Have you ever taken a class with a professor who seemed rooted to the lectern, read lecture notes in a monotone and never made eye contact with students while teaching? Whether intentional or not, these mannerisms can convey that the professor is distant from people in the room, aloof, not connected to or invested in their learning or success.
Conversely, think about a particularly dynamic or charismatic professor you had in the past. This person probably exuded energy as they varied their tone of voice for emphasis, strode around the room, made strong eye contact and even smiled and conveyed positivity through their facial expressions. These behaviours effectively draw us in, facilitating attention and engagement and, therefore, better learning.
Communication scholars refer to this second set of mannerisms as immediacy cues. In the late 1960s, Albert Mehrabian described immediacy behaviours as communicating liking, attentiveness and availability for interaction. They help to establish rapport and build trust by closing the distance for people to approach us.
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As equity-focused educators, we can practise immediacy cues – both verbal and non-verbal, in physical and virtual classrooms – to signal to all students that they are welcome, that we respect and value them, and that we’re interested in them. These signals go a long way to creating an inclusive environment and promoting positive learning outcomes for all students.
We’ll look first at verbal immediacy cues in person and online because these may be things we’re already doing, and therefore may be easier to increase as we deliberately strive to create more welcoming spaces.
When speaking to students, address them by name when possible, and work to pronounce students’ names correctly (or ask for help to show your willingness to learn). Ask students to provide phonetic spellings of their name or use a tool like NameCoach to record themselves saying their name.
Names are important; we perk up and tune in when someone says ours, so make this an intentional part of your inclusive teaching practice. If you teach large classes, ask students to put name tents on their desks. Of course, Zoom makes this easy since names appear automatically. You can also encourage students to rename themselves with their preferred names if they like.
In asynchronous environments, address students by name when responding to their discussion posts, emails, and when providing comments on their assignments (make sure to spell names correctly). The trick is to develop the habit of using students’ names whenever possible. Doing so helps them feel seen, valued and welcome in your class.
Another way to practise verbal immediacy is to use inclusive, community-minded pronouns. I’m not specifically talking about asking students for their pronouns and providing your own, although that’s an impactful way to foster inclusivity in your classes. Rather, use “we” and “our” instead of “I” and “you”. For example: “I want you to open your books to page 43” conveys a different tone than “Now we’re going to open our books to page 43”. Notice how the second version strengthens the learning community and reduces the distance between you and your students. Practice plural pronouns such as these whether teaching in person or online and in emailed announcements, too.
Immediacy cues signal interest and approachability, so making small talk or chatting with students about their lives outside class is also a great way to practise verbal immediacy. Take a few minutes before or after in-person or Zoom class to connect with individual students or the class as a whole. Doing so builds rapport, which positively predicts learning. Or consider interacting with your asynchronous students in purely social ways. In your first-week introduction forum, ask students to write or post pictures about their pets, interests or hobbies – then be sure to write or record a few words in reply to each student. “Chatting” with online students, even asynchronously, conveys liking and approachability, and fosters a more inclusive environment.
Non-verbal immediacy cues are just as important as verbal ones. As described above, making eye contact instead of always reading notes (be careful not to keep your back to the class if writing on the board), gesturing toward students, smiling, physically moving around the classroom and out from behind barriers such as the lectern: these are all ways of signalling liking and interest. Online, make strong eye contact with the camera, amplify your smile and positive facial expressions and sit up in your chair or stand in proximity to the computer when teaching via live or recorded videos.
Further, in asynchronous environments, time can communicate immediacy (or lack thereof). The amount of time that elapses between a student’s discussion post or email and your response conveys your availability and approachability. Even the amount of time you spend writing a message to your students – again, think replies, assignment comments, announcements – signals immediacy and presence.
We’re not chatbots, online 24/7, and we need to protect our personal time, too, so I’m not suggesting we all pour endless amounts of time into responding in the moment with long, wordy messages. However, many of us tend to write too-short, even abrupt, notes and comments to students. Take a few extra moments to write encouraging, supportive comments and responses that convey liking and interest. You may be surprised by your students’ appreciation.
In sum, immediacy cues are a powerful way to foster inclusion and equitable learning outcomes. Show your students you like them and are interested in them. They’ll respond with increased effort (and achieve better outcomes) when you do.
Flower Darby is a scholar of equitable and inclusive teaching and learning at Northern Arizona University. She is the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes.
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