Skip to content


5 Ways to Navigate Non-Verbal Communication in the Digital Classroom

Written by Aung Phyo on Jul 22, 2021

Related content: Higher Education, Digital Education

Many of the questions I receive as a 2U faculty training specialist are about how to keep students engaged while teaching online. My advice always begins with addressing the elephant in the room: non-verbal communication.

Non-verbal communication is more subconscious than verbal communication; when you use words to communicate, there is a lot more thought and intent behind the interaction. Whereas communication through smiles, laughs, and face or hand gestures can be largely unplanned. According to a 1972 study by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, non-verbal communication accounts for a whopping 93% of any social interactions, which can be broken down into 55% body language, 38% tone of voice, and 7% spoken word.

Knowing how important non-verbal communication is, how can we ensure that we are deliberate about how we initiate non-verbal interactions during conversations happening in a digital classroom rather than in person? How can educators model good behaviors to make classes more collaborative and help students feel they are being heard? Read on for five tips and tricks instructors can use to engage students non-verbally.

Camera: Where Do I Point This Thing?

The easiest way to improve your online presence is to move your camera to be at an optimal angle for your audience. Make sure the camera is above your head and slightly pointing down. Try not to zoom in too close—leave enough room for your students to see your hand gestures as you talk throughout the class. The lighting is also crucial for optimal digital presence. If you are not able to improve your lighting situation in your work area, use the option in the “Video Settings” of your Zoom application, where you can select “Adjust for Low Light” to help brighten up your video profile.

Pro Tip: If you are primarily using a laptop to do most of your teaching, try using a thick book to raise your computer for a more optimal angle. A thick book or two should help you unlock better camera placement.

Hands: What Do I Do With Them?

Vanessa Van Edwards, a TED Talk consultant, analyzed popular TED Talk presentations for common behavioral patterns. Van Edwards found that the least-watched TED Talks had an average of 124,000 views and used an average of 272 hand gestures. The top-ranked talks had an average of 7.4 million views and 465 hand gestures during the same length of time. As a result of her study, Van Edwards believes that we build trust non-verbally, and we have an easier time trusting someone when we see their hands. Comprehension is also easier when someone is using hand gestures while talking because that person is communicating both verbally and non-verbally at the same time.

Pro Tip: Include hand gestures while speaking in the digital classroom. If you make a conscious effort, it will become more habitual and help you capture student attention. There is no shame in hopping into an empty Zoom room and practicing your presentations and live session plans.

(Almost) Always Maintain Eye Contact

Eye contact is especially hard for faculty who are teaching using two screens, but it is important to use it as a tool to make sure your audience and students know you are engaged and listening to what they say. Try to look at the screen containing the camera in order to stay engaged with your audience.

Pro Tip: When using dual monitors, place the item you are sharing on the second monitor and keep your students on your main monitor. This will allow you to look to the side when you are sharing, and when you are not, look directly at your students.

Nod and Smile

When communicating in the digital classroom, you are working with a lot less non-verbal cues than in an on-ground classroom. Visibly nodding your head and smiling as your students talk may keep them engaged as you show that you are actively listening to what they are saying.

Pro Tip: Try to exaggerate a lot of the cues you would otherwise tone down in a regular classroom. It will be easier for students to respond if they can clearly see how you are communicating. Also, if you have the ability to stand while teaching, those gestures will be easier to project.

Body Posture

Maintain a steady and open posture when presenting yourself on Zoom. Do not be afraid to lean into the camera if a topic or what a student or colleague is saying intrigues you. But avoid hunching over your laptop/workspace. This will give off a tired and tense look to your audience.

Pro Tip: Consider investing in a standing desk or ergonomic chair. Having the ability to stand or using a solid chair with lumbar support will definitely help your lower back! If you are feeling more adventurous, substitute a large yoga ball for a chair to help improve your posture.

Non-verbal communication in on-ground classrooms is important, but we should not overlook its influence on the digital classroom as well. Even though our communication is limited in the way we deliver non-verbal cues online, their implementation can be deliberate and strategic to foster more engaging discussions. Making simple adjustments to when you teach in a digital classroom, such as camera angles, lighting, hand gestures, and body posture, can help improve the way you connect with your students.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.