temporality: Jouni first describes his desire to widen the scope of his thesis, and then his conclusion that it would not be a good idea. In the telling, however, he does not use first person pronouns. Rather, he uses the zero person form in mieli teki ‘(I/someone) wanted to’ and oleellista olikin todeta ‘it was indeed essential (for me/someone) to note.’ The Finnish zero person leaves personal reference implicit. In the present case it can be inferred from contextual cues that it refers to the speaker, but even so it simultaneously leaves open a position “for anyone to enter” (Laitinen, 2006, p. 231). Thus, it implies that others might also have similar experiences.

We can also see how the experience supports Jouni’s argument, even though the argument is somewhat implicit. It seems that he is arguing for the importance of limiting the research topic, and his experience of coming to terms with the need for limiting his own research topic supports this line of thought. We can say that in this case the argument and the experience talk are more intertwined than in extract 1. In any case, it seems that an argument can be backed up with experience talk that lacks explicit personal forms. This reflects the asynchronous character of the learning discussions: The name of the student in the heading of the turn is sufficient knowledge for the other participants to treat the contribution as his or hers (cf. Lester & Paulus, 2011; also Frobish, 2013, pp. 7-8). Extract 3 is a case where personal forms are used in relating the experience, but it differs from prototypical narration in that instead of a single course of events, it describes a recurrent activity.

(3) Description of recurrent experience (k10)

HENRI: When I was doing my BA thesis, the framing of the work got out of hand from time to time. Sometimes I put post-it notes on the computer screen so that when I was searching for information I would stay within my outline.

Henri:     Itsellä aiheen rajaaminen kandityötä tehdessäni tahtoi välillä karata käsistä. Välillä laitoin post-it lappuja tietokoneen näyttöön, jotta tietoa hakiessani muistin pysyä rajauksen piirissä.

In the first sentence the personal nature of the experience can be seen in the adverb itsellä ‘when I was doing my BA thesis.’ In the second sentence, however, Henri uses the 1st person: The main verb laitoin ‘I put’ includes the 1st person suffix. Thus, he is relating something that he has done. However, he has done it repeatedly, which can be noticed in the usage of the word välillä ‘from time to time’ and ‘sometimes’ in both sentences. We can say that the speaker describes his habitual practice.4

Just like in the previous extract, the speaker’s opinion is left implicit. It can be inferred, however, from his negatively framed description of his attempt at delimiting his thesis (almost) “getting out of hand.” He seems to be arguing for the importance of delimiting. Once again, the argument and the description of experience as evidence for it are intertwined.

Extract 4 illustrates a group of cases where the experience talk is furthest away from prototypical narrative. We call this type of experience talk ‘interpretation of experience.’ By that we mean that the experience proper is not described in any detail; rather the speaker tells what inferences he/she has drawn from his/her experiences. Interpreting experiences is something therapists do in their work: Their job is to show the patient what the patient’s experiences mean (Peräkylä, 2004). In our data, however, the participants interpret their own experiences.

(4) Interpretation of experience as argumentative evidence (s09)

JANNE: I am used to having an outsider read the text I have written exactly for the reason that one gets so easily blind to one’s own text. I have noticed that it is worth giving the text for evaluation (e.g., to a friend or a family member) in smaller units.[…]

Janne:    Itse olen tottunut luetuttamaan tekemäni tekstin jollain ulkopuolisella juurikin siitä syystä, että itse tulee niin helposti sokeaksi omalle kirjoitukselleen. Olen huomannut että kannattaa antaa työ arvioitavaksi (esim. kaverille tai perheenjäsenelle) pienemmissä kokonaisuuksissa.[…]

Janne’s turn in the extract begins with a brief description in lines 1-2 of his recurrent experiences with getting feedback. In the second sentence, however, he turns to a new aspect of these practices: He delivers a piece of advice (cf. the verb kannattaa ‘it is worth’) about giving one’s work to be reviewed by a friend or relative “in shorter pieces.” This sentence thus works as an argument in its own right. However, Janne makes it clear that the argument is based on his experience of actually having his own work reviewed, through the Finnish expression olen huomannut ‘I have noticed.’ Thus, the advice is presented as an interpretation of what he has “noticed” as a result of his experiences. The experience as such is not described.

