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Editor's Corner

Tests, Quizzes, Exams … Oh My!

Examining Nonverbal Behaviors as a Form of Assessment

The Science Teacher—September/October 2022 (Volume 90, Issue 1)

By Ann Haley MacKenzie

Tests, Quizzes, Exams … Oh My!

When I say “assessments,” what immediately comes to your mind? Tests, quizzes, and exams? Does it always have to be that way?

As you know, there are two main categories of assessments. Summative assessments exist to evaluate students’ prowess on concepts at the end of a unit, semester, or course. Formative assessments, on the other hand, occur in real time, day-after-day. Formative assessments occur via exit tickets, lab work, discussions and questioning during class, observing students’ progress as they investigate something from the natural world, or from our “reading” the students’ nonverbal language.

Reading students’ nonverbal language is one of the most powerful tools we have as educators. Furrowed brows. Gazing outside the window. Hiding under hoodies. Lack of eye contact. Hunched shoulders. All of these send us critical information about what our students are thinking, what they are contemplating, what they are confused by, and what they are tuning out. If we ignore their nonverbal signals, we miss a wealth of information on how our students are doing in our science courses.

Being able to read nonverbal language comes with experience, but novice science teachers can dive right into learning about the students’ signals they send minute-by-minute.

By the time a new teacher enters their first classroom, they have two decades of experience reading nonverbal language through daily interactions with other people—but reading students’ faces and body language is different. We are looking for signs of curiosity, wonder, understanding, and the infamous “light bulb” that goes off when we see a struggling student finally grasp a phenomenon or difficult concept. What a feeling it is for both us and the student when the “light” goes on.

According to Bambaeeroo (2017), 93 percent of information is relayed in a nonverbal manner. If we display behaviors that imply we don’t want to be teaching or we just want to “cover” the scientific material rather than “uncover” it, then students pick up on these cues. These cues may be displayed through our body language and facial expressions, such as slouched shoulders, standing in one place throughout the class, scowled expressions, and not smiling.

We need to display open gestures. Looking students directly in the eyes when posing a question provides a moment-to-moment interaction with a particular student that affirms their knowledge base. Not pointing fingers, but using our entire hand to call on a student, is much more welcoming for them to express their thoughts. Using open body language is more effective than when we make ourselves look smaller by crossing our arms, slouching, and not using eye contact. Our body language transfers our feelings and impressions to our students in ways more powerful than we can imagine.

A physics teacher began the school year by picking up a large metal trashcan and throwing it with force across the front of the classroom. What message was he conveying to the students? The students immediately shrank in their seats, avoided eye contact with the teacher, and used multiple nonverbal messages conveying they were smaller in stature. This teacher’s message was one of intimidation and fear. How will the year progress with this sort of opening to the school year? Will students feel free to question the teacher when a phenomenon is being discussed, assuming this teacher even uses phenomenon-based teaching.

I am not implying all nonverbal cues should be “warm and fuzzy” but welcoming, encouraging, and an invitation to the students to explore scientific ideas and wonders. Now, what if the student has Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD)? In this case, these students often have challenges in deciphering social communication. They miss social patterns going on between the teacher and themselves, the teacher and other students, and between student and student. Due to this difficulty with social communication, students with NLD often focus on video games or chat rooms where nonverbal communication is not an issue. They excel at rote memorization but are challenged by problem-solving tasks, which make up the majority of our science teaching. Often these students have other diagnoses such as being on the autism spectrum or ADHD. These students can’t pay attention if they don’t understand. Hence, they may display nonverbal signals that indicate confusion and manifest in fidgeting. Knowing our students goes a long way in interpreting their nonverbal communication.

Have you ever introduced a lab or activity and seen students rub their hands together briskly? They are communicating they are excited for the learning event and are eager to get started. What about the palm of their hands? If you see palms open and facing upward, this is a sign of openness and honesty. When you or the students are presenting to the class and stand straight with shoulders back, then this position relays the information of feeling confident and assured of what they are about to present. Do you ever stroke your chin or see a student do the same? Then deep thought and contemplation is being displayed and emphasized. Leaning in can also relay interest and intrigue with the subject matter as long as it doesn’t invade another person’s personal space.

Doodling has long been seen as an unproductive, off-task behavior. Recent research indicates that when students doodle, they are actually more in tune with what is happening in the classroom. Creativity and outside-the-box thinking can occur when this behavior occurs. It is a “low-stakes activity that empowers students to explore material without fear of judgment or failure” (Learning Liftoff 2019).

Some educators may believe that a student gazing out a window or away from ourselves indicates they are not paying attention or are daydreaming. While this may be the case, there are many times in my experience that I see a student engaging in this behavior, I call on them, and they produce the most eloquent comment of the day. So, be attuned to each student and what seems to be their common behavior. Nail biting by students can demonstrate anxiety, stress, or insecurity. Often, the student does not even realize they are engaged in this activity. When a student places their hand on their cheek, this can demonstrate they are deep in thought or they have tuned out of the class activity entirely. Again, knowing how to read your students can help you reel them into the discussion, activity, or scientific event being explored.

Most of all, by reading our students’ nonverbal behaviors, we can determine if they are “with us,” about to engage in nonproductive, explosive behavior, or are frustrated and do not understand what is happening at the time in class. Be attuned to this form of assessment and your new school year will be far more fulfilling, successful, and enlightening for both you and your students.


Bambaeeroo F., and N. Shokrpour. 2017. The impact of the teachers’ nonverbal communication on success in teaching. Journal of Advanced Medical Education Professionals 5 (2): 51–59.

K12 Learning Liftoff. 2019. Four surprising benefits of doodling in the classroom.

Miller, C. 2022. What is nonverbal learning disorder?


Assessment Pedagogy Teaching Strategies High School

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