Group discussions are used as a means of shortlisting candidates in most campus recruitments. Many professional courses, therefore, incorporate orientation programmes to develop group discussion skills within their English syllabus. These programmes however focus on the verbal aspects of language use, while non-verbal parameters are rarely given importance. However, non-verbal parameters play an important part during the selection process of candidates. Hence, the English teacher needs to focus on these as well when teaching group discussion skills.
In this paper, I will attempt to capture the progress of three first year engineering students with regard to four non-verbal parameters in communication—facial expressions, gestures, eye contact and posture. One male and two female students were observed during five rounds of group discussions across ten weeks. The data gathered from these observations was analysed qualitatively to identify emerging trends in non-verbal parameters. The findings suggest that progress was manifested not only in the form of increased use of certain parameters but also as a decrease in the use of certain elements which form part of these parameters. This study has implications for the nature of teacher feedback on non-verbal aspects of communicative speaking tasks in the context of formative assessment.
Keywords: Non-verbal communication, engineering students, group discussions, formative assessment
Engineering students generally get job offers even before the completion of their four-year course. This happens through a campus recruitment drive conducted at the engineering institutes during the third year of the programme. Group discussions form an integral part of this selection procedure as it gives the selection committee an idea about the language proficiency of the prospective candidates as well as their personality traits. Consequently, it helps them to gauge the appropriateness of the candidate for the company. Therefore, it is imperative to develop group discussion skills in students. This may be done by training the students as part of the Language for Communication course, which is aimed at improving communication skills. Communication skills, however, include but are not limited to the participants’ ability to communicate face to face, think creatively, respect the views and contributions of others, solve problems logically, and adapt to changes easily. While the orientation programme focuses on verbal aspects of communication, often, the equally important but understated non-verbal aspects of communication are pushed to the periphery. This is especially true in case of speaking tasks such as group discussions, where the focus of teaching and feedback is usually only on the content matter and not on body language.
Defining Non-Verbal Communication
Over the years, non-verbal communication has been defined in various ways by theorists in different fields, ranging from mechanical sciences to individual psychology, social psychology, linguistics, general cultural theory and even medical science. However, in this paper, I have looked at non-verbal communication in terms of its origin in the theoretical aspects of person perception and presentation of self, as propagated by Goffman (1969) and Birdwhistell (1952). Nowicki & Duke (1992) categorize non-verbal communication under six different channels. The first is rhythm and the use of time, which includes being able to understand others in terms of turn-taking in conversation. The second is spatial distance, which looks into the acceptable norms of physical distance between individuals. A person’s physical appearance forms the third channel and is known as objectics. The fourth is gestures and postures—better known as kinesics—adopted consciously or unconsciously while interacting with people. The fifth channel is facial expressions, including maintaining eye contact (Argyle,1975; Bromley & Livesley, 1973; Goffman, 1959). Last but not the least is paralanguage. This covers all those emotions which are expressed through voice modulation. Garner and Acklen (1980), stated that non-verbal communication was used to contradict, support, and replace verbal behaviour.
Studies in non-verbal communication have been carried out across various disciplines such as law (White, 1978), music (Ford, 2001), leadership (Gentry, & Kuhnert, 2007) and political analysis (Gentry & Duke, 2009). In language teaching, most of the research on non-verbal communication has focused on teachers’ non-verbal behaviour in class and its impact on the learners’ performance (Quirk, 1975; Chaudhry & Arif, 2012). Hodge (1971) claimed that training in non-verbal communication helped to improve use of arms and hands being directed towards students, smiling, and increasing facial expressions while teaching. Surkamp (2014), extolled the benefits of non-verbal communication in drama activities, especially in foreign language classrooms. The importance of non-verbal communication has also been studied in interviews (Lauer, 2005). Martikainen (1972), observed the non-verbal behaviour of pupils during group work. In this study, I have attempted to look non-verbal communication in a specialized format of group work namely, group discussions. My focus here is to identify the growth patterns of four non-verbal communication markers—facial expression, eye contact, gesture and posture—based on teacher feedback.
The research question which drives this study is: How does teacher feedback affect growth patterns of non-verbal communication in group discussions?
The three participants in the study were first year electrical engineering students between the ages of seventeen and nineteen years from a private college in Kolkata. They have been referred to as DB, DM, and PRI in this article.
The principal tool for data collection included video recordings of the group discussions and teacher notes for individual participants.
Data for this study was collected over a period of ten weeks. The researcher met the participants over twenty sessions of roughly ninety minutes each. Participants took part in five rounds of group discussions during that time. All group discussions were video recorded. The video was replayed to the participants before as well as during the feedback. Participants were first asked to comment on their performance. This was followed by a detailed feedback by the researcher on both content as well as non-verbal components of communication, which include facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and posture of the participants. It is imperative to mention here that for pragmatic reasons, the data presented herein has been limited only to the researcher’s observations and notes.
