OIA Mini-Primer: Improving Verbal and Nonverbal Communication with Students Online and Face to Face

This mini-primer is designed for instructors who would like to learn more about their voice and body as tools in interpersonal communication skills. It introduces core concepts of successful communication in physical and digital classrooms and includes practical tips and tutorials to prepare for presenting and public speaking.

Table of Contents:


The Complexity of Interpersonal Communication

Human communication is the process of acting on information, of creating meaning in both verbal and nonverbal messages (Knapp, Hall, & Horgan, 2013). Communication is effective if the receiver understands a message as intended and/or when it has the intended effect by being properly encoded with appropriate nonverbal communication. Since communication includes a receiver and a sender, scholars talk about “interpersonal communication” and define it as “communication that occurs simultaneously between two people who attempt to mutually influence each other, usually for the purpose of managing relationships” (Beebe, Beebe, & Ivy, 2016, p. 18).

Complexity arises because communication is inescapable and irreversible, however, what we express is rarely interpreted by another person exactly as we intended (Sidelinger, & Bolen, 2016). Communication is structured by rules that depend on larger cultural frameworks as well as specific, smaller subcultures. In the classroom, communication is influenced by regional culture, disciplinary conventions, the cultural background of the instructor and the background of dominant groups among the students (Fujii, & Hirotani, 2015). A lot of the cultural rules and conventions are implicit, and members of the classroom community may experience varying degrees of uncertainty and anxiety in this regard. Moreover, much communication is mediated, using technology to transfer messages; and the conventions regarding communication via tools is again culturally determined (Beebe, Beebe & Ivy, 2016). Communication, therefore, is a cultural product.

Some Key Concepts for Talking about Communication in the Classroom

The following concepts play a central role in the scholarship about interpersonal communication in the classroom. As keywords, they help guide your search for further resources and studies.

  • Immediacy. Whether in in-person classrooms, hybrid interactions, or fully online courses, the instructor’s personal appearance and communication skills remain an important factor in building learning communities and enhancing learning. Instructor behavior that reduces psychological distance between people is called immediacy and it has a positive effect on affective and cognitive levels of learning (Ni, & Aust, 2008). Immediacy also enhances instructor credibility and student motivation in many cases. One may distinguish between verbal and nonverbal immediacy, and research shows that they are especially effective in congruence with each other (Goodboy, Weber, & Bolkan, 2009).  Public speaking skills strongly define an instructor’s ability to create and maintain immediacy, whether in a physical classroom or during recordings at the desk in one’s office.
  • Dialogic Communication. The desire for communication and immediacy can backfire. On the one extreme, talkaholic instructors or students negatively affect classroom climate and erode student communication satisfaction. The same impact happens with the other extreme, the lack or negligence of personalized, oral communication in fully online courses. The effective middle ground is dialogic communication: two-way, frequent instructor-student and student-student communication that enhances a learner-centered, highly interactive environment. (Sidelinger, & Bolen, 2016; Rudick, & Golsan, 2014) When looking for more information, also use the keywords relational communication and critical communication.
  • Multimodal communication. Instructor immediacy and dialogic communication in the classroom can be enhanced with a multimodal focus that mirrors the realities and layers of practical communication in daily life. The WOVEN communication approach as presented by the Writing and Communication Program at Georgia Tech addresses the components that make communication multimodal. The modalities include written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal communication. Since communication often includes more than one modality, it is multimodal. This can be a challenge, but it also provides opportunities. Using different modalities that offer choice and flexibility for students with different learning preferences; it helps clarify the overall content and serves as a diversity-responsive teaching strategy.

