Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Instructor Self-Disclosure as a Classroom Strategy

This is an article I wrote for the Proceedings of the Georgia Communication Association.  I don't think it's accessible elsewhere, and I believe it will help someone.  I have tried to synthesize the research on this subject.


College instructors utilize a number of methods to engage students, gain affinity, and meet learning outcomes. One of these methods is self-disclosure. The research on self-disclosure in interpersonal settings is rich, and there are also a number of important, but sometimes inconclusive, studies about self-disclosure as a classroom strategy. Research has supported that positive and relevant self-disclosure adds to immediacy, student motivation, affective learning, and somewhat higher teacher evaluations. Research does not, however, support that self-disclosure is necessarily or consistently linked to learning gains. This paper reviews the literature and makes suggestions about best practices in using self-disclosure methods in the classroom (narratives, personal expression of opinions, and nonverbal communication) based on the research.


In a typical classroom, especially in a communication classroom, we might find ourselves using a personal narrative or reference. It might be an offhand comment about how we went out to eat at a new restaurant the night before and how much we enjoyed it. It might be a story about a time we were struggling in our undergraduate days and how we learned a study strategy that paid off for us. It might be an amusing personal anecdote we tell simply to show how anecdotes can be worked into a speech.

College instructors use self-disclosure to varying degrees, depending on their personalities, disciplines, level of students, and contexts. According to research by Downs, Javidi, and Nussbaum (1988), instructors in a variety of disciplines used some sort of self-disclosure 10 times per 50-minute period. As communication instructors, we may use it even more since the nature of our subject condones, if not encourages, it. In this paper, the purpose, benefits, disadvantages, and characteristics of self-disclosure will be presented, based on a review of sources in the social sciences over the last four decades. Afterward, suggestions for effective strategic self-disclosure, along with a discussion of four special cases, will be provided.

What is Self-Disclosure?

Before moving further, definitions are in order. Self-disclosure has been most directly defined as “any message about the self that a person communicates to another” (Wheeless and Grotz, 1976, p. 47). However, an earlier scholar of self-disclosure (Jourard) proposed that self-disclosure also involved “an attitude of trust and love” (cited in Cayanus, 2005, p. 13). Pearce and Sharp (1973) emphasized that self-disclosure involves a person revealing information about the self that is not obvious or accessible in other ways. For the purpose of simplicity, in this paper we will use Wheeless and Grotz’s definition. Not all self-disclosure, as we shall see, is done for affective reasons, although it may result in affective ends. Furthermore, in the age of Internet and social networking, so much more personal information (even salary and teacher evaluations) is available to anyone who wants to find it that the distinction between accessible and inaccessible information is blurred.

What Characterizes Self-Disclosure Research?

Self-disclosure is usually and traditionally studied in the social sciences as a factor in dyads, relationship formation, and small groups as opposed to rhetorical, public, or educational contexts. Self-disclosure plays an important role in communication issues such as social penetration theory, social exchange theory, uncertainty reduction theory, and relational dialectics. Self-disclosure is also a variable in understanding cross-cultural communication (Griffin, 2006). Psychologists and communication scholars have examined the relationship of self-disclosure to all sorts of physical, mental, and social wellbeing, as well as investigating the effects of kinds and levels of self-disclosure, especially what constitutes “too much.” These researchers are as likely to put limits on the value of self-disclosure as they are to encourage freedom of self-disclosure. Jones and Brunner (1981) state, “In light of the findings discussed earlier, however, the unquestioning endorsement of self-disclosure as a skill related to communication competence seems inappropriate” (p. 24).

Additionally, those who study gender differences and influences in communication behavior have focused on self-disclosure as a primary difference between men and women, although the often posited disparity is not consistently supported in the research. In other words, women are assumed to self-disclose more frequently, more deeply, and more effectively than men, but other factors (topic, gender of the communication partner, context, and societal expectations) enter into the amount and depth of intimacy of female self-disclosure (Lombardo and Berzonsky, 1979).

