eCoaching Tip 66 Teacher Presence, Social Intelligence and Course Beginnings

May 11 2009

eCoaching Tip 66 Teacher Presence, Social Intelligence and Course Beginnings

The basics of launching a course well are similar to the basics of launching any social or business gathering well: preparation, presence, attentive listening and thoughtful hosting. This means that an instructor, in addition to being a course designer, content expert and mentor, also must pay attention to creating an environment that encourages learners to coalesce into a stimulating and supportive learning community.

Previous ecoaching tips have addressed the three types of presence so essential to an online instructor:  the social presence, the teaching presence and the cognitive presence.The dominant type of presence at the beginning of a course is the social presence, getting to know each other as three-dimensional people and building the foundation of trust.  At the same time, instructors must invest significant effort into their teaching presence, providing that all –important guidance and structure for the overall course experience.  The content leadership that is part of the cognitive presencecan be embedded in the teaching presence during the launch week or so.

The importance of social presence to learning has been dramatically affirmed in Daniel Goleman’s book, Social Intelligence: The new science of human relationships (2006). Goleman’s work in synthesizing findings in biology and brain science reveals that we connect emotionally and socially much more quickly than cognitively.  Once we are connected on the social and emotional levels, we are more open to those individuals with whom we feel connected. Standup comedians and speakers who always begin with a humorous anecdote use this fact well. As Goleman observes, “laughter may be the shortest distance between two brains.” (p. 45)

Thus while we may feel that taking time to get to know learners as three-dimensional people, including their social, emotional and cognitive levels, is not “worth it,” this research suggests that it is the most efficient way of bring power to our teaching.

Tools for Social and Emotional Connections — Insightful Listening, Observation and Story-Telling

Another key message from the social intelligence research suggests that emotions — and ideas —ripple out across groups. According to this research — called mirror neurons, we understand others better by closely observing and even mimicking the external actions or intentions of others. Our mirror neurons help us create an empathic resonance, a brain-to-brain linkage. Stories and case studies that integrate social, emotional and cognitive content create these types of connections. Great leaders and teachers seem to use these mirroring techniques intuitively and effortlessly.

The example that Goleman launches his book with recalls an incident in Iraq when a group of U.S. soldiers on their way to a mosque to speak with a cleric suddenly encountered hundreds of angry Muslims convinced that the soldiers had come to do harm to the mosque or the cleric. The commanding officer assessed the situation and then told his soldiers to “take a knee,” meaning to kneel on one knee, point their rifles toward the ground and to smile. With these actions, the mood of the crowd morphed and the contagion of smiling spread to the crowd.

This story is a good illustration of how “emotions spread from person-to-person” just as ideas do. The emotion behind the ideas in discussion boards is part of what builds learning communities. Thus part of the content of learning is becoming involved with the social and emotional aspects of your discipline. As you consider how a strategy for solving a leadership problem might work, it can be wise to discuss and make explicit the feelingsthat may be driving the actions of the people in the situation.

A list of effective social intelligence behaviors used by good leaders (Kosmitzki & John, 1993, cited in Kihlstrom and Cantor, 2000) includes characteristics such as these seven:

  • Understands people’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions well;
  • Is good at dealing with people;
  • Has extensive knowledge of rules and norms in human relations;
  • Is good at taking the perspective of other people;
  • Adapts well in social situations;
  • Is warm and caring; and
  • Is open to new experiences, ideas, and values.

Goleman also notes “emotions flow with special strength from more socially dominant person to the less.” (Pp. 275).  This affirms something that we have always known — mainly, that teachers who teach with energy, with enthusiasm, and with excitement, generate those same emotions about the content in their learners.

So what does this mean for course beginnings? In short, not only is it important to your online learners, that you are “present;” it is also important to share stories about the value, joy and possibilities of the content and to encourage that type of feeling in your students. In other words, you want to find ways to be fully present and to engage both the minds and the feelings of the students. With these connections, learners are more open to you as a person and to the content.

For more about how what we are learning about how social intelligence applies to learning, you may be interested in viewing a short six-minute videoby Goleman from a 2007 forum on social and emotional learning.

The bottom line message for teaching with social intelligence is to pay close attention to what your learners are saying and thinking and to observe how ideas infused with emotion spread quickly.  Use case studies and stories to integrate emotion and content.  Students will remember those shared experiences longer.

Six-Point Checklist for Course Beginnings

All courses have a natural cycle of beginnings, middles and endings. Beginning times are filled with excitement, anticipation, hope and sometimes, a little anxiety. You and your students wonder about how the group of learners will work together.  You wait anxiously to see what the learners’ hopes for the course are.

