Eye contact holds a key role in classroom interaction – Remote instruction poses challenges to engaging students in teaching

Teacher–student eye contact plays a key role in classroom situations. The pandemic has forced a transition away from face-to-face interaction, which poses challenges.

By making eye contact with their students, teachers can convey a connection and encouragement in teaching-related interaction. These findings are presented in Eeva Haataja’s doctoral thesis, which investigates the role of gaze in teacher–student interaction during mathematical problem-solving where the students completed assignments in small groups.

“Many teachers have recently talked, for example on social media, about how something essential is missing from teaching when it is provided via a remote connection. If a lesson is given over a video connection, students are unable to make dyadic eye contact with the teacher or other students. At the same time, the teacher does not receive valuable information which they would gain by observing the students’ facial expressions and gestures. Consequently, the teacher cannot guide the students with their gaze, give an encouraging look to a student or see where the students’ attention is turned. This is why it may be difficult to have personal encounters with students in conjunction with remote instruction,” Haataja muses.

“My research demonstrates that students look at the teacher when they are in friendly interaction with them. With eye contact, teachers can convey their goals, for example, by encouraging students to carry on with work and cooperation,” Haataja sums up. 

Teachers look at students’ faces when encouraging them, while students’ hands reveal the level of their engagement in the learning situation: a hand pointing to an assignment tells a different story to a hand swiping at a smartphone.

Information on gazes gained through gaze-tracking glasses

Earlier research has shown that students consider the presence of the teacher important. Haataja’s research offers the first proof of a link between visual teacher–student interaction and teachers’ momentary goals and behaviour.

The research data was collected using several gaze-tracking glasses simultaneously in schools located in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area as part of MathTrack (2016–2020), a research project funded by the Academy of Finland and conducted at the University of Helsinki. 

In the study, wearable gaze-tracking glasses were used, with the subjects wearing them and their gaze recorded by a computer carried in a backpack. This ensured the free movement of the subjects.

“During lessons, the teacher and four students wore the glasses at the same time. In other words, I was able to examine the two-way visual interaction between teacher and student in relation to the teacher’s pedagogical solutions and the friendliness and agency the teacher conveys,” Haataja says, explaining the background of the study.

Teachers continually make decisions that guide actions by focusing their gaze on objects relevant to their teaching and by sharing their gaze with the students. For example, the data shows that the teacher reacted to a student browsing on their phone by redirecting the student’s attention to the task at hand.

Eye contact is often initiated by the student

Haataja’s research indicated that eye contact between teacher and student is often initiated by the latter. Students sought eye contact with their teacher when they needed help in solving a difficult task. In fact, eye contact can be a particularly effective way of providing personal support to individual students in large groups. It appeared that students initiate eye contact with the teacher considerably more often than vice versa, which of course becomes impossible when a large class is connected to the teacher online.

“It is well known in education research that good teacher–student interaction promotes the wellbeing of both parties and improves learning outcomes. One of the goals of our research group was to bring into view this invisible element of teachers’ professional skills. The effect of remote teaching on students’ or teachers’ experiences of interaction would make for an interesting topic of further research,” Haataja notes.

Eeva Haataja defended her doctoral thesis entitled ‘Understanding the role of gaze in momentary teacher–student scaffolding interaction during collaborative problem solving’ on 28 January 2021 at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki. 

The doctoral thesis online

MathTrack research project