In 2016, Sloan
Consortium reported that 5.8 million students in the United States were
taking at least one online course. With so many students learning online,
educators are developing ways to better engage them. Marcia D. Dixson of
Indiana University-Purdue University and a team of researchers conducted a
study to learn more about the types of immediacy behaviors instructors should use
to enhance their students’ learning.
Immediacy behaviors can be defined as “verbal and nonverbal
communicative actions that send positive messages of liking and closeness,
decrease psychological distance between people, and positively affect student
state motivation,” according to past research. Other previous
research indicates that online verbal immediacy can have positive effects
on student engagement. However, few studies have examined online nonverbal
To frame their study, Dixson and her colleagues posited that
“choosing a mixture of media that allows for immediacy can help create social
presence, or the feeling that the teacher is a real person,” based on a past
study. Online instructors can choose to use media that are “warmer,” such
as video and audio, or they can choose what the authors call “cold” media, such
as use of emoticons in emails, to create more immediacy and heightened social
Dixson and her team define student
engagement in the traditional classroom as involving four factors: skills
engagement, emotional engagement, participation/interaction engagement, and performance
engagement. This definition, developed by Mitchell Handelsman, had not yet been
applied to studies of online immediacy. “An online instructor cannot smile or
use vocal variations. Or can she? Recent research supports that the following
nonverbal behaviors are likely to have immediacy effects in online learning
environments: tone, chronemics, and feedback,” Dixson writes.
Tone. Just as educators cannot not communicate with their students, they also cannot not set a tone for their class. When
instructors, for example, fill their online course with heavy text, they set a
“cold tone and [suggest] a lack of concern for students.” When teachers set a
tone, they express emotion, which is one dimension of social presence. Some
ways teachers can express emotion are emoticons and figurative language.
Emoticons strengthen messages and help to avoid miscommunication. Figurative
language such as using punctuation (e.g., Great idea!!!!) or using
capitalization (e.g., GREAT IDEA) can help create immediacy online.
The aesthetics of an online course, including use of visual
imagery such as images, graphs, clipart, or video, use of “fun” fonts, and
appropriate use of colors, can create visual cohesion for students. Cohesion can
increase immediacy, the authors explain.
Chronemics. Timely responses by an instructor, the time of day
a message is sent, how long an instructor spends crafting a message, and the
frequency of responses all affect student perceptions of immediacy.
Feedback. Given that students spend a lot of time and effort on
their graded assignments, they have expectations of prompt and rich feedback
from their instructors. Video and audio feedback have also been reported as
more personal than other forms of feedback, according to past
research. The richer the medium with which the instructor is providing
feedback, the more likely that the instructor has a strong
For this study, Dixson and her team posed three questions: How frequently are the different types of
nonverbal immediacy behaviors used in online courses? Are some types of
nonverbal immediacy behaviors used significantly more frequently in online
courses than others? Are some nonverbal immediacy behaviors more effective than
others in increasing student engagement?
The researchers hypothesized that student engagement is
significantly higher in online courses with high levels of teacher nonverbal
immediacy behaviors than those with low levels of nonverbal immediacy
behaviors. To determine whether this was true, they coded immediacy behaviors
in online courses, asked faculty to allow coders to explore their online
courses, and asked students to participate in an online survey. The team coded
51 entirely online courses and surveyed 178 participants with a median age of
Audio/visuals and images related to content, as well as
consideration of design, use of medium, and prompt feedback were the most
consistently used nonverbal immediacy behaviors in the courses analyzed. However,
immediacy behaviors associated with personal video and audio, and discussion
forums—specifically, posting often and responding quickly—were least likely to
be consistently used.
Researchers also found that student engagement was
significantly higher in courses with more nonverbal immediacy behaviors,
especially when educators set a warmer tone in the course and were consistently
“present” in discussion forums.
Scholars who have researched immediacy in the classroom know
that warm behaviors can lead to increased student engagement in the classroom.
However, what do nonverbal immediacy behaviors look like in an online setting?
This study revealed that nonverbal immediacy behavior occurs in online
environment in ways people do not always consider: choices of color, the amount
of time taken to answer an email, and use of different fonts, pictures, or
emoticons. All of these behaviors affect students’ engagement in the online
About the authors: Marcia
D. Dixson, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Communication and Assistant Vice
Chancellor for Teaching and Learning at Indiana University-Purdue University in
Fort Wayne, IN, USA. Mackenzie R. Greenwell is a graduate student in the Moody
College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin in Austin, TX,
USA. Christie Rogers-Stacy is an Adjunct Instructor in the Department of
Communication at Manchester University in North Manchester, IN, USA. Tyson
Weister is a Survey Statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, DC,
USA. Sara Lauer is a Lecturer in the Department of Communication Arts and
Sciences at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, PA, USA. This
essay appeared in the December 2016 issue of Communication Currents and was translated from the scholarly
article: Dixson, M.D., Greenwell M.R., Rogers-Stacy, C., Weister T., &
Lauer S. (2016). Nonverbal immediacy behaviors and online student engagement: Bringing
past instructional research into the present virtual classroom. Communication Education. doi: 10.1080/03634523.2016.1209222. Communication Education and Communication Currents are publications
of the National Communication Association.