These biases sometimes intrude into the research methods, designs, and practices. Yes, women will often self-disclose more and men, less, simply because they are expected to do so. Jones and Brunner (1981) observe that women are judged better adjusted if they disclose and men are judged better adjusted if they do not. In their study, they hypothesized that the perception of interpersonal communication competence would be largely influenced by a combination of the amount as well as the gender of the self-disclosure. They found that “the female disclosure was perceived as more competent than the male discloser” (p. 31) regardless of the observer’s gender. The female was “allowed” to disclosure more and more intimately.

Leaper, Carson, Baker, Holladay, and Myers (1995) also investigated the gender/self-disclosure subject, but from the perspective of the recipients of disclosure. They specifically worked with pairs of friends, both same-sex and cross-gender. They, too, found only insignificant differences between the amounts of male and female self-disclosure. Women in their study used more active understanding responses with females than they did with male partners. Both men and women used clarification questions (less direct, less empathetic) with men. They suggest that due to the supposed difficulty men have with self-disclosure, asking a clarification question is deemed less embarrassing to the male friend than a forthright statement of understanding. As with other studies, the biases regarding male’s feelings about self-disclosure seemed to influence the participants’ responses and the researchers’ interpretations.

One might well ask at this point, does this research on gender and self-disclosure have any bearing on teacher self-disclosure?  Perhaps only that in our less-than-ideal world, an instructor must realize that all student perceptions and expectations of him or her are influenced by gender; therefore, student perceptions of self-disclosive communication are included in that category. Student perceptions of instructors can be divided into two groups: those traits that an instructor cannot change (age, gender, and race) and those that the instructor cannot modify. Communication behaviors and strategies are not traits, but modifiable behaviors, even if we may not want to change them. Teachers are not able to change gender, race, or age, nor are they really able to change student expectations or even prejudices about those subjects, but we can change our self-disclosive communication and other affinity-producing strategies to achieve interpersonal and learning outcomes.

Furthermore, knowing about how gender influences student perceptions of communication behavior, for right or wrong, can allow the instructor to increase his or her repertoire, avoid stereotypical topics or methods, and use self-disclosures that are more useful to the students’ learning. For example, a female instructor may want to be sure to keep her self-disclosures positive, even if her tendency is to use self-deprecating self-disclosures in personal relationships. Punyanunt-Carter and Maria (2006) found that male and female students perceived the self-disclosive communication of teaching assistants, but the males and females differed in their perceptions of the positiveness versus negativeness of the disclosures. Tannen (1994) advises women to avoid the trap of downplaying their own achievements in the professional world, a common behavior that distinguishes male and female communication.

Epting, Zinn, Buskist, and Buskist of Auburn University (2004) encourage instructors in this regard in their article “Student Perspectives on the Distinction between Ideal and Typical Teachers.”  We know (especially at teacher evaluation time) that students have some kind of “ideal” of teacher behavior against which they measure us. What is it?  Epting and colleagues asked students to compare their typical professor to their ideal professor, and by doing so found what the students valued in a faculty member. The five top qualities mentioned were variety (in test questions, teaching methods, and of course, voice); knowledge of students’ name and other indications of interpersonal acknowledgement and concern; a prompt but casual manner in the classroom including frequent use of humor; clear policies, including about plagiarism, but leniency on attendance and deadlines; and more review times for tests. Although self-disclosure was not mentioned, they did want affinity. Epting and colleagues’ research, along with dozens of other studies, validate that students value interpersonal factors in the classroom far more than faculty think they do and probably far more than faculty value those factors themselves; we may consider competence, experience, pedagogy, and credentialing to outweigh interpersonal affinity. Goldstein and Benassi (2006) conducted similar research about students’ and teachers’ perceptions of good teachers and conclude that if teachers were aware of student perceptions and expectations in terms of lecturing and discussion-leading, their ratings would be higher.

Additionally, the influence of negativeness and positiveness (termed “valence”) in self-disclosure is a subject of investigation. Negative self-disclosure is expected to be limited to close relationships. Caltabiano and Smithson (1983) found that positive self-disclosure was deemed more appropriate than negative self-disclosure; gender was also seen as “an important contributing variable in the perception of appropriate self-disclosure” (p. 126). Their research paralleled previous research in other ways; disclosers of negative self-information were viewed as less mentally healthy, less well adjusted, and less likable. Males who positively self-disclosed were more well liked while women were considered more receptive to disclosures from others and more sympathetic. They also did not find that the amount of men’s self-disclosure behavior differed very much from women’s.

