Embodied Instruction Research at University of California, Santa Barbara

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What’s the best way to support student learning and instructional development to produce meaningful learning? It’s a question a lot of us are taking more seriously than ever after the events of 2020.

Dr. Andrew Stull, Associate Project Scientist at University of California, Santa Barbara, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about their team’s embodied instruction research, if there could be such a thing as too charismatic of an instructor, and how this research should influence our pedagogy.

What is embodied instruction?

Embodied instruction is the idea that the instructor is part of the instructional message. The instructor’s social cues, personality, and presence are part of the lesson. Embodied instruction doesn’t only include the words and the pictures displayed on the screen or written on the board, but also what the instructor does. 

For example, a teacher might get eye contact from the students to support a social connection or to develop social rapport. They might reference a gesture in order to guide students through the lesson material. 

“Sometimes, I talk about it as a dance. The instructor is able to guide the student’s attention at the right time, to the right place, in order to make the point that’s intended to be made at the right time,” Andy explained.

…Isn’t that just physical presence?

An instructor doesn’t have to be seen, but an instructor must be personally present. They must attempt to create a social relationship.

You’ve seen Khan Academy videos, right? The instructors in those videos are very socially present although you never see much more than a cursor moving through the screen. 

Can an instructor be too charismatic?

Does the research suggest there could be such a thing as too charismatic an instructor, one so engaging that they actually distract?” 

His reply? 

A good teacher — whether stunningly attractive or normal — can do the same things to gain attention that supports rapport and motivation. They can use that attention as a vehicle, directing it as necessary to move it into places in the lesson, often away from the instructor. 

“I don’t think the natural beauty or charisma of an instructor is a bad thing or is a hampering thing,” Andy said. 

One interesting bit of data, however, Andy did learn in his research was that an instructor’s face could prove a distraction when it was visible. 

The research team compared a video lecture on a traditional whiteboard with one on a transparent whiteboard. In the first, the instructor looks to the camera to describe something, and then turns to the board to write or draw some relevant piece of information, then turns back to the camera. In the second, the instructor is writing on a sheet of glass and the camera simply reverses the image. 

It looks like they know how to write backwards, which is always amazing for some people. In fact, they’re not writing backwards. The camera just reverses the image. But the idea is that the instructor is always visibly presented to the camera or the viewer. And in that situation, Andy and his team found that students spent much more time looking at the instructor than at the lesson. 

Their finding had nothing to do with charisma, though. Humans are simply wired to attend to people’s faces, especially their eyes. It appears to be beneficial in that situation to turn away from the audience to look at the board because at that point you’re removing faces, the element of distraction. You’re actually shifting your body to create an embodied directness: “No, look over here at the board.” 

At that point, you’re synchronizing them to redirect their attention and removing the distraction of the instructor’s face. Put simply, you can be socially present while not visibly present to the experience.


Next steps to leveraging research in embodied instruction

So many people are wrapped up in the media. People like to talk about the new whizzbang thing. You can use new media, but don’t forego effective methods for constructing a lesson and for connecting with your students.

The heart of good teaching is about the methods that you employ in order to support that lesson. Just adding a computer or a new type of whiteboard or glass board isn’t necessarily effective. It works only with conscious, thoughtful methods to employ those tools to solve the problems you’re trying to address in the classroom for the students you’re working with.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Andrew Stull of University of California, Santa Barbara. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.