The analysis above shows how experience talk in digital learning discussions is intricately tied to presenting opinions and assessments and how experience talk is in the service of argumentation (see also De Fina & Georgakopoulou, 2008). In the ‘most narrative’ cases the argument and the experience may be explicitly delineated from each other. Even in these cases, however, the narratives are quite minimal, and only the events that are necessary for providing evidence for the argument are presented. When we approach the non-narrative end of the continuum, the argument and the experience become more and more intertwined. In the interpretative cases the experience is left quite implicit, and the argument is presented as an interpretation of experiences. This way of presenting arguments and experiences is adequate in the context of peer learning discussions where the students’ task is to display their expertise on scientific writing (e.g., Lester & Paulus, 2011; Sandoval & Millwood, 2005; Walker Pickering, 2009). Through the practices described here, they both show their ability to discuss their views of good practices of scientific writing, and they display their ability to do it in an evidence-based way.

Inter-Turn Experience Talk: Agreeing and Affiliating

In this section, we take a look at how participants use experience talk for argumentation and participation collaboratively. We show how they tell or describe their experiences to display their agreement with the previous turn (see also Coffin, 2004; Sampson & Clark, 2008). Various kinds of experience talk, more and less narrative instances, can be used for agreeing. However, we also discuss one case where there is a slight disagreement. Last, there is another continuum in the data; the participant who is agreeing can either explicitly state her or his agreement or leave it more or less implicit (Waring, 2001). In the following, we give examples of these different cases.

Extract 5 is a case where narratives are used by the participants and where agreement is explicitly stated. This kind of a narrative practice resembles the practice of telling second stories.

(5) Explicit agreement through narratives (s10)

ARI:   Doing research is all about making (constant) choices until the moment the study is submitted for evaluation, as Jaana writes in her preface. I think this is very true. Even if at the beginning you are able to outline the research problem, methodological choices and the theories used, they will, in my opinion, change by necessity as you make progress. I noticed this concretely with my own MA thesis. I was quite sure after having written the research proposal that I would use one specific research method in the empirical part of the thesis, since it had been used in many studies I had looked at. Eventually I ended up using another method completely, because it was easier to implement in practice yet provided as “reliable” results. […]

Ari:         Tutkimuksen tekeminen on jatkuvaa valintojen tekemistä siihen saakka, kun tutkielma on jätetty arvioitavaksi, kuten Jaana alustuksessaan kirjoittaa. Mielestäni tämä pitää erittäin hyvin paikkaansa. Vaikka tutkimusta aloittaessa pystyisikin selkeästi määrittelemään, tutkimusongelman, menetelmävalinnat ja käytettävät teoriat, niin niihin tulee mielestäni pakostakin muutoksia tutkimuksen edetessä. Itse huomasin tämän konkreettisesti omassa gradussani. Olin alkuraportin jälkeen varma, että päädyn käyttämään yhtä tiettyä menetelmää empiriassani, koska tämä tapa oli esillä monessa esimerkkitutkimuksessa. Kuitenkin lopulta päädyin täysin eri menetelmään, koska se oli käytännössä helpompi toteuttaa mutta antoi yhtä ”luotettavia” vastauksia. [...]

MARI: I agree with you; it is all about making (constant) choices. Almost the same happened to me, I had decided to use the Delphi method, but ended up with the familiar and safe semi-structured interview method. And I still believe that it was a wise decision. You need to be able to navigate in research in order to get the best result.

Mari: Olen samaa mieltä kanssanne; se on jatkuvaa valintojen tekemistä. Minulle kävi vähän samalla tavalla, olin päätynyt tekemään delfoi-tutkimuksen, mutta lopulta päädyin kuitenkin tuttuun ja turvalliseen puoli strukturoituun haastattelumalliin. Ja olen edelleen siinä uskossa että se oli viisas valinta. Tutkimuksessa on pystyttävä luovimaan parhaan tuloksen saamiseksi.

