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Taking Action for InteractionInteraction, Communication, Engagement

F. Cawthorne-Nugent
S.A.M. Sadjadi


It has been widely researched that students perform better when they feel more engaged and have more interaction with their lecturer. The COVID-19 pandemic has put even more strain on the interaction during a lecture, as these are now online and in general, less interactive. This chapter looks at the scientific backing behind the elements of interaction in a learning environment, by means of a literature review. The theory is then tested as lecturers are interviewed on how they create interaction in practice. Furthermore, a survey has been carried out among students to see what methods of interactive lecturing are well received. Finally, a short how-to list is created as a result of this research. This short guide could be used to introduce teaching new-comers, such as PhD students, to the process of engaging and interacting with their audience. With this how-to list we hope to improve the online lecturing experience for both lecturers and students. Although the guide was created to ameliorate online interaction, many of the tips and tricks are applicable to physical education too.


Long-Term student engagement is dependent on a good teacher-student relationship and indicative of student success. In higher education, the covid-19 pandemic has resulted in significant challenges for both the students and their relationship with the teachers because of a lack of face-to-face interaction. This research sets out to create guidelines for lecturers on utilizing their verbal and non-verbal communication skills to improve student-teacher relationship and thereby improve the interaction. 

Establishing a good teacher-student relationship is essential in the development of academic engagement and achievement. Non-verbal communication makes up over 75% of the lecturer’s communication and indicates student satisfaction and long-term student engagement. The long-term student engagement in lessons is a strong indicator of achievement and learning, thereby graduation and college success [1]. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, having hit Europe in the spring of 2020, has changed our daily lives and reshaped higher education. Instead of giving face-to-face lectures, engaging with students, and building an emotional relationship, lecturers are now constrained to video and recorded lectures. Considering how artificial communication via video calls feel, it is easy to understand how difficult it is to bring your communication skills from the lecture hall into your online classroom. Especially having to implement these changes in such a rush while getting used to the effect on our daily lives by Covid-19 restriction and measurements. 

The effect of the pandemic on student well-being and work performance further complicates student engagement. More than 70% of college students are currently experiencing significant symptoms of anxiety and depression in regards to their studies and personal lives [2].

A good lecturer makes use of their presence in the room and its effect on their students. Indeed, research shows that more than 75% of all classroom communication is of non-verbal manner. It has further been shown to be the determinant factor and that students can predict course grading by watching 30s content-free, silent videos of lecturers. Being able to use your non-verbal communication skills is essential in providing the best possible education and engagement for students. 

Therefore, the new online environment’s major hurdles include problems in directly engaging students and technical difficulties [3].


This explorative research aims to investigate the issue at hand from the perspective of the academic staff on how to engage the students through methods better such as but not limited to language skills, and use of voice, and body language. 

This explorative research aims to identify various methods and tools available to the academic staff by interviewing involved stakeholders, evaluating them, and providing a recommendation to the staff on how to improve the quality of teachings given the current limitations.


This chapter will begin with a stakeholder analysis and continue to provide an overview of the existing literature on learning. This will encompass the learners’ traits (students), learning psychology, and holistic methods. An brief overview will be provided before moving on to the interviews. 

The interviews will be used to ascertain how much of the ‘theory of learning’ gets used in practice. Furthermore, it would be good to know what works best in practice and whether the best method is lecturer dependent. To try and encourage lecturers to tell their own stories and convey their personal experiences, we will conduct semi-structured interviews. This was thought to provide a critical view of different techniques they had applied in previous months and years. 

After the interviews, an analysis will be done to short-list the best teaching (and learning) practices, which will result in a how-to guide for lecturers.

Stakeholders Analysis

The stakeholders within a system maintain the objectives and define a given system [4]. A stakeholder is defined as an entity with interest or power to influence a given process’s outcome. Any entity such as but not limited to people, groups, organizations, institutions, and even the natural environment is regarded as a  stakeholder under this definition [5]. Stakeholder analysis provides an enhanced understanding of the system and defines the key criterion of the system at hand. 

For the purpose of this investigation, a two-dimensional stakeholder model is utilized based on the interests and power of the stakeholder at hand. Power in this context is defined as a stakeholder’s ability to impose their will on the firm. This can determine the firm’s survival, for instance, granting or removing access to relevant resources [5]. On the other hand, interest imposes the nature of the given stakeholder’s urgency and legitimacy on the project. Due to the explorative nature of the project at hand, the stakeholders are assumptive and preliminary.

