Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #2: To Engage Students, You Must Positively Engage WITH Students

April 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

Communication between instructors and students is an inherent part of any classroom interaction. Further, communication and participation by students is an inherent part of the learning process. Because of this, student participation in the classroom has prompted national surveys (e.g., National Survey on Student Engagement), headlines in the popular press, and student and instructor complaints when participation is lacking, as well as a closer examination of instructor-student interactions as interpersonal relationships. In other words, both students and instructors recognize student engagement in the classroom is important to student success, but a lack of engagement seems to be an area of concern. 

Students often report they don’t participate because of fears of being evaluated by instructors and peers. These concerns may prompt students to experience participation anxiety as one barrier to desirable participation in the classroom. These fears are similar to concerns for face, or the social identity students construct for themselves. Participation can threaten both positive face (i.e., need to be liked or seen as competent) and negative face (i.e., need to be autonomous and unconstrained). Overcoming participation anxiety and face threats may be something that students can individually tackle. However, instructors can play an important role in enhancing student participation and communicating in ways to help students overcome the participation anxiety they experience while supporting student face. One specific strategy that may help to improve student participation is building a positive interpersonal relationship between instructors and students.

Based on the need for instructors to find ways to help students overcome participation anxiety, our study was designed to understand more about the different levels of participation anxiety students experience and how the varying levels influence perceptions of the relationship with the instructor and actual participation in a course. For the study, students self-reported on a specific classroom and provided perceptions of their relationships with the instructors and reports of participatory behavior.

To summarize the major findings, we rejected the notion that students are either anxious or not. Instead we believed that students could be low, moderate, or high in anxiety, and students who were moderately anxious were as important to consider. Our results supported this argument. Specifically, the majority of the students, 68 percent, reported they were moderately anxious. Those students who were low in anxiety perceived more positive relationships with their instructors as indicated by not being made to feel incompetent (i.e., reduced positive face threat), constrained (i.e., negative face support), and having input in the classroom (i.e., reduced negative face threat). Those with low anxiety, as expected, also participated more frequently in the classroom.

Interestingly, the same instructors’ interpersonal behaviors of rapport, face threats, and face support worked differently in predicting participation for each of the participation anxiety groups. The instructors’ interpersonal strategies were important for students in the low anxiety and high anxiety groups, but not for the moderately anxious students, offering further support for the moderately anxious students warranting greater attention from scholars and teachers. According to the low anxiety students, the most important instructor behavior was avoiding negative face threat, or not making the students feel constrained in the classroom.

Practically, the overly anxious students are relatively easy to identify and to help in the classroom. They may sweat, talk with a shaky voice, or avoid eye contact with the audience. But students who are only moderately anxious may be overlooked in the classroom or hard to identify. This group of moderately anxious students won’t fit into the dichotomy of anxious versus not anxious. In spite of the difficulty in identifying the moderately anxious students, they seem to need the same amount of support and instructional interventions as highly anxious students, as they perceive the classroom similarly to highly anxious students.

One way to provide this support as an instructor is to build rapport. The perception of rapport was related to both positive and negative face support. Instructors can do this by learning names, talking to students before class begins, getting to know them on a personal level, and integrating their personal interests, goals, and needs into the classroom. Instructors can support positive face by communicating to students that they are competent in their participation efforts, which can help to reduce participation anxiety and increase participation. Further, instructors may remove certain constraints for the students, perhaps by letting the students negotiate how participation is factored into their grades and having a classroom conversation about the value of participation.

Although rapport and supporting student needs for competence, liking (i.e., positive face support), and autonomy (i.e., negative face) are important instructor strategies to increase participation, our results suggest that avoiding face threat is equally important. Instructors should create a safe space by preventing students from feeling that they have no input or choice and by avoiding publicly observing when participation is not competent.

By attending to the full spectrum of students who attend college, including all levels of anxiety that may be present in our courses, we can better tailor our instructional strategies. These strategies should progress with the goal to develop more positive interpersonal relationships to engage with our students, which in turn will help them engage with each other and with course content through course participation.

About the author (s)

Brandi N. Frisby

University of Kentucky

Associate Professor

Erin Berger

University of Kentucky

Doctoral Candidate

Michael Strawser

University of Kentucky

Doctoral Candidate

Molly Burchett

University of Kentucky

Emina Herovic

University of Kentucky

Doctoral Candidate