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Leaning, smiling, nodding – Teaching through a camera brings new mannerisms

Last updated October 12, 2021

By Sarita Chourey

When the pandemic shuttered classrooms around the nation, educators scrambled to find new ways to teach.

Online instruction, notably via Zoom, helped them do that.

But as innovative as that was, it presented teachers with some challenges to their nonverbal communication, said John A. McArthur, professor and chair of Furman’s Department of Communication Studies.

Among the notable differences were exaggerated facial expressions.

“If they were trying to emphasize a point, they might lean into the camera to make their face larger, or raise their eyebrows higher than they would in a physical setting,” he said.

For instance, one respondent that McArthur noted in his publication said, “I smile wider. I make my eyes big more often and I nod my head more aggressively.”

McArthur examined how instructors adapted to teaching via Zoom in a new paper – “From Classroom to Zoom Room: Exploring instructor modifications of visual nonverbal behaviors in synchronous online classrooms .”

Published Sept. 29 in the journal Communication Teacher, the article is based on a January 2021 survey of 351 instructors from kindergarten to higher education from across the nation who made the shift from seated to Zoom classrooms during the pandemic.

McArthur invited participants to reflect on their own behavior as they taught on Zoom. The respondents, in turned out, faced many of the same things.

In addition to the exaggerated expressions, they identified other nonverbal communication challenges as well, he said.

A graphic of McArthur’s publication.

These included replicating typical face-to-face nonverbal communication patterns, engaging in reciprocal nonverbal communication, and monitoring their own nonverbal behaviors in real time.

McArthur speculates that teachers exaggerated their smiles or other expressions so they’d be better received by their students.

“We’ve known for a long time through research … that nonverbal behavior has a direct impact on students’ perceptions of their affinity for the teacher, the content, and the ability of the content to be relevant to their lives,” he said. “Teaching is a performative act, and my guess is that instructors had the idea that some of that performance could be lost (online).”

In terms of reciprocal nonverbal communication, instructors struggled with how to show they were listening to a student, something they’d never considered before.

“The biggest issue they faced was eye contact,” McArthur said. “It’s hard to figure out the best solution. It looks like you’re looking off camera if you’re looking at a person who is speaking.”

What’s more, he said, when people communicate nonverbally, they do it unconsciously, and thinking about it consciously can change what they do.

“Most people are very unfamiliar with watching themselves teach – when you’re leading a group, you don’t watch yourself,” he said. “But Zoom almost requires you watch yourself. And that constant mirror was a dilemma that instructors face.”

But sometimes, he said, they used it to their advantage by making sure to gesture inside the camera range or wearing T-shirts that revealed things about themselves.

When it came to replicating face-to-face nonverbal communication patterns on Zoom, McArthur said that if instructors used a lot of gestures or wore funny clothes in the classroom, they continued that on Zoom.

“A lot of the theory about communication on digital platforms suggests we can do a lot of the same things as in-person,” he said, “but it’s also very different in the way they are perceived.”

In the end, he said, the way instructors teach on Zoom may be different than the classroom, but it can have the same outcome in terms of engagement and effective learning.

McArthur will present his paper at the National Communication Association conference in November.


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