Data analysis and Discussion
The aim of the study was to identify the elements of facial expression, eye contact, gesture, and posture which were most recurrent among the participants during group discussions, and to assess the effect of feedback on them. During the course of ten weeks, the participants were given instructions on how to improve three of these non-verbal parameters—facial expressions, eye contact and posture. Although they were also asked to use more gestures, not much instruction was given to them on its use. It was observed that across the three participants, progress was seen not only in the form of increased use of certain aspects but also in the decreased use of some other elements of the aforementioned nonverbal parameters.
During the group discussions, it was observed that participant DB was of a nervous disposition. He was also not in control of his facial expressions, as evidenced from the unconscious pursing of his lips and his blank expression observed in the video recording of the first round of group discussions. However, by the third round, we noticed that he had an intent look on his face when listening to others during the discussion. However, he was still not very expressive when putting his point across. By the fifth round, unconscious gestures which could be misinterpreted as lack of attention had reduced to a large extent.
DM also pursed her lips when listening to other participants. In addition, on account of her nervousness she also bit her lip after making a point . The pursing of lips continued even during the third round of group discussions. By the fifth round, the nervousness on her face had reduced considerably. Also, she seemed to be concentrating more intently on what the other participants had to say. The confused expression further reduced by this fifth round of group discussions.
PRI’s facial expressions were well defined from the beginning itself. She made good use of her smile to help her get through difficult situations during the group discussions. She smiled to indicate agreement with others and also to avoid confrontational situations while the discussion was underway, as evidenced even in the third round. By round five, she had a relaxed expression right through the course of the discussion.
The kind of feedback given to the participants with regard to their facial expressions included phrases such as: “Try to look more interested when others are talking.”; “Why do you purse your lips after completing your point?”; “You have a nice smile. Use it more often, especially when something is not to your liking during the discussion.”; “If you keep dancing your eyebrows [sic], it shows that you are bored and not listening to the discussion.”
Such focused feedback helped students to modify their facial expressions appropriately. Overall, with regard to the facial expressions of the three participants, decrease in pursed lips after completing a turn was indicative of growth. At the same time, developing a look of intensity when a discussion was underway and smiling more often to dissipate a difficult situation during the discussion was also seen as indicative of growth.
When observing the non-verbal parameter of maintaining eye contact, DB often looked ill at ease when others were making their points. During the first round of group discussions, he seldom maintained eye contact when the others were talking. By the third round, he had started looking attentively at others when they were voicing their opinion. However, he was yet to develop the confidence to look at the other participants when presenting his own points. Evidence of DB’s increased confidence presented itself during the fifth round, in which he started looking at the participants when trying to make them see his point of view. He was also maintaining eye contact with many more participants.
DM did not maintain eye contact during the first round of group discussions. More often than not, she looked down at her feet to avoid confrontation or interaction with the other members of the group. This was on account of her unease in participating in the group discussion. During the third round, she started maintaining eye contact with the participants she was familiar with; but even then, when putting across her own points, she would not look at the others. There was a distinct improvement in maintaining eye contact by the fifth round of group discussions. She now looked at the other participants when they presented their viewpoint. She also stopped looking down at her feet to avoid eye contact. Further, she started maintaining eye contact when trying to refute others during the group discussion.
PRI did not maintain much eye contact when making her points during the first round of group discussions. If at all, her focus was on a single person alone. By the third round of group discussions, she had started maintaining eye contact with both participants. Yet, her eye contact was not sustained since immediately after completing her point, she would look down. Also, she lacked the ability to focus on a single person when he/she was presenting a point. During the fifth round of group discussions, a distinct improvement in her ability to make eye contact was noticed. Although she still looked only at specific people while making her point, her shiftiness had reduced considerably. Looking down at the floor had also decreased. Nevertheless, she would still not consistently look at participants who were making their points.
Some of the feedback provided to the participants for improving eye contact included, “If you don’t look at others when talking, they will not be convinced with your argument.”; “If you look only at your friends, the others might feel offended, thinking that they are being neglected.”; “The moment you look at others while talking, you will feel more confident and appear more passionate about your stance.”
With regard to eye contact, growth was represented by a reduction in looking away from others and looking towards the floor to avoid confrontation. The growth through increased use of the parameter was represented by maintaining more eye contact, both while making a point as well as when others were talking. Thus, this is one example of feedback aiding both decrease and increase of use.
The use of gestures or hand movements appeared to be rather tricky for all the participants during the first round of group discussions. By the third round of group discussions, some participants used gestures but there was a lot of confusion around their use, especially in the case of participant DM. By the fifth round, a marked increase in the use of gestures was observed for all three participants. This was particularly interesting, considering the fact that not much focused training had been given to the participants in terms of what kind of gestures to use when the discussion was underway.
