Academic journal article Communication Studies

Is Teacher Immediacy Actually Related to Student Cognitive Learning?

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Is Teacher Immediacy Actually Related to Student Cognitive Learning?

Article excerpt

Over the last two decades, scholars have devoted considerable attention to studying immediacy in the classroom. A major focus of research on teacher immediacy is the relationship with cognitive learning. At present, at least 35 studies examine the relationship between immediacy and cognitive learning and are easily accessible, listed in Table 1. Although no meta-analysis of this literature has appeared to date, these studies appear to suggest that increases in teacher immediacy cause increases in student learning. As Rodriguez, Plax, and Kearney (1996) summarized, "No other teacher communication variable has been so consistently associated with increases in both students' affective and cognitive learning in the classroom" (p. 293).

A close inspection of the research on which the foregoing claims are founded reveals a persistent set of theoretical and methodological shortcomings. This project was undertaken to evaluate the existing research and theory and to propose directions for future research. In this article, we assess the validity of the research linking teacher immediacy to cognitive learning, present an alternative explanation of how teacher immediacy functions in the college classroom, and conduct an exploratory study.


Research Trends

The concept of immediacy was originally delineated in the late 1960s by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, who was interested in how people could infer a communicator's attitudes from implicit cues. Immediacy, Mehrabian said, is behavior which "increase[s] mutual sensory stimulation between two people" (1972, p.6), a type of approach behavior that he felt reflected closeness and positive attitude toward the other (1966, 1972). He noted, "People are drawn toward persons and things they like, evaluate highly and prefer" (1972, p. 1). As research on the immediacy construct has developed since the original formulation, communication scholars have identified a variety of functions served by immediacy cues. Immediacy behaviors signal warmth and positive regard between people, communicate interpersonal involvement and approach, signal availability and inclusion, and increase sensory stimulation (Andersen, Andersen, & Jensen, 1979; Andersen, 1985, 1999).

The body of research focusing on immediacy and cognitive learning that has emerged, while broadly similar in many ways, may be loosely organized around four different models: the Learning Model, the Motivation Model, the Affective Learning Model, and the Arousal Model. These models serve a more explanatory than theoretical function. With few exceptions, researchers did not design their investigations to test one model against another. The Learning Model (Figure 1), based primarily upon the original work of Janis Andersen (1979), presumes a direct, linear relationship between teacher immediacy behaviors and student learning gains. Reasoning that the immediacy construct described by Mehrabian might "generalize to the classroom" (1979, p. 544), Andersen hypothesized that teachers who used more immediate communication styles would stimulate positive student outcomes, including learning gains, and higher affect towards course content. Andersen found that teacher immediacy was indeed associated with positive affect and behavioral commitment among students, but she found no relationship between immediacy and learning, as measured by test scores. Several other studies examining immediacy and cognitive learning also failed to show an association between these two variables (Andersen, Norton, & Nussbaum, 1981; Andersen & Withrow, 1981; McDowell, McDowell, & Hyerdahl, 1980).


The Motivation Model proposes an indirect relationship between student learning and teacher immediacy (see Figure 2). Christophel (1990) and Richmond (1990) were among the first to posit that students' state motivation to learn is affected by teacher nonverbal immediacy, and that this is the causal mediator between student learning and immediacy in the classroom. …

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