Instructor Talk: Small Talk That Makes a Big Impact

Different coloured thought bubblesBy Christine Goedhart

When teaching, have you ever welcomed students at the beginning of class, provided instructions for doing an activity, shared a personal story, offered study tips, or explained the ‘why’ behind your teaching decision? If so, then you were using Instructor Talk.

Instructor Talk is the term used to describe the things you say during class that don’t directly relate to the course content, and it turns out that the little things you say to students in between delivering content can have an oversized impact on how they experience the course.

In particular, using Instructor Talk can improve the classroom learning environment by increasing student participation, reducing stereotype threat, and breaking down the social and emotional barriers between you and your students (Seidel et al., 2015). There’s also evidence that it can help alleviate student stress and anxiety (Hsu & Goldsmith, 2021), and make you seem like a more supportive instructor to students (Schussler et al., 2021).

Research on Instructor Talk has found that it tends to fall into five major categories (Seidel et al., 2015; Harrison et al., 2019). Below are descriptions of these five categories, along with example quotes from Dr. Brett Couch (BIOL 121, 2021). (Note: you can find more information about how Brett uses Instructor Talk here.)

1) Building the Instructor/Student Relationship – Language that demonstrates respect for students, reveals secrets to success, and helps students develop confidence in their ability to succeed. For example:

“I encourage you to come to my office hours. They are for you and I genuinely want to talk with you and help you do well in the course. There are no dumb questions, and you don’t even have to have any questions, you can talk to me about whatever you want – it doesn’t have to be related to the course or even to biology. It’s a chance for us to interact on a smaller scale and a way for me to get to know you better. You can even come by just to say hi.”

2) Establishing Classroom Culture – Language that frames in-class activities, encourages scientific habits of mind, builds community among students, gives credit to colleagues, and indicates that it’s okay to be wrong or disagree with others. For example:

“I’d like you to turn to one or two other people sitting around you and I’d like you to first of all, introduce yourself, let them know your name, and then share with each other the answers you came up with based on the prompt I just gave you. Maybe you’ll have similar ideas and maybe you’ll have some different ones, but this is the starting of building a community in this class and getting to know each other.”

3) Explaining Pedagogical Choices – Language that shares reasons for teaching decisions, connects the course with the real world, reveals how learning works, and fosters long-term learning. For example:

“You’ll be doing a pre-exam preparation assignment in groups of 4-6 students. With 4-6 people in a group, all of you will be able to contribute something to the answer, and together you’re going to come up with a more correct answer than if it was just from one individual because you’ll have multiple people contributing. This is also a way for you to prepare for the exam and help you to determine what you do and do not already know so that you can make better decisions about what to spend your time on when studying.”

4) Sharing Personal Experiences – Language that tells personal information and anecdotes, and relates to student experiences. For example:

“When reading through your introduction assignment submissions, I noticed that several of you indicated that you like Dungeons and Dragons. I like Dungeons and Dragons too. I got into it from my kids.”

5) Unmasking Science – Language that reveals the nature of science, promotes diversity in science, and fosters wonder in science. For example:

“You’ll find that sometimes I’ll say ‘I don’t know’ when you ask me a question. It might be because nobody knows the answer or because I don’t know it off of the top of my head, but we can always go and look. So if you have a question that you really want to know the answer to, there may or may not be an answer, but we can certainly go and see what is known so far. And having questions about things that are not known is actually how scientific discovery often begins.”

While Instructor Talk is commonly used in teaching, the amount and type varies from person to person, and can also change over time. For instance, you may have noticed that you started talking to students differently when teaching during the pandemic. If so, you’re not alone. New pandemic-related Instructor Talk was recently identified, such as acknowledging the impact of current events on students’ lives and learning, and supporting students to develop coping mechanisms and practice self-care (Seah et al., 2021).

Because Instructor Talk has such a large impact on students’ experiences in the course, it’s important to be aware of it and to make sure that you are using it in the best way possible. Here are some tips for how to use Instructor Talk to set up a positive learning environment in your classroom.

Be as intentional with your Instructor Talk as you are with your content-focused talk

Course content tends to dominate our attention when lesson planning, and lots of effort goes into preparing how we will talk about content so that it’s understandable and engaging for students. We might create content-focused learning objectives, and then develop slides and activities that align with the learning objectives to ensure that we don’t forget to talk about anything. We may even practice our content talk before class to make sure that we get it right. So, what if we were as intentional about our Instructor Talk as we are about our content-focused talk?

One way to do this is to create ‘Instructor Talk objectives’ for each class, similar to learning objectives. You can use the items within the five categories of Instructor Talk listed above as a guide for creating these objectives (e.g., Share a personal experience, Connect the course with the real world, etc.). Having clear Instructor Talk objectives will prompt you to think ahead of time about how to strategically and effectively insert Instructor Talk into your class sessions. You can also include prompts on your slides and practice what you want to say before class so that it weaves in seamlessly with the content.

Be especially intentional about your Instructor Talk on the first day of class

What you choose to do and say on the first day of class can have a lasting impact, as it sends a message about your priorities and establishes a classroom culture that can persist throughout the term. And since content tends to take a back seat to other course-related items (e.g., introducing course policies, establishing guidelines, building community, getting students excited, explaining course structure and pedagogical choices, sharing expectations, etc.), you will probably use more Instructor Talk on the first day of class than you do in any subsequent class session.