The minimal feedback which was provided included phrases such as “Why don’t you try using your hands when talking?”; “You can indicate increase by moving your hand up and decrease by moving it down.”; “If you use gestures, it becomes easier for the others to visualize what you are trying to say.”
The most common gesture observed was the turning of the hands in a circular motion with the open palm facing the speaker’s body. From no hand movement at all in the beginning, most of the participants progressed to doing jazz hands, which are indicative of a rather confused use of gestures. With more time and focused feedback, it is expected that this parameter of non-verbal communication will also show improvements.
While observing the non-verbal parameter of posture among the participants, DB’s body language during the first round of group discussions showed him to be a fidgety and inattentive person. None of his actions suggested that he was focused on the discussion. He kept shuffling his feet, scratching his face, and playing with his hair, which was indicative of his nervousness. Nevertheless, his body language suggested that he did not barricade himself with a defensive stance while the discussion was underway. DB’s fidgetiness persisted even in the third round of group discussions although it had reduced. While making a point, he leaned forward, which was indicative of greater involvement in the discussion. His stance was open and friendly. By the fifth round of group discussions, DB sat upright and leaned forward only when making a point. He also started nodding in agreement with the opinions of other participants. He was not at all defensive as evidenced by his open posture, with legs apart and shoulders relaxed during the course of the discussion.
DM showed a certain amount of fidgetiness during the first round of group discussions. She also had a tendency to slouch forward, which made her appear uninterested in the ongoing discussion. However, she tilted her head to one side when listening intently to the others, which compensated for her slouch. Her fidgetiness continued even during the third round of the group discussions and was manifested through various mannerisms. She kept fixing her hair, or scratching her face, shaking her legs, biting her nails, playing with her pen, or talking on the sly with other participants, to name a few. By the fifth round, many of her unconscious movements had reduced. The tilting of her head to one side when listening intently was however retained. The slouching forward had also diminished. Therefore, it can be concurred that her posture had improved over the course of the five rounds of group discussions.
PRI also seemed to be fidgety during the first and third rounds of group discussions. Moreover, she did not seem to be very relaxed when the discussions were underway. However, by the fifth round, she developed an erect posture and looked intent during the discussion. She also started nodding in agreement with the points made by the other participants. This was clearly indicative of a growth in PRI’s posture.
Some of the comments during feedback which helped to bring about an improvement in the participants included: “Playing with your hair and tapping your pen indicate that you are very impatient and uninterested in the discussion.”; “If you keep shuffling or tapping your feet it might be distracting for the others. Also, it indicates your nervousness.”; “If you sit up straight you will feel more awake, look more professional, and also appear to be interested in the discussion.”
Yet again, feedback proved beneficial in the non-verbal parameter of posture. The participants exhibited growth by reduced fidgeting and slouching by the participants. The growth through increase was manifested in the actions of leaning forward to listen better, tilting head to one side (which indicated increased attentiveness) and nodding in agreement when others were speaking.
Nature of Growth in the Non-Verbal Parameters
The results of this study has provided evidence that teacher feedback on non-verbal parameters has a positive effect on the group discussion performance. However, as has been delineated earlier, in the case of all four non-verbal parameters, growth is evidenced both in the increase as well as decrease of specific elements as shown in Table 1.
Points of growth across the three participants
By decrease of elements
By increase of elements
Reduced pursing of lips after completing speech
Reduction in blank expressions
Developing an intent look when others are making their point
Smiling at appropriate times
Looking more relaxed
(No participant was in the habit of using gestures)
Increasing use of gestures while making their points, almost bordering on jazz hands
Decrease in looking away from others
Reduction in looking towards the floor when others are making a point
Looking towards others when they are making a point
Looking towards participants when making own point
Reduced fidgeting with hands, pen, and playing with hair, touching face
Leaning forward to listen better
Nodding to others’ points occasionally
Tilting head to one side to listen carefully
Note. Jazz hand refers to the confused use of gestures which novice participants of the group discussion exhibited (adapted from dramatics).
In three aspects namely, facial expressions, eye contact, and posture, the participants showed an improvement where adequate feedback was given. In the case of gestures however, feedback resulted in overuse as well wrong usage by the participants, as evidenced by their jazz hands. Therefore, adequate and timely feedback needs to be given after each round to improve the non-verbal communication of participants during group discussions, especially in the areas of facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, and posture. Moreover, the nature of the feedback is such that it can be provided by the teacher to individual students while going around the class, thereby adding to the ease of the process.
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Shravasti Chakravarty is a Ph.D. researcher at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.