In the face-to-face classroom, nonverbal communication such as facial expressions, body posture, eye contact, gestures, and attendance are often used to gauge students' engagement and understanding. Instructors can use these cues to know when to provide additional support and instruction before proceeding to the next topic. But what about in the online classroom? Are there nonverbal forms of communication that can help instructors know when students have gone off track and need help?
There are equivalent cues in the online classroom, says Leslie King, program chair for the master of healthcare administration at Franklin University. However, in the online environment, instructors need to be more intentional about the design and facilitation of the course in order to take advantage of the nonverbal communication that is available online.
“I don't think online faculty members are lacking very much in their capabilities to detect and deliver tailored intervention for students in the online environment,” King says. “In the online classroom, for the most part, there are multiple activities the online students are engaging in that can assist faculty with observing nonverbal cues, whether it's the discussion board or chat room. Typically there are multiple points of engagement that the faculty member should be watching.”
King offers the following examples of nonverbal communication that might indicate a need for the instructor to intervene:
- Frequency of course log-ins—Is the student logging in regularly to enable an appropriate level of interaction?
- Navigation behavior—Use tracking features of your learning management system to see how students use the course. “You can detect students' confusion by observing their navigation in the online classroom,” King says. “With tracking tools that are available in most learning management systems, you are able to tell whether or not [students are] accessing materials as they should. … If you have a well-designed online course, students may come in and flip through everything during the first week or two, but after that it should be intuitive enough for them to know exactly where to find learning materials for a particular assignment.”
- Last-minute assignment submissions—Last-minute submissions may be the result of students' busy lives, or it could indicate a lack of engagement.“Some students do very well with the fact that they can't get to all their work until Saturday, but it really does hurt the whole class if students are not engaged. The whole online environment is about student-to-student engagement as much as it is about student-to-instructor and student-to-content engagement,” King says.
- Discussion board post quality—“On the discussion board, before students ever get graded, there is dialogue and engagement by the students—with other students, with the instructor, and with the content. The instructor can look at students' timeliness and the content to determine whether or not the students understand the material. And then hopefully the instructor will intervene with something such as, ‘Have you considered …?' when necessary to enhance and bring students along in their learning way before there is an assessment,” King says.
- Low scores on assignments
- Slow response to emails
King recommends the following strategies to methodically monitor this nonverbal communication:
- Provide opportunities for practice. “I'm a big proponent of practice tests or quizzes that are available early enough to give the faculty time between the [practice] and the true assessment activity to see who is accessing it [and] how often they are accessing it and to know students' level of engagement and comprehension,” King says. “It takes a bit of planning, but it can really enhance the student experience.
“If you build into your learning design practice quizzes or knowledge checks, these will actually tell you a lot about when they were taken, what the performance was, and how many times the student took them. That will tell you quite a bit about where a student is with engagement and understanding the current topic.” For example, a student taking a practice quiz but doing poorly each time would indicate that he or she is highly engaged but is not learning for some reason. Intervention for an engaged but underperforming student would be different than an intervention for one who is disengaged and underperforming.
- Use reflective learning components. Throughout the course embed assignments that ask students about the learning experience (e.g., What did you like or dislike about this assignment?)
- Make virtual eye contact. Contact students directly about their nonverbal cues within the course. Let them know that you are aware of their efforts.
- Consider the whole picture. Do not jump to conclusions based on a single piece of evidence such as a bad grade on an assignment or unsatisfactory participation in a discussion. “If you notice something in one area, go into investigation mode as you would with a student coming to class late. All of it comes down to these cues being conversation starters with the students. As you get better and more comfortable at recognizing [these nonverbal cues], you will be able to identify some typical reasons as to why [certain behaviors] are occurring and figure out ways to help. [Solutions] are not always immediately obvious. … I think we have a lot of opportunities, especially when you consider that students are accessing their courses on a tablet or iPhone while walking down the street. We need to make sure that we develop the material and the learning that can be delivered on those devices.” For example, rather than a five-page discourse on a topic, a short piece of audio might accomplish the same thing while improving the accessibility as learners access the course from anywhere.
Being responsive to students' nonverbal cues requires anticipating how students might perform in the course. “You need to learn the typical things that are going to reoccur because you can get worn out quickly as an online faculty member if you're not planning ahead to some degree,” King says.
King recommends crafting (and then personalizing) emails in anticipation of common issues in a course, creating multimedia that addresses topics in ways that can help students who are struggling. “The role of the faculty member begins to shift from not only being a disseminator of information and assignment grader, but also being an intentional observer of student learning behavior by watching individual nonverbal cues regarding navigation, late submissions, poor quality of discussion board posts, and multiple attempts at practice quizzes. We have the ability to watch that on an individual basis and to have an intentional effort of reaching out to students and intervening as soon as possible.”