Teacher Immediacy in "Live" and Online Classrooms

Josh Averbeck
Western Illinois University, IL

Rich Morthland
Scott Community College, IL

Alfiya Mufteyeva
Western Illinois University, IL


With the continuing evolution of the technology available and the growth in online course offerings, there have been concerns over how to conduct an online course. Most often universities overlook who is the online student body. What are their specific needs? How can the university adapt the course to fit those needs? How should be the role of the instructor in the online classroom? Recommendations are then made for instructors to include the current research into the online classroom.


As universities seek to increase enrollment, competition for classroom space and teacher availability can become fierce. There is a finite number of classrooms, limited funding, and only so many students can fit into a classroom. In an attempt to solve these problems with minimal cost, universities have turned to distance education. “Distance learning can be conducted using time-independent (or, asynchronous) communication formats like mail correspondence, electronic mail (e-mail), and taped or digitally compressed video recordings; it can also be delivered using time-dependent (or synchronous) communication formats like radio, television, telephone, and interactive video or television” (Allen, Mabry, Mattrey, Bouhis, Titsworth, & Burrell, 2004, p.403). Distance education has allowed access for students who normally would be left out of the university system while allowing the university to maintain an increase in enrollment with the minimal cost requirement. “Benefits of distance education activities to the learner include: accessible training to students in rural areas; students may complete their course of study without suffering the loss of salary due to relocation; and, students are exposed to the expertise of the most qualified faculty” (Gould, 2000, p.7).

Despite bringing education to the students, there have been concerns about the interactions between the students and the teacher. In a “live” classroom, the relationship a teacher has with students may have immense implications. Teacher immediacy has been at the heart of the research exploring this relationship (see Gorham, 1988; Johnson & Miller, 2002; Witt, Wheeless & Allen, 2004). Universities, in particular, continually look to cut costs while increasing enrollment. The involvement of new communication technology in the classroom has made distance education an attractive, and increasingly popular, alternative to traditional methods (Naidu, 2005). The traditional notion of the classroom no longer holds true in the age of globalization as technology allows the classroom to become a virtual workspace (Russo & Koesten, 2005). There will be no limit to where a class may exist.

Teacher Immediacy

Johnson & Miller (2002) argue that few concepts have received as much attention in instructional communication literature as teacher immediacy. The concept of immediacy was originally developed by Albert Mehrabian who defined immediacy as one of communication behaviors which “enhance closeness to and nonverbal interaction with another” (1969, p. 213). Utilizing approach-avoidance theory, Mehrabian (1971) argues, “People are drawn toward persons and things they like, evaluate highly, and prefer” (p.1). In his development of immediacy construct, he demonstrated that the major communicative function of immediacy behaviors is that they reflect a more positive attitude of the sender to the receiver (Andersen, 1979). In other words, there are sets of verbal and nonverbal communication behaviors that can reduce the perceived physical or psychological distance between communicators (Witt, Wheeless, & Allen, 2004).

The teacher’s immediacy construct includes such nonverbal behaviors as eye contact, smiles, nods, relaxed body posture, forward leans, movement, gestures, and vocal variety in relation to student learning. These behaviors in the classroom hold a significant relationship with teacher immediacy and have a significant impact on students learning (Andersen, 1979). When students view their teachers as immediate or “close,” they enjoy the course more, feel more comfortable with material, and tend to pursue the subject further than do students with less immediate teachers (Anderson, 1979; Gorham, 1988). Richmond, Gorham & McCroskey (1987) found nonverbal teacher immediacy behaviors are significantly associated with cognitive learning at the college level. Typical verbal teacher immediacy behaviors, such as addressing students by name, using humor, initiating conversations with students before or after class, and encouraging students ask questions and discuss issues during class, contribute significantly to learning (Gorham, 1988). As Gorham and Zakahi (1990) mention, the relationship of immediacy to effective outcomes in the instructional context has received consistent empirical verification. The relationship between teacher immediacy and cognitive learning is nonlinear and mediated through other factors. Witt et al. (2004) conducted a meta-analytical review of the findings of 81 studies including 24,474 participants and concluded that teacher immediacy has a substantial relationship with certain attitudes and perceptions of students in relation to their learning but a modest relationship with cognitive learning performance.