The extract starts with Ari’s turn, which he initiates by aligning with the thread-initial turn (“as Jaana writes”). After elaborating his view and his agreement with Jaana, he supports his agreement through sharing his experiences about the topic in a narrative manner. He begins the narrative with a preface that connects the narrative to the argument: “I noticed this concretely with my own MA thesis.” The narrative includes temporal progress in that it describes the process from him being sure about his method to changing it. Ari’s narrative illustrates the point of the argument in that it describes an instance of having to make choices during the process of research.

In the subsequent turn, Mari begins with an explicit agreement with both Ari and the thread-initial turn: Olen samaa mieltä kanssanne – ‘I agree with you.’5 The agreement is also emphasized by a repetition of part of Ari’s statement. After that, Mari tells her own story, which she prefaces through explicating the similarity of her experience with that of Ari’s: “Almost the same happened to me.” The story also runs like a second story, since the experienced event as well as the chronological design of the experience are described as similar (cf. Stommel & Lamerichs, 2014). Thus, Mari not only agrees with Ari, she displays that her agreement is based on her ability to affiliate with Ari’s experience (e.g., Lester & Paulus, 2011).

Extract 6 is a case of narrative experience talk where agreement is expressed implicitly. The main argument is expressed in Jari’s turn. In the following, we concentrate on how Elisa and Eino fashion their agreement with Jari through their experience talk.

(6) Implicit agreement through minimal narratives (s09)

JARI:  […] In my opinion there is room for improvement in the framing of theses. Very often research topics are too broad which can lead to findings that are too general.

Jari:         […] Mielestäni opinnäytteissä rajaamisessa olisi kehitettävää. Usein tutkimusaiheet ovat liian laajoja, jolloin tuloksista voi tulla liian yleisiä.

ELISA: When doing my proseminar (BA thesis) I realized that the topic I chose I initially thought was relatively narrow and well-framed. Eventually it turned out that the more I read research materials and got deeper into the topic, I begun to realize that yet more clear framing was needed in order to find the core from the fairly large topic.

Elisa: Itse huomasin kandia tehdessäni, että aluksi luulin valitsemani aiheen olevan suhteellisen kapean ja rajatun. Kuitenkin kävi niin, että mitä enemmän luin lähdemateriaalia ja pääsin syvemmälle aiheeseen, aloinkin tajuamaan, että vielä kovempaa rajausta tarvittiin sen ydinjutun löytämiseksi laajasta aiheesta.

EINO: It is certainly best to try to frame the topic as well as possible before the writing process begins. I did not do it when I began my proseminar and at some point I realized the scope of the topic had gotten out of hand. I ended up writing huge amounts of text which were never included in the final paper.

Eino:    Aiheen rajaaminen tosiaan kannattaa pyrkiä tekemään mahdollisimman tarkasti jo ennen kirjoitusprosessin aloittamista. Itse en tätä tehnyt kandia aloittaessani ja jossain vaiheessa huomasin aiheen laajuuden lähteneen käsistä. Kirjoitin siis hurjat määrät tekstiä jotka eivät päätyneet lopulliseen kirjoitelmaan.

In her turn, Elisa goes straight to her experience about troubles in framing her thesis. There is no explicit marker of the relationship of the story to Jari’s argument in the previous turn. However, the central point of her story, which has the form of a minimal narrative, supports Jari’s argument. She describes how her original idea about framing her thesis turned out to be insufficient. Thus, her experience backs up the general notion of there being “room for improvement” in the framing of theses.

Eino, in turn, tells a minimal story that has clear similarities with Elisa’s: He also describes how he realized that he had made a mistake in framing his thesis too broadly. Thus, he displays affiliation with Elisa. However, his turn is different from Elisa’s in that he initiates his turn with a story preface, in which he explicates his view of the issue: “It is certainly best to try to frame the topic before the writing process begins.” The content of this statement agrees with points made (explicitly and implicitly) in previous turns. What is more, the choice of the word tosiaan ‘certainly’ can be seen as an implicit marker of agreement.

In sum, we can see how minimal narratives work as resources for agreeing and affiliating with previous contributors. At the same time, however, the narrators also display that their agreement is based on their own experience, and thus that they have an independent basis for holding their views (cf. Pomerantz, 1984).