Along with gender and valence, reciprocity of self-disclosure is also a concern of research. Educational researchers, especially in composition, psychology, and communication fields, also write about self-disclosure from students. Reciprocity is often theorized as the basis of ongoing relationship formation, even though the research and human experience do not always bear this out. That subject is not within the parameters of this paper, except that instructors must understand that self-disclosure has a reciprocal facet. Constant self-disclosure from an instructor without some openness to student self-disclosure is not a means to create affinity or respect. At the same time, student self-disclosure can lead to uncomfortable situations if (1) the instructor does not have wisdom or training in managing student self-disclosure, or (2) students are immature in their understanding of appropriateness in self-disclosure, or (3) students unwisely disclose criminal or abusive behaviors. Depending on the discipline, opportunities for student self-disclosure may not even exist, but if they do, boundaries must be discussed beforehand. Socio-economic class, first-generation college status, and cultural background play a part in student self-disclosure, or lack of it, and in students’ perceptions of instructor self-disclosure (Zhang, Shi, and Hao, 2009; Barry, Hedley, Kelly, and Cho, 2009), so instructors must tread carefully when assigning possibly self-disclosive essays or speeches.

In summary, self-disclosure is truly a multifaceted and complex communication behavior. Researchers in self-disclosure list various characteristics of the act of self-disclosure. Wheeless and Grotz (1976) listed the characteristics as honesty-accuracy, positiveness-negativeness, amount, conscious intent, and control of intimacy. “Chelune (1975) discussed five potentially important aspects of self-disclosure: amount, intimacy, duration, affective manner of presentation, and flexibility of disclosure patterns” (Jones and Brunner, 1984, p. 23). Myers (1998) focused on breadth and depth. Cayanus and Martin (2008) researched amount, relevance, and valence. These are just four examples from different decades. Some scholars have seen self-disclosure as just one element in a large scheme of “dramatic communication style” (Andersen, Norton, and Nussbaum, 1981) or as a subconstruct of solidarity, immediacy, or affinity.

Self-disclosure research tends to involve general or basic communication course students taking one or more of the various questionnaires that have been developed. Four such surveys are Jourard’s Self-Disclosure Questionnaire (1971); Cayanus and Martin’s Teacher Self-Disclosure Scale (2004); Sorensen’s Teacher Self-Disclosure Instrument (1989); and Wheeless’ Revised Self-Disclosure Scale (1978). Some research models involve students thinking about and recording the behavior of “the last instructor prior to this one;” they would be instructed to include self-disclosure statements, among other communication acts. Some studies involve experimental models, but surveys and questionnaires predominate in the literature, and in most cases there is high reliance on self-reporting and perceptions as opposed to objective measures. In fact, one of the commonly acknowledged shortcomings of the research is the dependence on memory and perception of young students. This weakness is one reason that research has failed to show a significant or even clear positive relationship between self-disclosure or other immediacy-gaining teacher behaviors and actual objective cognitive learning.

Why do Instructors Self-disclose in the Classroom?

The following list may not be exhaustive, but it categorizes the various reasons self-disclosure is used, whether or not it is done so effectively.

To create a democratic classroom environment. Paolo Freire encouraged the empowerment of students to address political and other types of oppression through creating a learning environment where power dynamics of traditional educational systems are addressed. He argued against the “banking model” of education wherein students were seen as passive objects to be filled by an all-knowing, powerful faculty member. He advocated that education was an innately political act, not divorced from larger systems, and that the oppressed in societies should participate in their own liberation, with education being one of these methods of liberation. Although he was concerned with societies where there are strong oppressor-oppressed class and economic systems, some faculty members and writers, for example, bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), argue for critical pedagogy, the name given to Freire’s views on education, to be instituted in all classrooms. Self-disclosure and interpersonal openness are part of this process.