Below is a six-item checklist about good faculty actions for course beginnings.  These practices help to ensure student satisfaction and effective learning and help to make teaching more enjoyable as well. See if you can check “yes” to each of these reminders.

Reminder: Blackboard provides many communication tools to make communicating with learners easy and to encourage social interaction between learners.  For faculty, the announcement tool, and discussion boards are the primary tools; for learners, the discussion board and open forum/café are generally the primary tools.  Don’t forget to add audio and video resources and to use audio and video in the live classrooms, blogs and wikis.

Here is a Checklist for Your Course Beginnings

  1. Let students get to know you. Do you have a professional and personal faculty bio? ____

Have you incorporated ways to “make yourself known” to your students? Students love stories about their faculty, especially those that show what you do as a friend or family member. Sharing a picture of what you did or didn’t do over the last 2-3 months can encourage them to do the same. Of course, be sure to have a standard faculty photo in your Faculty Information section.

  1. Use the Announcement section. Have you welcomed your students here? ____

This is the content area in Blackboard that students always see when they “come” to your online classroom. It is a great place to post a welcome and remind them of the “first” actions for them. Some of these first actions will be to review schedule and syllabus and post a response to your “getting acquainted” postings.

Also, check out the possibility of posting an announcement with an audio greeting as suggested by the Duquesne template. Hearing your voice creates a sense of real presence. A tip sheet from the Ed Tech center on how to create a Voice Announcement is here.

  1. Did you create a new “Getting Acquainted” thread in your “Pre-Week and Introductions” forum? ____

Not only do students want to know you; they also want to know something about their fellow students and to share a little about themselves. Getting acquainted posts can be an opportunity for you as well.  Get to know and remember them by creating spaces in your own head and on paper by having them share something personal or memorable about themselves. Suggest that they share something simple, such as a “personal favorite” type of technology, place, or beverage, or a “personal best” or personal worst. I find something as simple as a picture invaluable.

  1. Do you have plans to “be present” at your course every day for the first two weeks? ____

Your teaching and social presence is always important and it is doubly critical in the first few days of a course. In real estate it is location, location, location. In online learning it is presence, presence and more presence.

  1. Do you have your syllabus complete with schedule, assignments and required resources? ____

As you know, online students are super-sensitive to requirements, schedules and communication processes. Be sure that your course requirements are clear as to how many hours a week that you expect the course to take. A range of hours such as 4 to 6 or 6 – 8 is fine. If you plan on holding synchronous sessions, a backup plan for time conflicts is a must. Archiving sessions, holding duplicate sessions, or making synchronous sessions optional are ways to handle the likelihood of schedule conflicts.

  1. Do you have a discussion forum or an assignment focusing on the course performance goals? ____

As you know from other tips, adults who are juggling work and learning like to personalize and customize a course to their professional needs and goals. Yet students don’t always “process” the intended performance goals and knowledge objectives of a course. Here are two strategies that can help students “connect” more personally to the stated course performance goals.

  • Include a short assignment in the first week that asks the learners to review the performance goals or learning outcomes for the course, and then apply these performance goals to their own professional and personal goals. Doing this encourages your student to actually process the goals for their own purposes. Their statements shed light on what their own learning purposes might be and what the learner may already know.
  • Another strategy is to identify an important news item relevant to the course content and create a discussion forum where students comment on that news item. This immediately creates a shared content experience where students connect with the relevancy of the course content. More about this technique of “story referencing” is in the tip from last fall about personalizing learning:Tip 60 (#2 Fall 2008) Personalizing Learning Content so that Students Grow with the Course Experiences


What is most important in your teaching is to expand your thinking about teaching as a   telling or providing information role. Your role as a mentor includes discerning your learner’s knowledge, their zone of proximal development, and then guiding and channeling their experiences to grow in knowledge and skills.  In particular, knowing how to effectively get in synch with others is an essential characteristic of knowledgeable and effective leaders.


E-Coaching Tip 21 (Fall 2006) Five Simple Reminders about Course Beginnings

E-Coaching Tip 61 (Fall 2008) Steps in Memory-Making: What Teaching Behaviors Make a Difference.

Goleman, D. (2006). Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. New York: Bantam Dell.

Goleman, D. (2007). Selling SEL: An Interview with Daniel Goleman. CASEL Forum, New York. Retrieved July 6, 2010

Kihlstrom, J. F. & Cantor, N. Social Intelligence.  Retrieved July 6, 2010 from Note: An edited version of this chapter was published in R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of intelligence, 2nd ed. (pp. 359-379).  Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Kosmitzki, C., & John, O.P. (1993). The implicit use of explicit conceptions of social intelligence. Personality & Individual Differences,15, 11-23.

Note: These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized, expanded and updated  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2016) coauthored with Rita- Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2020