Options for Diversifying Communication

A deliberate attempt to make communication multimodal creates a more diverse learning environment. Institutions increasingly integrate multimodal tools in their course management systems, and with that comes technical and pedagogical support for their use. Here are some suggestions:

  • Live meetings. Voice, body language, gestures, and overall presentation skills may enhance or stifle student participation. If not in a physical classroom, Adobe Connect offers the possibility to hold synchronous online meetings, including audio and video for participants. One can take the advantage of virtual breakout rooms, uploading a variety of materials, and recording the session.
  • Audio files. These may be used for an introduction to, an overview of, or a transition between different course topics or modules. The instructor could also post spoken comments in discussions, grading/feedback areas, or the gradebook in D2L.
  • Screencasts. The instructor prepares short lecture segments, or records him/herself while grading a student’s work to enhance communication of feedback. The screencasting tool Panopto is integrated into D2L.
  • Videos. The instructor provides an introduction to, an overview of, or a transition between different course topics or modules. You may model an activity, for instance, a chemical experiment, and then talk the student viewers through the process. You may also model using video to provide comments in a discussion. D2L allows taking video of up to 10 minutes. Also, Panopto can be an excellent tool for online video creation.
  • Multimodal tools. Students may be able to engage in multimodal, asynchronous, non-chronological discussions that allow for comments in different formats and include options for uploading additional files. These types of tools echo the multimodal communication students personally engage in on a daily basis. Examples of such tools offered through the UA would be VoiceThread, Panopto, or Adobe Connect.

Keep in mind that captioning is essential for multimodal, and/or computer-based learning environments, and that there is institutional support for instructors.The UA has created the ITAccessibility Program with the mission of achieving an accessible electronic and information technology environment at the UA. The website includes resources and guides, including a page specific to Creating Accessible Course Materials, and the program offers consultation. Further, visit The Disability Resource Center’s website, and take a look at their Quick Tips.


Verbal Components Live and in Recording

Communication behaviors that reduce psychological distance between people, i.e. measures of immediacy, are well developed, and sometimes even dominate, in-person classroom situations. In contrast, immediacy may appear underdeveloped in online learning contexts. Research has shown that instructor verbal immediacy significantly increases online discussion frequency and the development of a classroom community; in other words, the verbal presence of the instructor online enhances interaction and collaboration (Knapp, Hall, & Horgan, 2013).

Students cherish the “human element” of knowing their instructor as a person both audibly and visually. They appreciate the sharing of knowledge via short, personal lectures, and are more open to feedback and mentoring that includes verbal and visual cues, from the sound of a voice to facial expressions. Moreover, studies indicate that student satisfaction and perceived learning correlate positively to verbal immediacy of instructor and peers. (Ni, & Aust, 2008)

Tips for Verbal Communication

  • Be Conscious of How You Breathe. Breath control is an essential aspect of being a more effective and confident verbal and nonverbal communicator in the classroom. The diaphragmatic breathing technique of breathing slowly, and from the belly, will help to keep your speed of speech at a rate you can control, and help you to stay relaxed.
  • Project Your Voice. Breath support as mentioned above is crucial for projecting your voice. It is recommended to breathe from the belly, not the chest, and that you consider moving around the room in order to not only project your voice but to connect with your audience. Try to use imagery to send your voice to the back of the room, for example by seeing a brass loop at the farthest place in your teaching space, and sending your voice there with a hook.
  • Warm up Your Voice. Relax your jaw, and avoid tightening it. This will allow your breath to move more fluidly from your lungs, and will also improve your articulation, tone, and overall control of speech.
  • Speak Clearly at a Moderate Pace. In any classroom environment, the rate of your speech is crucial. Speaking too quickly and not taking pauses will make your students feel rushed. However, speaking at too slow a rate can disengage them. Using a conversational, personal style for your lecturing or discussions will help to keep an even pace, as will control of your breath and centering your body.
  • Use a Varied Tone of Voice. Storytelling abilities are one of the things that separate the engaging from the non-engaging lecturer. In an audio recording, a varied tone of voice provides ample social cues because a change in inflection indicates nonverbal activity and allows inferences about a change of facial expression or posture of the invisible speaker.
  • Don’t be Afraid of Silence. The power of silence can be very strong. Pauses while communicating with learners are an important tool for maintaining engagement because they give learners time to analyze what you have communicated to them. Silence can also provide an opportunity for questions and discussion. A pause that is too long can cause anxiety, discomfort, or a lack of connection, so silence must be thought about mindfully, and used with caution. A good length for a pause can be anywhere from five to ten seconds.
  • Test Your Microphone. Using the built-in microphone is usually not the best option for optimum sound quality in online learning environments, so either a headset with a microphone or a boundary microphone, both with a USB connection to your computer, are suggested. In the face to face classroom, a microphone should not be needed if you project your voice to your audience unless you are in a large lecture hall.

