Experience shows that online courses naturally lend themselves to more self-disclosure on the part of faculty and students than face-to-face courses do, possibly due to the increased quantity of discussion. Most large lecture courses have little if any discussion, and while smaller classes may have more discussion, it tends to be students answering direct questions from and speaking to the instructor. By contrast, the lack of a physical classroom of chairs all facing the instructor leads to online students speaking directly to one another in discussion. Plus, there are no time limits to discussion, allowing for more and deeper conversation.
It is also possible that students and faculty feel safer speaking about themselves online. Simply having someone look at you face-to-face can lead us to be more reserved about what we say, perhaps because of an unconscious worry about how they will react, even if just through facial expressions. Moreover, when class participants are distributed around the country or world, what we say is less likely to be passed on to others we might encounter than when everyone is on the same physical campus.
While this increased self-disclosure would seem to enhance the learning experience, it also raises the question of the limits of self-disclosure, something that is rarely discussed in online teaching. I come from a background that encouraged openness and honesty about oneself, and as a result I like sharing what I think to be interesting tidbits about myself to make a connection with students, such as that I was married on a 100-mile bike ride. I believe that this leads to reciprocity of self-disclosure.
But others may not share my comfort with openness. Different family situations, cultures, and even regions of the United States can lead some people to become uncomfortable with others’ openness. Plus, controlling information about ourselves is part of how we modulate the tone and strength of our relationships. We share private information about ourselves to significant others partly as a means of building intimacy. This only works if we are judicious about how we spend the currency of private information less we devalue it.
Mohsine Jebbour and Fatima Mouaid (2019) studied student attitudes and reactions to teacher self-disclosure to glean some guidance on how far teachers should go, and perhaps expect students to go, in their self-disclosure. First, they found that teacher self-disclosure does indeed encourage student participation. They also suggested that attaching self-disclosure to a point being made helps that point stick in students’ minds. Thus, self-disclosure is generally a good thing.
More is not always better, however. While there is no simple standard for determining whether students will take a particular example of self-disclosure well or poorly, as everyone is different, and people’s reactions are situationally dependent, Jebbour and Mouaid identified five different axes of disclosure that can help guide a faculty member on their use of self-disclosure in a course.
Quantity: Quantity refers to the number of disclosures in a given time, such as five in a particular class. While the authors gave no guidelines for an appropriate quantity, evidence suggests that it can reach a point of diminishing returns where students start feeling like the instructor is sharing too much. This reminds me of a very popular teacher I once knew who said that one of the reasons students reported liking him was that he did not try to be their friend. Just as students can feel uncomfortable when their instructor tries to friend them on Facebook or Instagram, they want a certain professional barrier between themselves and their instructor, suggesting that faculty need to limit how much they disclose.
Depth: Depth indicates the intimacy of the disclosure. Here again studies have found that students often consider more depth to be uncomfortable.
Relevance: Relevance concerns the degree to which the self-disclosure supports a teaching point in the class. Not surprisingly, relevance is important to student comfort with self-disclosure, and so teachers should feel more at liberty to disclose information about themselves when it advances student understanding. For instance, as a cautionary tale, a teacher might share the experience of a participant getting angry with the teacher when the teacher was administering a survey.
Topic: Studies that Jebbour and Mouaid discuss have found that certain hot-button topics—such as sex, religion, and politics—can make students uncomfortable, while personal experiences, interests, and hobbies were found to be appropriate. Interestingly, personal opinions were also found to be appropriate. I have always been cautious about sharing my personal opinions with students on grounds that doing so might make them less likely to share contrary opinions. But perhaps students feel that hearing an instructor’s personal opinion will help them learn about the topic as the instructor is an expert in the field.
Prior relationship: Studies have found that students who have taken a prior class with an instructor feel more comfortable with the instructor’s self-disclosure and are willing to disclose more about themselves.
Two thoughts come to mind in terms of practical guidance from this research. First, faculty should make use of greater self-disclosure in online courses as a proven means to increase student discussion and learning. Second, more self-disclosure is not always better. Faculty worried about crossing that line might consider an alternative to the bio icebreaker. One I have used asks students to post a photo of their favorite place to visit, or somewhere they want to visit, and why. This allows them to talk about experiences without getting too deep into their own backgrounds. Also, since reciprocity of self-disclosure is usually a good measure of the recipient’s comfort with the disclosure, faculty can try different types of self-disclosure and use the level of reciprocity among students to gauge whether they have strayed beyond students’ comfort zones.
Jebbour, M., & Mouaid, F. (2019). The impact of teacher self-disclosure on student participation in the university English language classroom. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 31(3), 424–436. https://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE3460.pdf