Isabel Hopwood is Research Associate with BILT, working on the TESTA (Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessment) and Curriculum Enhancement Programmes. She is particularly interested in formative assessment and feedback processes and the emotional dimension of teaching and learning.
Can you guess what experience these UoB students are describing?
“Awkward and uncomfortable”.
“Disheartening and dry.”
“A cold, clinical, demoralising way to learn.”
That’s right: synchronous online teaching!
(At this juncture, I feel dutybound to point out that our students also reported positive experiences of online teaching. But I’m an education researcher who’s essentially paid to find problems, so if it’s ok with you, I’m going to focus on the negative).
So: why do some of our students find online learning so unpleasant?
To answer this question, it’s worth revisiting what we already know about the relationship between teachers and students in higher education. We know that the teaching style adopted by a lecturer can influence the extent to which students engage with the content, with old-fashioned transmission teaching resulting in less, and student-focused teaching approaches resulting in more. We know that the emotions teachers experience as they work are linked to their teaching style too, with positive emotions such as pride and motivation associated with more student-focused teaching, and embarrassment and anxiety associated with less interactive “chalk and talk” strategies. And we also know that the competence with which teachers communicate as they teach can provoke strong positive or negative emotional responses in their students.
Of particular interest here is something called non-verbal immediacy, which is how a student perceives the teacher responding to them through body language, e.g. tilting their head as they consider a question, maintaining eye contact or changing their facial expression in response to their comments. A teacher’s use of non-verbal immediacy, along with articulating and explaining things clearly, is part of a teacher’s communication competence. When students perceive high levels of communication competence, they experience positive emotions such as enjoyment and motivation. When a student does not pick up these cues the inverse is true, and they can experience anger, shame, anxiety and boredom.
Now let’s revisit those quotes.
Does this mean that some of our teachers are dismal communicators…? Before you start nodding enthusiastically, I’d like to make the case that it’s more nuanced than that.
Pre-pandemic, we already knew that teachers’ emotions can influence how they teach and how they experience teaching itself. But over the last year, HE teachers have also had to deal with an erosion of their work-life balance and privacy as a result of working from home. They’ve also gone from being respected experts in their field to novices battling video conferencing software overnight. Stressful ain’t the word. Now let’s return to the idea of teachers feeling anxious and embarrassed as they work. Teachers experiencing those feelings are more likely to revert to transmission teaching approaches.
And there’s another issue at play here, which for want of a decent thesaurus, I’m going to call: the inherent limitations to non-verbal communication online. Have you tried establishing or maintaining eye contact on a video call? It’s not really possible, is it? You can look at someone’s face on their video feed, but that internal click of knowing that you’re seeing and being seen by each other is missing, before we add time-lags and pixilation to the problem. Subtle changes in facial expression – the twitch of an eyebrow or a sympathetic pursing of the lips – might also go unnoticed. And our cameras tend to truncate us all below the shoulder, meaning that gesticulations and postural cues are missed.
My point here is that it would be quite easy for a teacher – who is a perfectly decent sort, yet new to online teaching – to inadvertently demonstrate a lack of non-verbal immediacy to their students. If that teacher is also anxious about the tech and embarrassed by their lack of expertise, they could compound their students’ perception of low communication competence by reverting to a “tried and tested” teaching format which plays safe and lacks opportunity for student-teacher interaction. Cue disengaged and angry students.
I deplore lazy teaching and I’m not here to defend it. But I can’t help thinking that our students’ negative experiences online have been partly due to their teachers’ lack of awareness about the medium’s limitations. The student opinions I cited earlier are already three months old; we can assume that many problems caused by teething troubles have been resolved. But we can’t escape the fact that transmission teaching is a turn-off, wherever it takes place, or that a teacher’s body language does a lot of talking which is muffled by online delivery. So, what to do?
We need to make our non-verbal immediacy verbally visible. It’s the online equivalent of holding the door open for someone. Greeting people as they enter the virtual room; making time for informal chat before teaching starts; addressing students by name; keeping our camera on; explaining exactly how they can ask questions as the lesson progresses; thanking them for their contributions; and if possible, hanging back at the end for any further questions. This lets us explicitly communicate our interest and commitment in a more concrete, Zoom-proof way.
I’ll end with a quote from one of our students that describes the difference it makes:
“I have one seminar which I really love, even though it’s online. The seminar leader is so lovely, bubbly, interactive, asks how we are and uses our individual names. It feels like we’re in a real classroom – I always learn so much more in these sessions.”
Nice work, mystery teacher 😊
The Dark Side of Emotion in the Classroom: Emotional Processes as Mediators of Teacher Communication Behaviours and Student Negative Emotions – Joseph P. Mazer, Timothy P. Mckenna-Buchanan, Margaret M. Quinlan and Scott Titsworth
COVID-19 and digital disruption in UK universities: afflictions and affordances of emergency online migration – Richard Watermeyer, Tom Crick, Cathryn Knight and Janet Goodall