Immediacy and Motivation for Cognitive Learning

The interaction of motivation and immediacy manifests itself often in the cognitive learning theory literature. As Chory & McCroskey (1999) point out, teacher immediacy has a tremendous impact on the learning of the students. As immediacy increases so does the positive perception of learning itself. The course material becomes ties to the teacher. Thus, the judgment of the teacher via immediacy is projected onto the course material. In fact, measures of immediacy have been consistently tied to students’ motivation in a course (Andersen, 1978; Plax, Kearney, McCroskey, & Richmond, 1986; Sanders & Wiseman, 1990).

So, it would seem to make sense that “when teachers employ verbal and nonverbal immediacy behaviors, students indicate increased perceptions of having learned from the course” (Witt & Wheeless, 2001, p.327). These perceptions come from the classroom functioning as a shared experience for the class and the teacher alike. When the teacher makes the class into something that involves the students this will involve not only an increase in immediacy, but there will also be the shared experience that is essential to cognitive learning to occur (Menzel & Carrell, 1999).

These shared experiences give the teacher and the class something to draw upon in future discussions. Being able to incorporate the base of knowledge, or shared experiences, and bringing in new information requires a willingness of the class to “open up” to the teacher. Thus, Rodriguez, Plax, & Kearney (1996) argue the closeness of the relationship because of verbal and nonverbal immediacy tools has a significant bearing on the inclusiveness of the shared experiences the class has constructed. The use of teacher immediacy techniques as a means of motivation can be a powerful tool for influencing cognitive learning (Witt & Wheeless, 2001).

Distance Education

A huge body of collected evidence on effect of teacher immediacy on student’s outcomes concerns a regular, live class, where a teacher and the students have an opportunity to communicate face-to-face. The teleconference class is one of the options offered by distance education. As Daly explains, “distance education is instruction conducted via technologies that significantly or completely eliminate the traditional face-to-face exchanges of teachers and students” (1999, p. 481). The notion of any sort of immediate teacher-student interaction may disappear. However, Daly (1999) mentions some researchers suggest face-to face communication is available through means as video conferencing.

Birchak & DeWitt (1999) recognize the role that technology can play by acknowledging “the shift from the instruction paradigm to the learning paradigm requires the design of new educational models that incorporate computer-mediated collaboration” (p.11). The technology use in the distance learning should hold little to no barrier for students. “Research indicates that the instructional format itself (e.g. interactive video vs. videotape vs. “live” instructor) has little effect on students achievement as long as the delivery technology is appropriate to the content being offered and all participants have access to the same technology” (Gould, 2000, p.4). A level playing field of technology makes the distance seem irrelevant to the student achievement, teacher immediacy, or other relationships between the students and the teacher. The contexts in which technology plays are contingent upon the communication between the students and the teacher and not upon the means of communication. “These physically and socially immediate instruction contexts are transformed in distance learning through, typically, the technological intermediation of communication between teacher and students” (Allen, et al., 2004, p.403).

Therefore, it would seem “one of the ways to overcome the “distance” in distance education is to find a way to increase interactivity” (Schrum, 2001, p.31). The technology seems to hold little effect on the teacher-student relationship. Thus, it seems that it is either the students or teachers who cause a breakdown in immediacy. Gould (2000) argues, “Distance students bring basic characteristics to their leaning experience which influences their success in coursework. Many are voluntarily seeking further education” (p.5). These are students that showed up to learn. They want to get something out of the class and are looking for meaningful relationships with the course material and even the teacher.