In this short tutorial, Sara West Bechtold demonstrates the importance of breath support when teaching. Techniques for breath support and control, as well as posture, will be explored. 


Nonverbal Components Live and in Recording

Nonverbal Communication is defined as “communication by means other than written or spoken language that creates meaning for someone” (Beebe, Beebe, & Ivy, 2016, p. 22) and includes aspects such as eye contact, gestures, and posture. The literature reviewed on nonverbal communication in face to face, hybridized, or fully online courses reveals that instructors ought to be aware of their own physical and verbal presence in all classroom environments (Goodboy, Weber, & Bolkan, 2009) because the physical and psychological closeness a student feels with the instructor is primarily based upon the instructor’s nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication makes up approximately 90% of all communication (Pease, & Pease, 2004; Fromkin, & Rodman, 1983).

Effective nonverbal communication calls for a constant awareness, or state of mindfulness with regards to eye contact, hand and arm gestures, facial expressions, vocal tone, and the awareness and ability to move freely around the classroom (Miller, Katt, Brown, & Sivo, 2014). Using nonverbal communication deliberately and effectively instructors can enhance immediacy and their overall relationship to their students (Goodboy, Weber, & Bolkan, 2009).

Tips for Nonverbal Communication

  • Use Your Face. Students are more engaged when listening to an active voice, meaning it carries with it nonverbal cues that add inflection, and seeing facial expressions. Think of ways to speak conversationally in a lecture, to connect with your students. Watch your students’ expressions as well. Because you are the instructor, your facial expressions can impact how learners perceive the classroom environment. A face with a transparent, honest expression will help to keep the attention of the listener. You can also use dramatic skill to get points across by making varied facial expressions of intensity, quietness, and so on (Pease,& Pease, 2004).
  • Look Up and Make Eye Contact. Making eye contact with learners, and with the webcam when giving online discussions or lectures is key. In large learning spaces, a balance between looking at individuals and at the entire crowd, slightly above their eye level, is recommended. Take deep breaths, and focus on the present moment, which will center you and keep your eyes focused. Be as natural as you can, and share your enthusiasm for the content. You can make notes to yourself if you are recording a video or in a simultaneous webcast. Keep the notes close to the camera so that your eyes are not moving back and forth too much.  
  • Stand Straight and Relaxed. Keep your back straight while teaching online or in face to face learning environments. Keep your feet a shoulder-width apart, with your dominant foot slightly in front of your other foot. Keep your knees relaxed and don’t lock them; it improves your posture and your feeling of being grounded and confident.
  • Sit Upright. In a traditional face to face environment, it may be a good idea to sit down and pause to invite student contributions and discussion. To maintain your presence and focus, keep your back straight, with a relaxed posture, which will come from breathing from your diaphragm. In online teaching, this is the way you should try to sit when recording yourself. (Keep in mind that you can move around while teaching online if you have set up a teaching environment in your webcast space beforehand and the camera can capture your movement and activity well.)
  • Gesture. Using your hands and body appropriately and deliberately at particular moments of importance will engage students, and make what you say more compelling. Moderation is required so as to not use this technique too often, as it might appear awkward. Gestures during video recordings at your computer are fine as well; just check to make sure that they are not too distracting, given their frequency, nature, and the camera angle.
  • Utilize Your Space. Taking a walk around the classroom and engaging in the face to face environment in this way promotes a connection between you and your students. If you are teaching online, you might prepare a space where the webcam is used to give you room to move around, and use objects such as a whiteboard or lab instruments. Keep in mind to move a little slower and very deliberately when recording a video in comparison to a face to face situation.