In the following, we show two extracts where agreeing is done with the help of non-narrative experience talk. In these cases agreement can also be either explicated or expressed implicitly. We start with a case (extract 7) with an explicit agreement token.

(7) Explicit agreement with non-narratives (s09)

ELISA: I value theory, but I also take a critical view of different theories. I think that a theory cannot be 100% true except in perhaps some natural sciences. […] When I was doing my MA thesis I noticed how important different theories are. The researcher generates new research and theory on the basis of own interests and picks up from already existing theories those aspects that validate one’s own thinking and perspective on things. […]

Elisa:      Itse arvostan teoriaa, mutta suhtaudun kuitenkin myös kriittisesti erilaisiin teorioihin. Mielestäni teoria ei voi olla 100% tosi kuin ehkä joissain luonnontieteissä. […] Gradua tehdessäni huomasin, miten tärkeitä erilaiset teoriat ovat. Tutkija synnyttää uutta tutkimusta ja teoriaa omien intressiensä pohjalta ja poimii olemassa olevista teorioista sen mikä vahvistaa omaa ajattelua ja näkemyksiä asioista. […]

MAIJA: I also think that very few theories are 100 % true. The more you study and familiarize yourself with a particular science, the better you realize that there are these different schools.[…]

Maija: Olen samaa mieltä siitä, että harva teoria on 100 % tosi. Mitä enemmän opiskelee ja perehtyy johonkin tieteeseen, sen paremmin huomaa, että löytyy juuri näitä erilaisia koulukuntia. […]

In this extract we especially concentrate on how Maija designs her agreement with Elisa. First, however, we take a brief look at Elisa’s turn. She makes an argument in which she presents a slightly critical view of theories which she backs up with experience talk. This experience talk is of the kind that we called interpretation of experience in the previous section. Thus, she describes what she has “noticed” in doing her thesis.

In her turn, Maija explicitly agrees with Elisa’s argument about the truth value of theory, using the words Olen samaa mieltä ‘I also think.’ Interestingly, Maija also clarifies this supportive statement through experience talk. And, similar to Elisa, she does it in a non-narrative way, as an interpretation of experience. She also uses the verb huomata ‘notice, realize.’ However, instead of the first person she uses the zero person form (translated as impersonal ‘you’) and offers the experience for anyone to identify with. Thus, she implies that anyone else can potentially notice the same thing she has.

In cases like extract 7, the participants seem to recycle the action and contribution types in the preceding turn and in the current sequence overall (cf. Piirainen-Marsh & Tainio, 2009). Maija makes her contribution similar to Elisa’s in thae sense that both of them use non-narrative experience talk. Thus, it is not only that the experience is similar, the way of relating the experience is also similar (cf. Barak & Gluck-Ofri, 2007).

Our last extract (8) is another case of recycling. In the example, non-narrative experience talk is used as evidence for arguments by three contributors. All of them describe a recurrent activity of theirs. In this case, agreement is expressed by different implicit agreement formats. In this extract, also, we have a case where an agreement token is followed by a partial disagreement. The extract begins with Juuso’s turn, in which he makes an argument about the appropriate way to use English and Finnish concepts in seminar work.

(8) Implicit agreement with recurrent experiences (k10)

JUUSO: A lot of good text from Markus! One thing however came to my mind in addition to what has previously been mentioned. Very many Finnish researchers use English terms, although there are Finnish equivalents. In my own text I always try to avoid this phenomenon, though in the field of finance it can at times be rather difficult. I think that using the Finnish term in the text and placing the foreign concept within parenthesis, if it is important to include, is a good practice.

Juuso:    Paljo hyvää tekstiä Markukselta! Yksi asia tuli kuitenki edellä mainittujen lisäksi mieleen. Hyvin monet suomalaiset tutkijat käyttävät väkisin englannin kielisiä käsitteitä, vaikka suomen kielinen vastine löytyis. Omassa tekstissä pyrin aina välttämään kyseistä ilmiötä, tosin rahoituksen puolella se voi välillä olla aika vaikeeta. Mielestäni hyvä tapa on laittaa käsite varsinaiseen tekstiin suomeksi ja vierasperäinen käsite sulkeisiin, mikäli se on tärkeää esittää.