For egocentric purposes. First, of course, we like to talk about ourselves. It is a human trait, and it is hard to imagine an instructor of any quality or length of experience who does not self-disclose occasionally, regardless of discipline. Secondly, we may self-disclose for image-management. This attempt to control our image or the holistic perceptions of our students may be for self-aggrandizement or for creating a power dynamic in the classroom. Despite the negative sound to that, such image manipulation does not have to be subversive, devious, or Machiavellian. It may also be to keep attention or reach another purpose, as listed below.

For example, I get a lot of mileage out of my female pit bull. Our neighbors found her in a ditch and talked my kind-hearted husband into taking her in. She is a rescue, so that pegs me as an animal lover (and therefore open-minded and kind); furthermore, I am taking her to obedience classes, so I am knowledgeable about dogs. Even more, I do not look like the stereotypical pit bull owner, so it jars some of their preconceptions about me.

To increase student participation in the class. Goldstein and Benassi, in two articles (1994 and 1997) defend their work supporting this link. Wambach and Brothen (1997) suggest that their conclusions were based too much on student self-reports. They set up a study in which trained observers watched college instructors at three different points in a semester for a week’s time. They recorded instances of instructor self-disclosure, such as personal anecdotes, statements about opinions or emotions, and instances of student classroom participation behavior. The data “suggested that teacher self-disclosure is not associated with student class participation” (p. 263) and that other matters (e.g., size of class) are more directly contributing factors.

Conversely, Cayanus, Martin, and Goodboy (2009) researched whether students were more motivated to participate because of teacher self-disclosure. They conclude that the amount and relevance dimensions were most likely to create motives to participate. However, they also state, quoting Ebersole, McFall, and Brandt from 1977, that “it is important to note that teacher self-disclosure does not always lead to reciprocal self-disclosure from students.”  In an earlier study, Cayanus (2007), in his research on question asking, found that student self-reports indicated teacher self-disclosure increased their motivation to ask questions in class. The students made comments such as “teacher self-disclosure makes them seem more human” and “makes me more comfortable” (p. 9).

To clarify concepts and create understanding. Self-disclosure can create or be a response to teachable moments, a quality which I will explore below. Even if the process of using self-disclosure to clarify concepts and create understanding is the most valid reason for using it, we may also be participating in image manipulation or the next purpose, creating a bond with students.

To create immediacy and its byproducts. Immediacy in the classroom is a much studied concept. Richmond and McCroskey and several other communication scholars, whose essays are collected in Power in the Classroom: Communication, Control, and Concern, proposed that potential immediacy-creating behaviors, of which self-disclosure is one, work for one or both of two reasons. The first is attention-arousal; self-disclosure, like narratives or humor, simply have a sort of “awakening” effect on students and attention is the first step to retention and learning. The second is that self-disclosure leads to identification, which leads to referent power, which leads to student motivation to succeed. They remind us that power, especially referent power, only exists because someone chooses to grant it to the “power-holder.” 

Richmond and McCroskey and their co-writers in this volume also struggle with the question of whether teacher self-disclosure and other immediacy strategies really lead to cognitive learning. They conclude that one cannot prove the causal link, nor can the link be totally disproven (Daly and Kreiser, 1992; Richmond and McCroskey, 1992; Barraclough and Stewart, 1992). Student motivation, while influenced by the referent power (credibility or charisma) of or affinity toward an instructor, is a more complex concept. For example, Ambrose et al (2010), drawing from expectancy theory, argue that motivation is a product of expectations to be successful and perceived value of what is to be learned, both of which may have little relationship to teacher personality or affinity-producing behaviors.

These are reasons we might use self-disclosure in the classroom; however, are these valid reasons?  

What are the Benefits of Teacher Self-disclosure?

In this section we will see what the research actually says about the value of self-disclosure in the classroom and what it produces.

Concept clarification. Research indicates that explaining, illustrating, and clarifying concepts is the most used and most useful purpose for self-disclosure, especially when instructors can show how they successfully used strategies for learning the material or how they applied the material in their own work or practice. As mentioned above, situating concept clarification in a larger context of meeting student learning outcomes, researchers have tried to understand if retention and learning are truly improved by instructor self-disclosure. McCarthy and Schmeck (1982) conducted an experiment wherein equal numbers of male and female students listened to an audiotaped lecture by a male speaker. Half of the students, representing both genders equally, heard the lecture without self-disclosive statements made by the speaker, and half head the same content without self-disclosures; those examples were framed in the third person and as hypothetical. Interestingly, McCarthy and Schmeck found that the males remembered more than the females in the self-disclosive lectures. They conclude that self-reference by a speaker enhances memory and retention, suggesting that male audience members could identify with the male speaker. They also found that self-disclosure did not affect ratings of effectiveness.