In this short tutorial, Sara West Bechtold demonstrates tips for recording yourself teaching online in an office environment. She will discuss how to set up your space to give a more personalized feel that students will engage with. 


Awareness and Resources

Most instructors are not trained performance artists, but a good awareness of one’s own body and habits allows gradual improvement of expressiveness, intentionality, and ease of attention. Being aware of your own breathing during teaching, for instance, will help keep you relaxed and taking the time to be aware of your voice’s volume, pitch, and tone, and your pace of speech. Finding out how you position yourself in a room or whether or not your hands and arms are expressive communication tools will help you make strategic decisions in live and recording circumstances.

While people hate listening and watching themselves, it is highly recommended that you record regular videos for self-observation. Detecting your habits and identifying aspects you want to change will lead to a gradual, but solid improvement of your verbal and nonverbal communication skills. The Office of Instruction and Assessment can assist with video recordings, and the University Information Technology Services (UITS) lends video equipment for self-use.

There are many resources with regards to public speaking skills, but these are not the only available resources. If you would like to explore more ways to increase your self-awareness, and breathing skills, consider learning from contemplative practices. If you are looking for more tips and tricks regarding voice, gestures, and body language, look for information stemming from the performings arts; for instance, singing and theater exercises.

Some Online Pedagogical Resources for Effective Communication

Body Language and Immediacy:
Communication and Public Speaking Tips:
Contemplative (Breathing) Techniques:

Please also note a high number of TED talks on verbal and nonverbal communication.


References

Beebe, S.A., Beebe, S.J. & Ivy, D.K. (2016). Communication Principles for a Lifetime (6th ed.). Pearson: Boston.

Fromkin V, Rodman R (1983). An introduction to language (3rd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Fujii, K., & Hirotani, M. (2015, December). Implementing verbal and nonverbal activities in an intercultural collaboration project for English education. In Critical CALL–Proceedings of the 2015 EUROCALL Conference, Padova, Italy (p. 198). Research-publishing. Net.

Goodboy, A.K., Weber, K. & Bolkan, S. (2009). The Effects of Nonverbal and Verbal Immediacy on Recall and Multiple Student Learning Indicators. The Journal of Classroom Interaction, 44(1), 4-12.

Knapp, M., Hall, J., & Horgan, T. (2013). Nonverbal communication in human interaction. Cengage Learning.

Koppensteiner, M. (2013). Motion cues that make an impression: Predicting perceived personality by minimal motion information. Journal of experimental social psychology, 49(6), 1137-1143.

Miller, A. N., Katt, J. A., Brown, T., & Sivo, S. A. (2014). The relationship of instructor self-disclosure, nonverbal immediacy, and credibility to student incivility in the college classroom. Communication Education, 63(1), 1-16.

Ni, S.F., & Aust, R. (2008). Examining Teacher Verbal Immediacy and Sense of Classroom Community in Online Classes. International Journal on ELearning, 7(3), 477-498.

Pease, B., Pease, A. (2004). The definitive book of body language. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Rudick, C. K., & Golsan, K. B. (2014). Revisiting the relational communication perspective: Drawing upon relational dialectics theory to map an expanded research agenda for communication and instruction scholarship. Western Journal of Communication, 78(3), 255-273. doi:10.1080/10570314.2014.905796

Sidelinger, R. J., & Bolen, D. M. (2016). Instructor Credibility as a Mediator of Instructors’ Compulsive Communication and Student Communication Satisfaction in the College Classroom. Communication Research Reports, 33(1), 24-31.

York, D. (2015). Non-verbal immediacy's role in student learning. Journal of Media and Communication Studies, 7(1), 1.


You are welcome to contact one of our faculty developers to discuss your teaching ideas, concerns, or questions, related to this mini-primer, or any other topic related to teaching and learning. We are happy to work with you via email, phone, or Skype, or meet with you in your office or at the OIA.