In the past, our ITA program has had varying levels of success
using conversation partners and conversation hours as an opportunity for
our students to practice their speaking and listening skills. For
example, we recruited members of the university’s retirees’ association
and found retired faculty provided excellent conversation partners. The
students paired with them felt the depth and breadth of their
conversations really helped them improve both speaking and listening.
However, despite efforts over several semesters, it was difficult to
recruit more than a few volunteers each semester.
We have had more luck recruiting undergraduates from programs
such as International Studies, but if the chemistry is not right between
the conversation partners or if the semester gets busy, they often stop
meeting after the first or second time.
When we used conversation hours, we generally had more
internationals than native speakers. When they clumped together in
groups, usually one international took on most of the conversation
responsibilities while more passive students might not have been
Of course, the final problem was what to talk about. The
retired faculty enjoyed discussing research, teaching, and the American
classroom, but it was much more rare for undergraduates to go beyond
In the past year and a half, we have started using a new model
that we call roundtables. For a typical roundtable we recruit 6 to 12
volunteers from a campus organization to come and speak about their
organization’s specialty. We divide the volunteers into six or more
stations, each with a slightly different focus. When our students
arrive, they spend 7 to 10 minutes at one station and then rotate to the
For example, volunteers from the university’s undergraduate
student government formed eight stations. We suggested topics to them in
advance, but they had input as well. The volunteers were able to pick a
topic that they were interested in and knowledgeable about. Topics
included fraternities and sororities, dating, homecoming, and
The conversations are usually quite lively―much more so than
those we had previously in conversation hours. I believe this is because
the volunteers are experts and have a lot to say on their topic in a
short period. Instead of searching for answers, volunteers respond to
our students’ questions enthusiastically. On the flip side, our students
get a lot of cultural information from volunteers who have thought a
great deal about the topic.
One of my favorite roundtables occurred when undergraduates
with disabilities shared their experiences. Each volunteer talked about
his or her disability and the modifications and resources needed to be
successful in the classroom. Several of our students left saying they
felt inspired by the people they had met.
We invited Black undergraduate students to share as well. Their
dialogue was extremely candid. They shared general information as well
as their specific experiences with overt and subtler acts of racism.
They explained the events and the significance of an upsetting event on
campus now termed the “cotton ball incident.” Although it occurred in
2010, this event has shaped much of the dialogue about racism and
discrimination on our campus.
In addition to cultural learning opportunities, we teamed with
undergraduates from the National Student Speech Language Hearing
Association (NSSLHA) and used the same roundtable format to run three
pronunciation workshops: a vowel workshop, a consonant workshop, and
consonant cluster workshop.
NSSHLA volunteers have been especially enthusiastic. Most had
never worked with adults or in the field of accent modification, so the
roundtables have been excellent confidence builders for them and have
opened them up to a field they had not really considered before.
The roundtable program does require more administrative work
throughout the semester compared to a conversation hour or conversation
partner program. In order for undergraduate leaders to round up their
volunteers, we have occasionally had to postpone a workshop. Also, some
student organizations have been unresponsive. The key seems to be
finding good undergraduate student leaders―whether or not they belong to
a student organization―and cultivating relationships with them. Though
it takes time and effort, the program is definitely worthwhile in light
of the quality of cultural information received and the attitude of both
the volunteers and our international students.
Liz Tummons is the ITA Program Coordinator at the University of
Missouri. Because of her K-12 background and her interest in math and
sciences, she is generally curious about a lot of things.