This must mean that the effectiveness of distance education rests on the teacher. “Regardless of the infrastructure, successes of students, or other factors, the competencies of the distance educators are the center of all interactions” (Egan & Akdere, 2005, p.88). It seems that no matter the context (“live” or teleconferenced classrooms), it is the teacher that influences the course the most. Not only would an effective, highly immediate teacher be able to bridge the physical gap in distance learning, but “the organization and reflection needed to effectively teach at a distance often improves an instructor’s traditional teaching” (Gould, 2000, p.4). Distance learning could not only be effective, but it could provide benefits to the teacher, other students, and the university in general. “If distance education methods produce a higher level of content mastery, then that method instruction may become a preferred method of instruction” (Allen, et al., 2004, p.406). Having effective skills in a distance learning environment can make a teacher more valuable to a university. Not only could that teacher become a better instructor, but distance education itself could provide the answer to many logistical solutions without any of the drawbacks.

Immediacy in Distance Education

The unique atmosphere of distance education provides the opportunity for teachers to become more attuned to their students’ needs. Compared to a live classroom, students and teachers alike use more media to communicate “and appropriate both the technology and occasions for interaction to maintain their ties” (Haythornthwaite, 2000, p. 195). The technology does not have to function as a barrier. Instead, it operates as a new array of immediacy techniques (LaRose & Whitten, 2000).

Immediacy in distance education seems difficult to gauge, but the new medium of distance education should be an effective pedagogical tool (Althaus, 1997). In his study, Althaus (1997) found that participants learned more in technology mediated courses and the classes were more interactive and collaborative when the technology was utilized. Distance education, by nature, lends itself to many-to-many communication. If the teacher employs any immediacy techniques via the technology, the students are more directly exposed to the techniques because of the technology itself. These uses of immediacy “lead to motivation both to learn and then apply that learning after the student has left the classroom” (Russo & Koesten, 2005, p.255). Teachers who use immediacy create a social network that involves the students and the course material.

Directions for Future Instruction

The physical gap between instructor and student should no longer impede upon classroom immediacy. The use of this technology to design coursework has been made possible by the increase in efficacy by both students and instructors for the technology. Given the type of student that tends to use online education, the nature of the coursework, and the perceived limitations of online education there are a few pedagogical concerns that must be taken into account.

Initially, the syllabi used must contain very explicit instructions. While most syllabi almost always use precise language, the implicit understanding of syllabi content between student and instructor creates a passive role for the instructor. Wingfield and Black (2005) explain that an active curriculum, one where the course material is shown as skill oriented and inclusive of students’ needs, will facilitate student-instructor immediacy. The returning student population is often not as familiar with some ‘unwritten’ rules for the class. Precise language does not always translate into inclusive language choices. Weak syllabi contain very precise goals or assignments but do not include all information necessary for accomplishing those goals or completing assignments. Strong syllabi provide objectives that are clearly related to the goal of the course. These course goals should be not only pointed out but should include tools or steps that can be taken to achieve the goals (Slattery & Carlson, 2005).

The enactment of these goals by the instructor is essential to the success of an online course. Yang and Cornelius (2004) point to the need to make the online classroom an internalized, cognitive classroom. The instructor should be facilitating in lieu of lecturing. By including some of the experiences of the students to create a virtual network, the classroom can move beyond a group of 25 strangers. Following some of the tenets of teacher immediacy, an instructor can make the classroom an interpersonal network. Creating personal connections to the course content for the student increases motivation (Pogue & Ayhun, 2006; Allen, Witt, Wheeless, 2006). With the class potentially being spread out globally, the individual connections to the course content and classmates may be the most effective motivational tool available to an instructor.

The physical form of the classroom may continue to evolve with the inclusion of these new technologies, but the time-tested teaching techniques should not necessarily be abandoned. As instructors we must be more cognizant of our actions. The online classroom does not always afford us the opportunity to ‘just do enough.’ Explanations of assignments, reading materials, and course ideas need precision. If we are not confident that our students know exactly what they are doing in a course and why, then we may lose the motivation necessary to obtain goals set out for any given course.


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