Because of its importance in setting the tone for the course, you’ll want to use this class session wisely and be especially intentional with your Instructor Talk. Building rapport with students is a key aspect of creating a supportive learning environment (Schussler et al., 2021), and Instructor Talk is an effective vehicle for forming these connections. So, consider developing first day-specific objectives based on as many of the Instructor Talk categories as possible. Having clear objectives will help to guide how you structure the class period and ensure that you are using this critical time to set up a positive learning environment for the rest of the course (Lane et al., 2021).

Focus on delivering positive Instructor Talk

Do you find that you tend to get stuck on any negative student feedback you receive, no matter how small or outnumbered by positive feedback? Similarly, students seem to be disproportionately affected by any negative experiences they have in the classroom, even if most of their experiences are positive (Schussler et al., 2021).

While generally positive, Instructor Talk can be considered negative if it is perceived by students as disrespectful, discouraging, or damaging to the classroom culture (Harrison et al., 2019). Even if your intent is positive, a negatively-phrased statement might not have the effect you want and could result in confusion or mixed-messaging for students (Lane et al., 2021). So, to create a supportive learning environment, focus on using positively phrased Instructor Talk and avoid language that endorses stereotypes or makes assumptions about students.

Fortunately, most negatively phrased comments can be modified to become positive and helpful to students. Before saying something that could be perceived as negative, consider a slight rewording or the addition of sentence or two to explain how what you are saying is beneficial to students. For instance, consider this example of negative Instructor Talk:

“Based on the grades, it looks like a lot of you didn’t put enough time into preparing for this exam.”

Then notice how a slight modification and the addition of a couple sentences can turn the above statement into a way to learn about and support students:

“I’m interested in learning about what prevented you from getting the grade you wanted so that I can better support you for next time. On this notecard, please write down two things–something that you struggled with while studying for this exam, and something you’d like to do differently when studying for the next exam. In the next class, we’ll look at the different struggles you shared and talk about strategies you can use to overcome them.”

And be generous with your positive Instructor Talk–even seemingly small comments can make a big difference in helping students to feel included, encouraged, affirmed, and empowered. This is especially important for students with marginalized identities who might already be subject to negative stereotypes and feel like they don’t belong, such as women, IBPOC, LGBTQ+, and first-generation college students.

Reflect on your Instructor Talk

Becoming aware of and reflecting on the Instructor Talk you use gives you the opportunity to make changes that will create a more supportive classroom climate and better serve your students. One way to become aware of your Instructor Talk is to record your class sessions in either audio or video format and review them afterward. Pay attention to the types of Instructor Talk you use and when you tend to use them during class sessions. Here are some questions you could think about:

  • What do you notice?
  • Why do you use the Instructor Talk you do?
  • What messages are you sending to students?
  • Is your tone more positive or negative?
  • How do you feel about the Instructor Talk you use?
  • Is there anything that you’d like to change about your Instructor Talk (say more of/less of/differently)?

If you don’t have a lot of time to listen to your lectures, you can focus on the first 15 minutes of the class session, which is when most Instructor Talk tends to happen (Harrison et al., 2019). You can also focus on key times in the term, such as the first class session and any other lectures that you are particularly interested in. If you don’t feel comfortable listening to your own lectures, you can ask a colleague to listen or invite them to sit in on your class and then relay the information back to you. And if you decide to measure and record the amount and type of Instructor Talk you use, you can track any changes over time.

While it can sometimes feel insignificant, Instructor Talk can have important implications for classroom climate and how supported students feel in the course. Whenever you use language to empathize with students, build interpersonal connections, encourage and excite, share tips for success, focus on learning rather than grades, and articulate directions and expectations, you show students that you care about them and their learning.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make the all the difference, and this is definitely the case with Instructor Talk. Reflecting on and being intentional about the non-content language you use in your classroom will help you to harness this powerful tool to create a more supportive learning environment, leading to greater student engagement, participation, and learning.


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Hsu, J.L. & Goldsmith, G.R. (2021). Instructor Strategies to Alleviate Stress and Anxiety among College and University STEM Students. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 20:1.

Lane, A.K., Meaders, C.L., Shuman, J.K., Stetzer, M.R., Vinson, E.L., Couch, B.A., Smith, M.K. & Stains, M. (2021). Making a First Impression: Exploring What Instructors Do and Say on the First Day of Introductory STEM Courses. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 20:1.

Schussler, E.E., Weatherton, M., Chen Musgrove, M.M., Brigati, J.R. & England, B.J. (2021). Student Perceptions of Instructor Supportiveness: What Characteristics Make a Difference? CBE—Life Sciences Education, 20:2.

Seah, Y.M., Chang, A.M., Dabee, S., Davidge, B., Erickson, J.R., Olanrewaju, A.O. & Price, R.M. (2021). Pandemic-Related Instructor Talk: How New Instructors Supported Students at the Onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 22:1.

Seidel, S.B., Reggi, A.L., Schinske, J.N., Burrus, L.W. & Tanner, K.D. (2015). Beyond the Biology: A Systematic Investigation of Noncontent Instructor Talk in an Introductory Biology Course. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 14:4.


Are there other tips you have for effectively using Instructor Talk? If so, I’d love to hear them! Please share in the comment section below. And if you’d like help with collecting, analyzing or reflecting on your Instructor Talk, let me know – I’m here to support you in any way I can.

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