KATI: It’s true that many English concepts have an established use an example that comes to mind is empowerment. The concept should always be defined in Finnish, but sometimes I have felt that using an English concept in the text is more appropriate.

Kati: Totta on, että monet englanninkieliset käsitteet ovat vakiintuneet käyttöön esimerkkinä tulee nyt mieleen empowerment. Käsite tulee aina avata suomeksi, mutta joskus olen kokenut kuvaavammaksi tekstissä käyttää englanninkielistä käsitettä.

MALLA: Juuso’s point about English terms is good in my opinion! I often ponder when should the English term be used in addition to the Finnish one and when not. In my MA thesis I have done it so that I have used both English and Finnish concepts when the concept has been such that both forms have been used in the literature written in Finnish. […]

Malla: Juuson pointti englanninkielisistä termeistä on mielestäni hyvä! Itse usein pohdin, että milloin pitäisi tuoda esiin myös englanninkielinen termi suomenkielisen termin lisäksi ja milloin ei. Omassa gradussani olen tehnyt niin, että olen tuonut esiin sekä englannin- että suomenkielisen termin silloin, kun kyseessä on ollut sellainen termi, josta on käytetty suomalaisessa kirjallisuudessa molempia.[…]

In his turn, Juuso illustrates his point about principally using Finnish concepts with a description of what he has done (“In my own text…”). He uses the adverb aina ‘always’ and describes a recurrent experience, his habitual way of acting.

Both Kati and Malla use descriptions of recurrent experiences in their responses to Juuso’s argument, but they do it in slightly different ways. Kati begins with a recognition of the truth of Juuso’s first argument with Totta on että ‘It’s true that.’ This can be seen as an implicit agreement token. However, Kati also modifies the argument a bit: While Juuso talked about researchers using English concepts “although there are Finnish equivalents,” Kati argues that “English concepts have an established use.” Thus, Kati’s contribution is similar to what Couper-Kuhlen and Thompson (2000) talk about as concessions, which are often followed by disagreements. In elaborating her stance, Kati also uses non-narrative experience talk: She describes her habitual way of using English and Finnish concepts. However, while Juuso “tries to avoid” English terms, Kati “sometimes” uses them in the text. Thus, her contribution can be read as a slight disagreement. Through making a concession, she works toward achieving affiliation with Juuso despite her slightly different stance (cf. Waring, 2001).

Malla, in contrast, begins her contribution with a positive assessment of the whole of Juuso’s argument: “Juuso’s point is good in my opinion.” This assessment works also as an implicit agreement with Juuso. This is followed by non-narrative experience talk, a description of a recurrent experience. She tells about what she “often” ponders. Also, she uses the Finnish perfect tense in telling how she uses Finnish and English, and thus presents it as a habitual practice. In Malla’s turn, the argument and the experience talk are intertwined. The experience she relates works as an illustration of how she agrees with Juuso.

In this section we have seen how experience talk works in agreeing and securing affiliation. Through the experience talk the participants display both their agreement and their affiliation with each other in the experiential sense. Sometimes the agreement is expressed explicitly. But even when it is not, the experience talk shows in a concrete way that there is agreement between the collaborators. And, importantly, when you are able to tell or describe your own experience, you are agreeing from your own perspective, on your own terms. In rare cases, a disagreement may be hinted at. Even in these cases, an orientation towards affiliation can be seen.


Our findings show that the students participated in the task-based discussion through different types of experience talk. They told personal stories and related their experiences, and they used experience talk for argumentation. In single argumentative turns, experience talk was constructed in three ways that can be placed on a continuum with regard to its degree of narrativity: 1) minimal narratives (cf. Page, 2010), 2) descriptions of singular or recurrent experiences (cf. Lester & Paulus, 2011), and 3) interpretations of experiences (cf. Peräkylä, 2004). At the narrative end of the continuum, the experience and the argument are clearly separate in the turn, while at the non-narrative end they are closely intertwined. In inter-turn argumentation, experience talk is co-constructed through first and second stories and by other kinds of reciprocal sharing of similar experiences (see Lester & Paulus, 2011; also Lehtinen, 2005; Middleton, 1997). This recycling of experience talk that is coupled with either explicit or implicit agreement forms accomplishes agreement as well as varying degrees of affiliation between the participants.