The problem owner of this project is considered to be the program committees of the masters studies. The program committees observe and evaluate the teaching process in the University of Groningen and thus the research deems their role as a key stakeholder in this project. 

The secondary stakeholder are the students. Students are assumed to be in need of knowledge and thus their main desire is defined as learning. They do not constitute direct power however, since their means of engaging the curriculum is indirect. 

The regulator (government) is another major stakeholder in this project. The University of Groningen is a public university funded by the Dutch government. The guidelines for regulations set by DUO and the TER are key documents in defining the scope and the boundaries of this research. 

Further in this research, the desires of these stakeholders are implemented as a means to define the scope and direction of the research. The key stakeholders are summarized on Figure 1.

Literature Review: Categorising Student Traits

This research approaches the students and their personality traits through the “Big Five” personality traits. These include: Agreeableness, Extraversion, Neuroticism, Openness, and Conscientiousness. 

Agreeableness is the measure of student’s characteristics that are perceived as kind, sympathetic and considerate [6]. Higher agreeableness is a factor that results in trust, straightforwardness altruism and humility among students. On the contrary low agreeable students are more skeptic and competitive [7]. 

Extraversion is correlated with factors such as reflectivity, responsiveness and serializability of the students [8]. 

Neuroticism is a measure of anxiety and worries in the personality traits [6]. The level of anxiety can at times result in higher performance due to fear of failure among students however such motivation can result in depression [9]. As was mentioned earlier in this research, anxiety and depression are major outcomes of the pandemic among the students. Thereby, this research pays special attention to this trait. 

Openness is a measure imagination, preference for variety and curiosity [10].

Lastly Conscientiousness is a measure of diligence and care. This trait is an indicator of desire towards performing a task as well as possible [6].

The key factor regarding the personality traits is that the traits are not solely genetical but also are affected through the environment [11]. 

The traits of the students of course are not homogenous and thereby it is necessary that the teacher is able to adapt the tools and techniques in a manner that appeals to many of the key traits. 

Given that anxiety is a key outcome of the pandemic, this research mainly focuses on tools to address neuroticism and neurotic students as they are deemed as most vulnerable. 

Literature Review: Psychological Tools

A wide range of tools and techniques are available to induce psychological influence in order to better engage the students in the topic. This section will address these methods through the three main categories of language, voice and behavior.

Language and linguistic skills are currently the first line of communication between the students and the teachers. A key approach that can be used in order to enhance the language used in classroom is the level of abstractness. In a communication environment the level of abstraction can be utilized in order to bias the receiver can enhance the interpersonal distance. It is suggested that receiver of a positive abstract message perceives a closer proximity to the communicator in comparison to when a positive concrete message is utilized. On the contrary, the receiver of a negative abstract message experiences less proximity in comparison to negative concrete message [12]. To put it in context, the teacher can better engage the students by using abstract holistic language in positive messages and being detailed and concrete in negative messages. 

Another tool that can be utilized by the teachers is their voice. Intonation of the voice is a key factor that can affect the receiver’s perception. Intonation is a rather complex area and fully dependent on the student’s perception of the message as a whole. High degree of intonation can result in the group that correlates themselves with the core message, however those that consider the key message to be unrelated to their needs may experience self-regulatory defensive response and thus be negatively affected [13]. 

In terms of behavior variety of vocal and bodily cues can be utilized in order to better engage the receiver. Use of non-verbal cues can significantly improve the compliance and engagement of the receiver, especially the bodily cues [14]. 

A major hurdle in the pandemic conditions is to retain the student’s attention on the topic. A tool that can be utilized is that of respiratory. “That’s not all” (TNA) technique is a method that can be utilized in order to increase the compliance and engage the receiver. Originally a sales technique, in TNA technique a product is offered at an initial value and thereby the deal is improved through addition of extra value [15]. In the case of student environment, it is proposed that the teacher could continuously create the need within the students through offering an addition each time a topic is proposed and thus retaining the compliance in the audience. 

Another behavioral tool that can be utilized is kinship and similarity. People show a higher degree of liking towards others with similar opinions, personality, lifestyle, and verbal style. Elicit compliance can be induced upon the students by stressing similarities, albeit trivial ones [16]. 