However, McCarthy and Schmeck’s findings have not always been replicated. Specifically, Richmond and McCroskey, based on their own research and that of others, distinguish affective, behavioral, and cognitive learning (Barraclough and Stewart, 1992; Daly and Kreiser, 1992; Nussbaum, 1992). They and their sources support the conclusion that self-disclosure, nonverbal immediacy, and affinity-related verbal behaviors led to more affective learning (the students liked the subject and even wanted to take more courses in it) and behavioral learning (the students used some of the prescribed or taught behaviors outside of class). Most of this research involved basic public speaking or communication students, so the connection and application of the content to extra-classroom situations is more obvious. However, they did not find that cognitive learning was improved. As Andersen, Norton, and Nussbaum conclude, “The relationship of communication behaviors to cognitive learning is less clear” (1981, p. 390).

Cayanus and Martin (2008), focusing on negativity in teacher self-disclosure, found that students were more motivated by instructors who used positive self-disclosure. Furthermore, “When teachers made disclosures that were low in negativity but were relevant, students reported that the course was more meaningful to them, and also that they had a greater capacity for succeeding” (p. 337). Whether “meaningfulness” and a belief in a “greater capacity for succeeding” translates to “greater success in meeting the student learning outcomes” is another matter. This writer is led to reflect here that we might have to consider that students learn more that is important to them even if what they learn is not listed on our syllabus and course assessments.

Do others agree with the findings above?  Instead of questioning students about instructors they have had recently (such as “right before this class”—a technique for getting student self-reports used in several studies), Downs, Javidi, and Nussbaum used a different route. In their first experiment, they had students tape record, with permission, lectures by 57 professors at a university. These professors represented a range of disciplines, not just communication. The tapes were then analyzed by trained coders for instances of humor, self-disclosure, and narratives. Downs and colleagues found that 70% of the self-disclosing statements were done for concept clarification. They then did the same for lectures of a select number of award-winning instructors who had exceptional evaluations. The award-winning teachers used half as many self-disclosing statements, and 42% of those were for concept clarification; these teachers were more likely to express opinions (all, by the way, were male). They concluded that these strategies—humor, self-disclosure, and narratives, what Norton (1993) calls “dramatic style”—play an organizing, prioritizing, and emphasizing function for the students. Norton further proposes that this dramatic communication style helps students to interpret literal meaning.

Immediacy creation. This is the second benefit of teacher self-disclosure that is supported by the research. The above discussions show how researchers have found strong relationships between immediacy (approachability), affinity (“liking”) and self-disclosure as one strategy in the classroom. There are, however, caveats, as we see in the next section.

Are There Negatives to Classroom Self-disclosure?

Social scientists have provided us with much literature on the value of self-disclosure and in the process have also shown us that some of its perceived values may not have validity and that self-disclosure may even prove counter-productive. In this section, we will examine some of the possible negative outcomes of self-disclosure.

First, it is not a cure-all. Research does not show that it will automatically or correspondingly increase student participation; likely, other factors contribute to student engagement as well. If excessive, even when relevant and appropriate, self-disclosure might support the “sage on the stage” concept more than the “guide on the side”; that is, the classroom becomes a performance that focuses on the instructor, and the students become passive. Some of us are excellent speakers and can interest an audience with narratives and humor as well as personal stories; lecture is the easiest part of the job for us. Unfortunately, that situation may signal a lack of desire to expand one’s pedagogical repertoire and to become more learner-centered.

There are other ways to create immediacy, which is a valid goal for an instructor to pursue, whether for instrumental or terminal purposes. Immediacy has great value, and some other ways to achieve it are greater control of nonverbal behaviors (smiling, nodding, leaning toward another and minimizing interpersonal space), expressions of concern, and meeting students outside of class.

