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The Eyes Have It: The importance of eye contact in education and strategies to improve teaching in the virtual environment

Special Issue: Blended Learning Technologies in Healthcare

By Sarah Hodges / February 2023

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Since 2020 I have been both teacher and student in the virtual classroom. I have spoken over and been spoken over. I have sensed the almost-authentic feeling of getting into a really great conversation with a group only to have the flow broken up by the mistimed interjection produced by faulty connections or overzealous participants. It is only in retrospect, now that the world has moved to more in-person interactions, that I realize what we’d been missing in that virtual world: eye contact. I’ve missed all the non-verbal communication during virtual education, but I’ve missed eye contact the most.

My role as a health professions educator is mostly as a neurologist, teaching off-service learners who spend 3-4 weeks in our department. We don’t have a large department and we don’t have a residency program, so learning occurs either one-on-one (attending and learner) or in small groups of the attending and several learners of different training levels. In these close learning environments, there are a lot of physical cues and eye contact for the instructor to engage with.

Eye Contact in Communication

Eye contact provides audiovisual feedback that helps teachers stay engaged with their learners [1]. Furthermore, increased eye contact has been related to an increase in the speaker’s credibility [2]. However, establishing eye contact in virtual sessions is challenging and current technology is one factor for this. On devices that enable video conferences, the camera and display are not in alignment, causing a gaze disparity [2]. Additionally, it is difficult to direct one’s gaze at a specific participant when everyone appears as small squares on a screen.

Human eyes are a fascinating piece of neuroanatomy that have evolved to be highly important not only in practical matters of vision, but in our social connections. We are most engaged when eye contact can be received and sent. In an elegant study performed by Michelle Jarick and Renee Bencic, dyad participants were asked to wear skin conductance detectors during three different eye gaze conditions:

  • looking at each other,
  • one person looking at the side profile of the other participant, and
  • one blindfolded person looking at the other (unblinded) participant.

They found skin conductance (a surrogate for arousal) was highest in the groups who looked at each other. The researchers proposed the act of sending and receiving gaze information requires not only receiving eye contact from another but being self-aware of their own eye contact [3]. In a similar vein, the watching-eye effect was proposed by another group of researchers as a two-stage model of gaze processing. The first stage is the capture of the attention, i.e., when someone makes eye contact with you, they generally get your attention. The second stage is when this attention capture triggers self-monitoring processes such as self-awareness, self-relevant memory, pro-social actions, and positive appraisal of others [4]. I think these elements of self-awareness lie at the heart of why eye contact is so valuable during in person education.

Eye Contact in Education

Eye contact grabs the learner’s attention and sends the message, “I see you and want you to know that you are involved in this conversation.” If that eye contact is preceded by a question, the majority of learners perceive that they are being given the floor to speak. I have used this to draw participation from hesitant learners: I make eye contact first with someone who hasn’t spoken up recently and wait a few beats to give them the opportunity to contribute. I feel this gives folks the space to talk without fear of being interrupted by other learners.

The non-verbal message I’m sending is “Hey there, I think you have interesting things to say but might feel like you can’t get a word in because everyone else is talking so much. We want to hear from you so I’m going to use my magical eye contact to signal that it is your turn to talk so that everyone else chills out and listens, OK?” This sustained eye contact is sending a message to everyone else to hold silent for a moment. This withholding of gaze can be a powerful tool to balance control of the group discussion and keep overzealous students from dominating. Learners are very good at picking up on these cues in person.

Eye Contact and Video Conferencing  

Eye contact is a non-verbal communication tool that works wonders, but it is really impossible to recreate in the virtual world. It is the sending and receiving that is so important, but staring at the computer camera means I can’t see the eyes of my students. You have to make a choice to send or to receive but not both. With this handicap, I’ve had to really lean on other methods to compensate for the loss of eye contact. Learning how to communicate non-verbally and para-verbally in the virtual classroom is like learning a new dialect of a language you know well. You have a general sense of the words, but the timing, inflection, and tone aren’t quite the same and gaffes are likely. Like learning a new language, it takes deliberate practice, reflection, and more practice.

Capitulating to the reality of virtual teaching through video conferencing that I wasn’t going to replicate eye contact and body language on the screen helped me focus on other ways to bolster communication. As I started to try out techniques, I thought it would feel awkward to establish rules on how to communicate during a meeting. As both a student and teacher, I quickly realized these rules were vital. These are a few of the pearls I’ve incorporated into my virtual teaching practice.