Lastly, authority and observation can be utilized as a means to better engage the students. Hawthorne effect is a reaction of individuals towards aspects of their behavior in a given environment dependent on the factor of attention being induced upon them [17]. 

Many of the aforementioned psychological tools can be utilized as a means to enhance, improve and prolong the student’s engagements. The techniques were specifically chosen in manner that they do not require a direct face-to-face contact.

Stakeholder Interviews: Lecturers

We identified 13 stakeholders and were able to recruit six different stakeholders for our research. Of those six, four are lecturers at the faculty of sciences and engineering and two from the faculty of medical sciences. We were able to organize and hold interviews with five stakeholders, while the remaining stakeholder was willing to fill in a survey designed by us with the questions that also were addressed during the interviews. For this, we designed open questions for 5 different topics:

  1. How do you design your online sessions to engage with students?
  2. What are the biggest struggles with online teaching in regards to engagement?
  3. What do you like about online teaching methods?
  4. What kind of guidance would you like in regards to engagement during online sessions?

During these interviews, we recognized five different themes that each of the interviewed lecturers used that are relevant for good student engagement: meaning, setting, relatedness, inspiration, practicality and technology. In the following, we will address these themes and give examples of the approaches from the interviewees.


It is important to give added value to the design of your lecture for students that goes beyond pure knowledge transfer and what one can learn out of a book. A common way the interviewees did that was by flipping the classroom and actively making students part of the design by i.e. including them in presentations, splitting them up to work on small assignments or being able to test and apply their knowledge. Having as a goal to reach more meaningful learning and understanding.


The majority of lecturers thought about the setting that they approach the students and the current knowledge they could expect from them. Some even think back to their own University experience and what topics they found difficult during their own studies, to think about how to best support their students with these struggles. Furthermore, giving students intermediate steps and support to understand the greater picture. Most discuss the goals of the course and lectures beforehand, and several even go as far as using the remaining time at the end of a lecture to already set the framework for what students can expect from the following lecture and coming weeks.


Relatedness was created in a different way, a common way of the interviewees, as mentioned above, is leaving room for questions of students, seeing the lecture as a dialogue and bringing across the feeling that they are interested in guiding the students through this topic and helping them in reaching it. Some also do it by sharing something personal about themselves or their own experiences. Others try to really get to know the students and  learn the names of their students.


Inspirations showed to be very important to most of our interviewees, two even state that they see their role in being a motivator and inspiring students as the most important tasks, since most knowledge can be studied and learnt outside of the classroom. A common way of doing so is by sharing personal experiences out of the practice or from others in their field, giving students an idea of what they can expect later in life with their degree and understanding the use of what they learn in the current course. Moreover, sharing stories and experiences is, according to an interviewee, also the way that we human beings work and makes it easier for students to remember the most important aspects about the studied material for a better long-term knowledge.


“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” – Aristotle

All interviewees had the opinion that giving the students practical tasks, or at the medical faculty practical questions, to apply their knowledge and learn from their mistakes is crucial. At the medical faculty, this kind of approach, which goes also in the way of flipping the classroom, has already been established in the general education and was then applied to online education. At the faculty of sciences and engineering they were busy with creating so called ‘modules’ for students to do, which they could now use for their online teaching, which gives the students the ability to apply the studied skills to a practical problem to solve. If combined with adequate support and giving the students proper feedback, students do not online get engaged but are able to test their knowledge. Moreover, a lot of the interviewees use polls and quizzes to make it more practical.

Here, one lecturer at the faculty of sciences and engineering sees an opportunity for post-pandemic times: no frontal lectures anymore, providing the students with videos and clips to provide theory that can be studied individually and using contact hours to apply the knowledge on practical cases. 


To make sure that lectures go smoothly, it is important to know how to use the technology and resources used for online education. Furthermore, if, i.e., polls and quizzes are used on platforms such as Blackboard collaborate ultra (used by the University of Groningen), it is important to prepare these beforehand to not interrupt the flow of the sessions.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The aim of this research was to investigate, discuss and analyze various methods available in enhancing the student teacher relationship. This research approached this goal through application of literature research in combination with direct discussions with students and teachers. A wide range of methods has been identified and summarized in this report. It is recommended that teachers and students to utilize a combination of psychological as well as holistic techniques in order to achieve a better more interactive relationship in the classroom (click here to open our handout). For further research, it is suggested that these findings to be applied an evaluated in a classroom setting.


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