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May 11 2009

E-Coaching Tip 66 (#1 Summer 2009)

Social Intelligence and Presence — And Reminders about Course Beginnings

The basics of getting a course launched well are similar to the basics of any social or business gathering: preparation, presence, and being a good listener and host.  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 helps learners meld into a stimulating and supportive learning community. 

Previous ecoaching tips have addressed the three presences of an instructor:  the social presence, the teaching presence and the cognitive presence. The dominant role at the beginning of a course is the social presence, while providing content leadership with the cognitive presence and providing direction with teaching presence. 

The importance of social presence is 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 

A key message from social intelligence research on mirror neurons is that emotions — and ideas —ripple out across groups. According to this research, 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.  This is a fact practiced by great leaders and teachers intuitively. 

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 the discipline. As you encourage linkages of ideas and how a strategy for solving a leadership problem might work, it can be wise to discuss and make explicit the feelings that may be driving the actions.

A list of social intelligence behaviors (Kosmitzki & John, 1993, cited in Kihlstrom and Cantor, 2000) includes abilities such as:

  • 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,” but that you share stories about the value, joy and possibilities of the content and to encourage that type of personal feeling with 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 checking out a short six-minute video by 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 how ideas spice 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 sometime, a little anxiety. You and your students wonder about how the group of learners will work together and what the learners’ hopes for the course are.

Below is a six-item checklist about what it is good to do in course beginnings. Using these practices helps to ensure student satisfaction and effective learning and to make teaching more enjoyable as well. These practices lay the groundwork for an effective and fun course launch and a step forward in accomplishing your performance goals for your students.

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 the 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 occasionally use audio, the live classroom, blogs and wikis.

Course Beginnings Checklist

1. Let students get to know you. Do you have a “rich” 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 person. 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.

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

This is the content area in BB that students will see first and 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 on how to create a Voice Announcement is here.

3. 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 — to create 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.

4. Do you have plans to “be” 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.

5. 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.

6. 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 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; and their statements shed light on what the learner’s purpose might be and what the learner already knows.
  • Another approach 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, including the awareness of how to effectively get in synch with others, one characteristic of knowledgeable and effective leaders.


E-Coaching Tip 21 (Fall 2006) Five Simple Reminders about Course Beginnings http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip21.html

E-Coaching Tip 61 (Fall 2008) Steps in Memory-Making: What Teaching Behaviors Make a Difference. http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip61.html

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. http://www.edutopia.org/daniel-goleman-sel-video.

Kihlstrom, J. F. & Cantor, N. Social Intelligence.  Retrieved May 1, 2009 from http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~kihlstrm/social_intelligence.htm 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.

Social Intelligence and Presence — And Reminders about Course Beginnings



Ecoaching Table of Contents



Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013