Communication Currents

Laptop and smartphone in use

Instructor’s Corner: Nonverbal Immediacy Behaviors and Online Student Engagement

December 1, 2016
Digital Communication & Gaming, Nonverbal Communication, Visual Communication

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 behaviors.

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 presence.

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 social presence.

The Study

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 24.


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 classroom.

About the author (s)

Marcia D. Dixson

Indiana University-Purdue University

Associate Professor

Marcia D. Dixson

Mackenzie R. Greenwell

University of Texas at Austin

Graduate Student

Mackenzie R. Greenwell

Christie Rogers-Stacy

Manchester University

Adjunct Instructor

Christie Rogers-Stacy

Tyson Weister

U.S. Census Bureau

Survey Statistician

Sara Lauer

Pennsylvania State University


Sara Lauer