Virtual Classroom Insights - Part 10: Nonverbal Communication in the Virtual Classroom

One of the major differences between the classroom and its virtual analogue is the mediated contact. Understanding a student’s nonverbal communication in the virtual classroom is very important for tutors. “The key to interpreting body language correctly is situational awareness and an understanding of how people physically express what they’re thinking and feeling.”

Eye contact

Teachers can make eye contact with their students to show that they are interested in how they are doing, but this also goes both ways. Students who are interested in the subject are less likely to look away or have a dull and unfocused expression. In the virtual classroom, due to the mediated contact, teachers will not always be able to assess whether the students are just focusing on a point on the floor, ceiling, or wall, or if they are distracted by something in their surroundings outside the view of the camera. Nevertheless, the eyes easily give away whether or not a student is interested.

  • Hack 1: A useful tip for teachers is to ask questions and address them specifically. This is an easy and quite effective way to erase any doubt about whether or not a student is paying attention.

There are however specific circumstances in which eye contact is not acceptable, such as when cultural differences and norms dictate otherwise. For instance, in some Asian cultures looking directly at someone else is considered challenging and, therefore, it is not acceptable for students to look at teachers in this manner. Another factor influencing eye contact could be rooted in an illness that makes it difficult for the student to focus (such are autism, ADHD, and others). Another reason could be age. Young children often avoid eye contact when they are too shy or when they have done something wrong. No matter what the issue is with the student, the reaction of the teacher should always be reassuring and positive.

As a teacher you must also be aware that eye contact may also contain an element of intimidation. There are two disconcerting types of stares: the thousand-yard stare and the target stare. The first consists of an unfocused and unseeing look, while the latter is a narrowed, directly fixed look (often on the chin of a person). These stares show that the student is not mentally present, which should raise red flags for the teacher, especially if combined with other nonverbal cues.

Facial expression

  • Hack 2: Just by making eye contact with each student the teacher can receive a lot of information. What are the students’ faces in the virtual classroom saying?
  1. Are they masklike and unexpressive?
  2. Are they present and interested?

A frown and dull eyes show that the student is probably not happy to be in class. Often students feel obligated to smile back at the teacher when they are directly looked at. This is a fake smile – it is a sign that the student feels unwell but does not want to share their feelings. A genuine smile, on the other hand, is a sign that the student probably feels engaged in the online tutoring session. Indifferent expressions, as well as excessive blinking, are often a sign of boredom, distress, and fatigue.

Posture and gestures

The position of the body and one’s gestures can reveal a person’s stress level. In the virtual classroom teachers can try to pay attention to the posture of their students. Is it relaxed or stiff and immobile? Research has shown that when one is interested they tend to lean forward in order to hear better. Therefore, a student who is paying attention will usually be sitting up, whereas a student who is bored or disengaged will be slouching.

  • Hack 3: A very helpful, albeit unusual, tip is for teachers to encourage stretching. Promoting this type of activity helps with circulation, increases the amount of oxygen, and provides a natural burst of energy.

The arms are yet another very important piece of the body language puzzle. Teachers in the virtual classroom should pay special attention to them because “…Your students’ arms will tell you quite a bit about how the class is receiving your instruction, how they’re feeling about being in the class, and their individual moods. Look at each student’s arms, and then look at the class as a whole for any like behavior.”

Folded arms are usually associated with a closed-off posture, an unwillingness to participate, and an attempt to block out a discussion.

  • Hack 4: Open arms are a sign of interest and openness.

A teacher must be aware that young children often fold their arms while mimicking their siblings or as a sign of self-protection. Children also have a tendency to scratch their heads when they are confused.

Intensity, timing and place, and tone of voice

Intensity refers to the attitude of the students towards the online training in which they are participating. Are students cold and disinterested or overwhelming and dramatic? Furthermore, do their nonverbal communication cues fit the surroundings? What is the speed of their body language responses? What does the voice of the student sound like: is it warm, confident, interested or blocked, passive, inactive? All these questions can be answered through careful observation, and they will be very useful for the lecturer.

Inconsistency

After spending even a short amount of time with someone it is relatively easy to detect when there is an inconsistency between their verbal and nonverbal communication. Often, when someone overthinks what they are trying to say with words, their gestures are also deliberately slowed down. Another possibility is for the gestures to not match the words; for example, to say something positive but shake your head in a negative manner. Nevertheless, for people who are experienced in the field of social work, detecting such inconsistencies comes rather naturally.

Clusters

All body language signs should be considered in relation to other signs rather than be judged individually.

  • Hack 5: “Don’t read too much into a single gesture or nonverbal cue. Consider all of the nonverbal signals you are receiving, from eye contact to tone of voice and body language. Taken together, are their nonverbal cues consistent-or inconsistent- with what their words are saying?”

 

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Maya Kolarova is an experienced teacher, advertiser and copywriter. She has a PhD in Journalism from the Department of Media and Public Communication at the University of National and World Economy (UNWE) in Sofia. She has taught English and Italian classes, as well as lectures in UNWE on matters of Mass communication, Business communication, Public Opinion. Her fields of interest include: communication, online media, advertising, and psychology.
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