The internet contains a wealth of advice for teachers about effective body language in the classroom. Not just guidelines for their own body language (eye contact, nodding, smiling), but also tips and tricks on how to interpret the body language of their students (frowning, tapping toes, yawns). However, it is not clear whether these tips are merely rules of thumb, or actually supported by scientific evidence. And furthermore: to what extent is the body language of students an indicator of effective learning?
I came across several claims on this topic in the article ‘How to read classroom body language’ on the popular science website RedOrbit.com, written by Abbey Hull. Some of the claims are not so hard to believe, such as the statement that students who are constantly checking the time are bored. Others, however, seem a bit more controversial. Attentive body language apparently shows that students are interested: “With tilted heads and a still posture, the students is sure to be paying attention to the lesson”. Yet the author goes even further; nonverbal cues do not merely signal that the student is paying attention, but open body language can even guarantee effective learning: “With relaxed arms and legs, good eye contact (not staring, glaring, or deer-in-headlights mode), and a face directed towards the professor, the student is sure to be learning effectively.”
Is there scientific support?
The insights that are presented in the article are attributed to Joanne Chesley, Doctor of Education. A link to Chesley’s LinkedIn SlideShare is provided in the article, and these slides seem to be the only source of information for the piece. Probably not the most reliable source (as anyone can upload their slides on this SlideShare platform), yet the slides could still be of high quality as they are created by an education expert with a scientific background. At first sight the slides seem rather scientific, with several citations of papers by renowned researchers in the field of nonverbal communication, such as Susan Goldin-Meadow. However, closer inspection of the introduction slides reveals that the contents of three slides – which included all of the citations – have been copy-pasted from an scientific article by Rüştü Yeşil. This article is cited, but the positioning of it on the middle slide is very misleading, as it does not make clear that the contents of the previous and following slide are also quoted from the article.
So all the information in the introduction slides comes from one study, yet this study is specifically focused on nonverbal behaviour in classroom discussions, rather than classroom activities or lectures in general. And, even more importantly, it are the discussant’s (i.e., student’s) evaluations/perceptions of nonverbal behavior that have been assessed, not those of the teachers. This casts doubt on the usefulness of Chesley’s slides as an information source for the popular science article, which attempts to guide teachers in reading body language – not helping students in reading the behavior of fellow-classmates.
The remaining slides from Chesley are about general types of body language (e.g., ‘attentive body language’), for which several specific non-verbal cues are listed (e.g., tilting the head). Chesley does not provide any citations for this information, so perhaps she has established the lists on the basis of personal teaching experience. However, I discovered that there is a suspicious amount of overlap with the information on a website about body language. I suspect that either one of these sources has copied from the other, or both are derived from an (unknown) third source.
What does this mean for the popular science article?
The information in the article about the relation between specific nonverbal cues and student’s mental states are based on an unreliable source. This does not mean that all the claims are false: it could still be that general findings from studies on nonverbal communication can be generalized to interpret student’s body language in a classroom environment. However, the claim that open body language guarantees effective learning seems a bridge too far. The authors argues in line with Chesley that open body language would signal changes in the student’s thoughts or feelings. However, this is too simplistic, as there are many factors that should be taken into account; both at the individual level as well as with respect to the teacher who should be able to interpret the nonverbal cues correctly ánd react accordingly. The author becomes more nuanced towards the end of the article, where she presents an interesting disclaimer in which she reminds her readers to be cautious when deriving conclusions from body language. I would like to add to this that cross-cultural differences should be taken into account as well.
All in all I would argue that the article is still relevant, as indeed body language in the classroom is an integral and important aspect of the learning environment. There are scientific studies abound on this topic, yet the focus has been on nonverbal cues in relation to a specific task or goal. For example, Goldin-Meadow and colleagues have studied the use of gesture by children and teachers, as it can convey their representation of a certain task or mathematical idea (e.g. Goldin-Meadow, 2004). Another study has shed light on how nonverbal cues can signal foreign language anxiety (Gregersen, 2005). As for as I am concerned, there are no conclusive, scientific studies on the relation between student’s body language and their general interest or attention. Perhaps the best advice for the teachers would be not to wait until the students are yawning and checking the clock, but to always try to engage them during classes.
Author unknown (without date). Using Body Language. Retrieved from: http://changingminds.org/techniques/body/body_language.htm
Chesley, J. (2010, January 8). Reading your student’s body language. Retrieved from: https://www.slideshare.net/joannechesley/body-language-and-students
Gregersen, T. S. (2005). Nonverbal cues: Clues to the detection of foreign language anxiety. Foreign Language Annals, 38(3), 388.
Goldin-Meadow, S. (2004). Gesture’s role in the learning process. Theory into practice, 43(4), 314-321.
Hull, A. (2015, August 14). How to read classroom body language. RedOrbit. Retrieved from: http://www.redorbit.com/news/health/1113407753/how-to-read-classroom-body-language-081415/
Yeşil, R. (2008). Evaluation of body language behavior in a class debate. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 36(7), 893-902.