Gaze aversion gives teachers cues on students’ thinking processes in class

One of the most common mistakes educators commit in the classroom is not allowing students sufficient time to respond to a question, reports a study in Educational Psychology.

To avoid interrupting students before they have enough time to respond, teachers could make better use of cues they receive from children’s eye gaze, particularly gaze aversion (GA), suggest UK researchers Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon and Fiona Phelps.

“During difficult cognitive activity (e.g., remembering information, thinking of an answer to a question, speech planning, or speaking) we often close our eyes, look up at the sky, or look away from the person we are in conversation with,” the authors write.

“It is therefore important that teachers can judge when a child has finished with a question and is ready to move on to the next, and GA promises to be a reliable cue that enables differentiation between a child who is engaged in thought and one who has given up.”

In their study, researchers video-recorded interactions of teachers with three of their students during the normal course of activity in 12 classrooms and then analyzed teachers’ comments about the interactions after they viewed the videos; the students were ages 7 and up. Researchers also surveyed 52 teachers with a 12-page questionnaire about their interpretations of children’s gaze behaviors in the classroom.

Interruptions of student thinking

Judges noted every question-answer period in the videos, interruptions of student thinking time by teachers and they also coded gaze aversion as high, medium and low. The researchers note that previous studies have found that high levels of GA indicate that a child is engaged in thought while low levels indicate that a child is listening to a question or providing an answer to a question.

The researchers concluded that teachers did seem to be good at recognizing “thinking time” as indicated by gaze aversion because they avoided interrupting students. But, the longer a child took to answer, the more likely teachers were to interrupt students, they report.

“When children had been thinking for 1.1-5.0s (seconds), there was a greater tendency than chance to interrupt than not,” the researchers write. Hence, it appears that while teachers have a good implicit grasp of the meanings of gaze aversion, they could more effectively use these cues in the classroom to allow students sufficient response time.

In their own comments on the videos, teachers referred to GA less than they did to judgments about the student’s internal state and other behaviors. Child gaze behaviors accounted for only 32% of behaviors in teacher comments.

While teachers seem to have awareness of GA and do seem to be using these cues to some extent, they fail to take advantage of them fully in the classroom. They could make even better use of GA, researchers conclude, to give students adequate response time in the classroom.

“It is likely that drawing explicit attention to the usefulness of GA as an indicator of attention and thinking will be sufficient to allow teachers to begin using it constructively as a cue during teaching,” they conclude.

“Teachers’ Responses to Children’s Eye Gaze” by Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon and Fiona Phelps Educational Psychology, Volume 27 Number 1, February 2007, pp. 93-109.

Published in ERN May/June 2007 Volume 20 Number 5

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)