Furthermore, experience talk is typically truncated and formulated in a way that is suitable for this particular type of mediated interaction (e.g., Page, 2010; also Lapadat, 2007). The online learning platform (Moodle) and the institutional task assigned to the students furnish a context where telling stories that are too long or too personal is not convenient. The students show awareness of the context, and they design their experience talk as minimal narratives and or non-narratives that are adequate for the argumentative task. Thus, they manage a balance between their positions as peer students and as knowledgeable students who practice their skills in academic argumentation (cf. Laurinen & Marttunen, 2007; Potter, 2004; Sampson & Clark, 2008). This practice is in line with earlier findings about online learning settings that have shown how distant learners are able to accommodate their actions both to fulfill the required academic task and to socialize with their peers (Lester & Paulus, 2011). They utilize the different forms of experience talk in constructing themselves as participants who are able to fit their argumentation to the situation, as well as to the contributions of other participants (cf. Thompson, 2001).

Experience talk is also commonly generalized – especially in the case of descriptions and interpretations of experiences. Generalization is made either through grammatical forms such as the Finnish zero person form or through describing recurrent rather than singular experiences. This generalizing tendency underlines the orientation to peer-to-peer interaction where students collaborate, align, and affiliate with each other (cf. Shanahan, 2010). That is, they describe shareable experiences that can be easily affiliated with (e.g., Baym, 1996; Guiller & Durndell, 2007). However, generalizability also enhances the acceptability of the argument. It makes it possible for others to describe similar experiences and thus strengthen the argument. That is, through giving several examples that speak to a generalized principle, the participants collaboratively build a stronger case for the principle.

These patterns of experience talk and argumentation are also shaped by contextual features that have to do with digital discourse and mediated turn exchanges. In an asynchronous discussion, the interaction is in a written mode, and the system leaves room for time and consideration with regard to each contribution (Meyer, 2003). The participants can choose the action that they want to react to and the time and place for their response. At the same time, they need to rely on written cues, in addition to institutional contextual resources, in deciding how to contribute – for example, when and where it is appropriate to share experiences or join the collaborative argumentation (e.g., Lester & Paulus 2011; see also Laurinen & Marttunen, 2007; Walker Pickering, 2009).

In conclusion, experience talk in digital learning is ‘factual’ and ‘social’ at the same time. It is a resource for argumentation about facts and viewpoints that have to do with the topic of interactional learning, as well as for collaborating and affiliating with peers. It is a way for displaying one’s own expertise and interacting with others. It is shaped by the institutional context as well as the asynchronous digital context.


  1. Although our focus is not on learning as such, it is compatible with the notions of socio-interactional learning (e.g., Piirainen-Marsh & Tainio, 2009) and digital learning as collaborative and interactive argumentation (e.g., Clark et al., 2007; Laurinen & Marttunen, 2007).

  2. The expression ‘experience talk’ is used occasionally in the relevant literature (e.g., Penttinen, 2006) but analyzed under other rubrics (e.g., sharing prior experiences; Lester & Paulus, 2011).

  3. The data are part of a total research dataset of about 100 threads and 1100 turns. This is the dataset of the dissertation research of the first author.

  4. As can be seen here, our concept of ’experience talk’ is broad. We have included these kinds of descriptions of habitual practices when it is clearly the writer’s own practices that are described. In our view, the writer is using her or his experience of these practices as evidence in these cases.

  5. In the Finnish sentence, kanssanne ‘with you’ is plural in form.


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Biographical Notes

Liisa Kääntä [liisa.kaanta@uva.fi] is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Modern Finnish and Translation, University of Vaasa, Finland. Her research interests include digital interaction, online learning, institutional interaction, and the methodological challenges of online data microanalysis.

Esa Lehtinen [esa.lehtinen@uva.fi] is Professor of Modern Finnish in the Department of Modern Finnish and Translation, University of Vaasa, Finland. He has conducted research on discourse in organizational, medical, and religious settings.


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