  1. Make it clear if this is a forum in which ad hoc participation is desired or if there will be a designated time for questions. If participation is required, say that too. Setting clear expectations at the start of the session is important [5, 6].
  2. Establish a method by which learners can signal a desire to speak. When multiple people want to speak, the moderator lists the order, i.e., if Jack, Beth, and Susan all unmute as the moderator is asking a question, the moderator picks the order in which they will answer by saying it at the end of the question: “What do we think about that? Susan, then Jack, and then Beth.” Other options for signaling desire to speak include texting in chat or raising hand on video.
  3. Videos should be on when possible so that participants can maximize their use and reception of non-verbal communication tools such as head nods/shakes, hand gestures, smiles/frowns, etc. It is demoralizing to speak to a grid of named black boxes [6]. Providing students with the option to turn on their cameras “whenever possible” provides flexibility and recognizes challenges they might be having such as Zoom fatigue and increased stress [6].
  4. Establish a method by which learners indicate they are done talking. That could be muting themselves or using radio speak such as “over” to indicate completion. This system keeps others from interrupting a speaker who may need a second to think of how to continue a thought, thereby creating the perception that there is space and room (even virtually) for everyone to share opinions in the venue. In real life, a person’s body language helps indicate if there is more to say. Someone in the middle of answering a question may lean forward, sit at the end of the chair, and use hand gestures. Then, we sit back in our chairs and drop our hands to our laps or the table, yielding the floor to the group. These body language tips are lost in virtual space.
  5. One of the best options is to have an assistant on the virtual meeting to help monitor the chat, watch who is unmuting/muting, and if the assistant is a co-teacher, help encourage wallflowers to participate. The assistant can either invite wallflowers to participate during the meeting or alert the teacher through text or private chat. Teachers can experience multitasking overload if they were to handle all these activities alone [7]. Having an assistant helps balance the workload.

Teaching and learning in virtual classrooms has required a seismic shift in the education system. As we move back and forth between real life and virtual environments, I have a genuine appreciation for all the unseen and unrecognized things that enhance in-person learning. In the moment of transitioning to virtual, all focus was on making it work. It was only with some space and reflection that I could appreciate how very different these environments are and then start to develop strategies for improving my virtual teaching style. Thankfully, we are able to safely move to more in person education, but the last few years have shown an increased presence of virtual instruction and interaction is likely with ebbs and flows of COVID infection rates. No matter what the future brings, we can continually reflect on best practices and find optimal solutions for the virtual classroom.


[1] He, M. X. et al. Are you looking at me? Eye gazing in web video conferences. In the  Proceedings of Human Interface Technologies 2020/21 Winter Conference. University of British Columbia , 2021

[2] Isikdogan, F. G. et al. Eye contact correction using deep neural networks. In the 2020 IEEE Winter Conference on Applications of Computer Vision (WACV). IEEE, 2020, 3307–3315. doi: 10.1109/WACV45572.2020.9093554.

[3] Jarick, M., and Bencic, R. Eye contact is a two-way street: Arousal is elicited by the sending and receiving of eye gaze information. Frontiers in Psychology 10 (2019).

[4] Conty, L., George, N., and Hietanen, J. K. Watching eyes effects: When others meet the self. Consciousness and Cognition 45 (2016), 184–197.

[5] Center for Academic Innovation. Encouraging student participation in synchronous videoconference sessions. Nov. 11, 2020.

[6] Pitts, V. Teaching into the abyss: Addressing students' camera usage (or lack thereof!) in Zoom. OTL Blog. Oct. 23, 2020.

[7] Warden, C. S. et al.Synchronous learning best practices: An action research study. Computers & Education 63 (2013), 197–207.

About the Author

Dr. Sarah Hodges is a neurologist and medical educator at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, CA. Dr. Hodges graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in cognitive sciences and biopsychology and then earned her doctorate in osteopathic medicine from the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine. She completed her neurology residency at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Dr. Hodges has an academic appointment through the Uniformed Services University as an assistant professor of neurology and is enrolled in a master’s program in health professions education at that institution. She serves as chair of neurology and associate program director for the Transitional Internship Program at Naval Medical Center San Diego. Her education research interests include metacognition, feedback literacy, and confidence/competence calibration.

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  • Tue, 08 Aug 2023
    Post by johir

    very helpful content that is great