This post is a tribute to a non-verbal feedback method that is a major everyday component of university teaching, but one that is under-appreciated, and now, in the gradual-but-relentless shift to fully online learning, is being threatened with extinction.
I’m talking about The Nod.
That gesture used by all types of students for acknowledgement, agreement, approval, encouragement, to indicate ‘I’m here’, ‘I’m thinking’ or ‘you might have a point’ or ‘Yes, but’. Sometimes accompanied by a smile, sometimes a slight frown or narrowed eyes, the Nod is vastly under-represented in the records of and research on useful student feedback mechanisms.
Thanks to Nods throughout the years, I have been able to see at a glance if what I am saying up the front of the room is registering with at least one other person, and sometimes, how it is registering. In my first months as a teacher, the Nods were the best encouragement to keep going, to keep trying to express clearly and coherently what I wanted them to know or to think about. In many ways, it is the ultimate, just-in-time, positive-yet-constructive feedback
And there are so many different types of Nods in university teaching.
There are the Nods that are clearly just meant to put you, the teacher, at ease. You could be lecturing about the most uninspiring thing in the world and completely incoherently, or a hundred times more terrifyingly, you could be giving your first lecture, lose your train of thought and find yourself in a Long and Terrible Pause. And then out of nowhere, a Nod comes as though to say ‘You’re doing okay. Keep going.” These are good Nods for very new or beginner teachers.
There are the enthusiastic Nods. They sometimes have owners whom you will get to know better because they will be the ones who are super-engaged and/or super keen. (Your goal may be to have as many of these Nods as possible in the room from week to week. Number of enthusiastic Nods can be a useful teaching performance criterion but do try to ensure the Nods have different owners. Continual, sometimes-too enthusiastic Nods from the same source is disquieting.)
There are the thoughtful Nods. These can be some of the most useful for teachers; these Nods that are often accompanied by a slight frown that seems to indicate listening and thinking. And while the Nod’s owner might not be agreeing with everything (or hardly anything), the Nod says “Yes, I see. You might have a point. Maybe”.
There are the Nods of disagreement. These Nods always have very good and solid reasons for appearing, and as such, are often barely contained, moving violently, impatiently, along to your words in a “Yes, Yes, Yes, But” way. Often these Nods look like they are going to be accompanied by a raised hand but then the Nod’s owner remembers where they are and saves their questions and comments for later. Or they don’t, and the presentation takes a very interesting turn.
There are the reluctant Nods – the ones where you accidentally meet their gaze while talking and then a teeny tiny Nod appears as though to say “Still here, still listening.” There may be a “Just barely” at the end of that unspoken statement, but for many teachers and presenters, it does the trick of helping to Keep on Keeping On.
In this very non-rigorous study of Nods in the university classroom, I’ve also found that the frequency of Nods is more or less inversely proportional to:
- The size of the room
- The seniority of the scholars in the audience
For example, I usually have more Nods in a lecture theatre than I would in a tutorial or seminar room. It doesn’t seem to matter how many people are in the room; for example, I’ve lectured to large lecture theatres built for 150, currently holding 15 (by week 5) and I would get more Nods in that theatre than I would in my tutorial room (built to comfortably hold 15, now holding 25).
You also get many more Nods in undergraduate classes than you do postgraduate, and definitely more than you get with senior scholarly audiences. (I presented to a mostly-academic audience the other week and I got a Nod, which was enough to stop me in my tracks. Turned out the Nod was by a Senior But Not Academic staff member. Academics Don’t Nod.)
So here, let us pay silent tribute to this form of non verbal feedback that is so regularly received and registered by teachers at all levels, yet so under-appreciated.
As the quickest check-in on how you are teaching or communicating, Nods are certainly taken for granted in university learning spaces, and now with the move to online learning, we’re going to lose these brief but significant moments of connection with our students.
Thumbs-up emojis, likes, and tapping heart symbols on a screen are just not the same.