Self-disclosure anywhere, and especially in the classroom, is not gender-neutral. Klinger-Vartabedian and O’Flaherty (1989) were interested in how self-disclosure and power worked together. “Disclosure of personal examples from professors, when compared to student presenters, was viewed as more appropriate. Higher status appears to allow for more latitude in self-disclosure behavior. Additionally, male disclosure was seen as more appropriate than female disclosure, especially among freshmen” (p. 160). Their findings are similar to others: that men have more power to self-disclose, and that instructors can use self-disclosure as part of referent power.  .

Self-disclosure will not be experienced or perceived the same way by international students. Zhang, Shi, and Hao (2009) explain the differences in Chinese views of teacher self-disclosure and those of American views. Because of their Confucianist background, “teachers in China emphasize formality, mutual respect and attention to learning, and would not think it appropriate to share information about their personal experiences/stories, information related to their family, relatives and friends, personal opinions, and personal interests or hobbies with their students” (p. 233). On the other hand, the historical background of Communism in China does not preclude teachers from speaking about politics and religion, and in fact encourages them to do so. Teachers in the U.S. are more aware of multiculturalism and do not want to offend students by disclosing opinions about politics and religion, but we consider personal hobbies, pets, and family to be appropriate for class inclusion. This is just one example of how cultural norms about self-information differ.

All self-disclosure is not created equal; it must be nuanced. We have seen how self-disclosure has been analyzed into its various characteristics by researchers, but one point arises from the research: self-disclosure in the classroom is a different function than self-disclosure in other relationships. In fact, many researchers emphasize that because of the purposes of the classroom and its inherent power differentials, the norms of self-disclosure in interpersonal relationships can be very different from the norms of self-disclosure in the classroom.

There is a threshold of self-disclosure. A little bit goes a long way. Research from interpersonal communication in relationships and theories such as social penetration and uncertainty reduction advise against large amounts of self-disclosure, especially early in relationships; more does not mean better.

Some of us do not like the outcomes. This point is admittedly a personal observation more than one drawn from the research. My students seem to go in two directions: calling me Dr. Tucker, when I do not have a doctorate, or moving in the other direction of increasing informality. That direction includes, as most of you know, receiving emails that start with “HEH!” or being called Barbara (if they even know my name.)  I do not want to be called “Barbara” by my students in class. It is fine after the semester is over, especially if the student is nontraditional or I know them in another setting, but not in class. Too much self-disclosure may result in a lack of formality or decorum. Research on millennial students commonly tells us that they reject norms of traditional formality anyway, and depending on the students’ backgrounds, they may not understand the “rules” of academic environments—or even adult ones.

Recently one of my students was giving a tribute (commemorative) speech about his father. He said, “When my father was sixteen he went to a dance in Mexico and this girl wouldn’t leave him alone and by the end of the night he knocked her up.”   I had to inform him—privately, of course--that telling the whole class his father “knocked a girl up” was inappropriate for this setting. This story did not result from my level of self-disclosure but from his inexperience in adult, professional settings.

We may have to be willing to accept corresponding self-disclosure from students. I truly believe this. If I use myself as fodder for lecture material, I have to respect the same from my students. If I want my students to focus on more objective, factual, nonexperiential, or academic means of support, I should model that.

We may be concerned about the effect of self-disclosure on student evaluations. Since these evaluations are so consequential to tenure and promotion at most institutions, a fundamental question is whether self-disclosure affects the overall scores on these evaluations. This subject is another rich area of research; an interested party could spend years just reading the articles already written about student evaluation of teachers (SET). A few years ago Al-Isa & Suleiman (2007), asserted that almost 3,000 articles, chapters, or monographs had been written on the subject from 1990 to 2005. Furthermore, the ones published 30 years ago address the same concerns as the ones written in the last few years.

We know that immediacy and affinity affects student evaluations, and self-disclosure is an affinity-producing strategy. There is no strong evidence to suggest that appropriate and relevant self-disclosure, in context, hurts scores on student evaluations; neither is there evidence that it helps in all situations. Of course, research on the efficacy of teacher self-evaluations has long centered on whether high evaluations even relate to high cognitive learning; many suspect professors with high ratings are just “easier.”  Yunker and Yunker (2003) studied the success rates of college accounting students in a second course of a sequence. The students who took the first accounting course in a sequence with a professor who received extremely high teacher evaluations did less well than the students who took a less popular instructor. Their research would seem to support the contention of other researchers that immediacy does not guarantee learning. It might be reasonable to conclude that affinity or immediacy strategies are a necessary but insufficient factor in student learning.

