How to read classroom body language

As vacation is wrapping up and the first day of school approaches (if it already hasn’t arrived), the prep time for the classroom is vital. As a teacher or professor, how can we tell if our students are learning during the first days of school–or just zoning out? Are they leaning forward focused on the material? Or are they mid-collapse into a narcoleptic nap?
Dr. Joanne Chesley, Ed. D. CETL Pedagogy Specialist, helps uncover the meaning of students’ body language to guide teachers to know when their lessons are going in one ear, and when they are coming back out the other.
An open body signals an open mind: TRUE
According to Dr. Chesley, attentive body language “signals interest in the other person and the message.” Some signals to look for when teaching students is if they are ignoring distractions like their phones and friends and leaning forward as if involved in the conversation. Even a furrowed brow shows focus, but beware—furrowed brows may also show attentiveness to the point of confusion. With tilted heads and still posture, the student is sure to be paying attention to the lesson.
The best body language a professor can receive is open body language, as it signals change in how the student thinks or feels, added Chesley. With relaxed arms and legs, good eye contact (not staring, glaring, or deer-in-headlights mode), and a face directed towards the professor, the student is sure to be learning effectively.
Checking the time means students are bored: TRUE
This is stating the obvious.
We’ve all checked our phones, watches, and wall clocks to watch the time pass when we no longer want to be where we are. Checking the time, tapping toes, talking to others, and blank/yawn-filled stares are all signals that the student has lost interest in the lesson. This body language signals “that we would rather not be there, or that the material is uninteresting or irrelevant,” said Dr. Chesley.
Don’t lose hope, though, if your class seems disinterested. If the lecture is creating more yawns than notes, create an active class discussion!
Crossed arms are used only for the mad at heart: FALSE
This closed body language can mean multiple things when it comes to students. A set of crossed arms can signal someone feeling threatened and wanting to create a barrier for protection. It can signal the need to be nurtured, or the need to hide something. It can signal the room is too cold (crossed arms keep a person warm). Or it could just be a relaxing position to sit in.
Students are in the classroom to learn and grow, whether they will admit it or not, so reading the body language of the room can help create the strongest influence on the class learning. Don’t forget what the post-summer days were like, and give the students—and the professors—a break. The start of the semester is near!
Disclaimer: While reading body language is all in good fun and can help us read a situation, you must use caution when attempting to read your students. Not all body language is as it seems, and so using context clues will help. Read the person, read the room, and then read body language with caution. Give the students time and your attention, and it may very well be the lesson they need the most.
Feature Image: Thinkstock