How Should Instructors Use Self-Disclosure?

In light of the research, what is an instructor to do?  Cayanus (2004) bases the following guidelines on his dissertation research:

(1)  Organize the lecture as to where you will use self-disclosure; in other words, plan it.
(2)  Engage in positive self-disclosure only, unless there is a very good reason to use negative.
(3)  Keep self-disclosure relevant to the day’s course material.
(4)  Vary topics and timing of the self-disclosure; surprise the students and don’t get into a pattern.
(5)  Be conscious of the amount of self-disclosure you are using.

In agreement with others, Lannuti and Strauman’s research in 2006 led them to conclude,

It seems that desirable classroom self-disclosure differs from self-disclosure that may be desirable in personal relationships because it should be more illustrative than revealing. While this illustrative self-disclosure should help establish immediacy, it should not muddy the professional boundary between instructor and student (p. 96).

However, these general guidelines do not address all circumstances. In the following pages, I would like to address four special cases concerning self-disclosure.

Special case 1: Using Facebook. How is Facebook helpful to the college instructor?  Should he or she use it to create immediacy, giving students access to his/her profile, friends, and information?  Most of us would probably say no, in light of some of the horror stories about teachers and Facebook that get blasted over the media.  However, I am running an informal experiment this semester with my students. I am posting information on Facebook that I also send out as emails since our students tend not to read their campus email. Despite my inviting them to “friend” me, I only have 14 takers now (out of 43 current students). I am doing this because I asked some of my students in the fall semester if they would like their instructors to use Facebook for communication, and they expressed that they would prefer it. However, I am not seeing any real benefit to it, yet. Let me add that this is a separate account from my main Facebook account, although I have a number of student contacts on my main account as well.

Facebook has provided a rich source of research for communication scholars in the last five years, even those who study classroom communication. Researchers focus on the amount of Facebook usage, the nature of disclosed information, the breadth of “friends” networks, time spent on Facebook, and the various effects of these factors on mental health, learning, and social behavior. For example, Kim and Lee (2011) chose to research happiness, or subjective wellbeing (SWB) among Facebook users. Their findings were not altogether positive. “Only when [the need for support] is properly communicated through self-disclosure facilitated by honest self-presentation are users likely to receive support from Facebook friends which would be beneficial to their SWB” (p. 362).

Many instructors have legitimate concerns about Facebook. As Mesch and Beker (2010) state, rapid technology advances have “created a need for reconstruction of the privacy concept”—and some of us are not interested in reconstructing our understanding of our privacy!  Some of us just want to limit our online presence, although that may not be realistic anymore. An instructor would have to ask, “What’s in it for me?” for using Facebook for self-disclosure. Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds (2009) explored that question. They exposed students to an instructor’s Facebook page that was low in self-disclosure material and to another teacher’s page that was full of personal photos and self-information. The high self-disclosure teacher was perceived as more credible; perhaps, they suggest, the teacher was perceived as more similar because the students could see personal pictures, messages from friends and family, and teacher opinions.

Apparently, the value of CMC (computer-mediated communication) is that it can be manipulated strategically even more than face-to-face communication. In concluding their article, Mazer and colleagues wonder if levels of teacher self-disclosure on Facebook could reach a level at which it begins to hurt credibility rather than help. They cite research from Walther in 2002, which found that individuals disclose significantly larger amounts of personal information on CMC than in face-to-face contexts, and that the online environment has an effect on the natural inhibitions about self-disclosure. Possibly, a whole new set of rules applies to online self-disclosure as compared to face-to-face self-disclosure. I have to admit this is true for me. I have two blogs, and I have written about some very personal information on both of them that I would not mention in class or to acquaintances. The written nature of the blog allows me to spend more time explaining myself, for one thing. However, I do have to wonder why I feel safe revealing information on my blog that I would rarely mention even otherwise.  

Special case 2: Revealing sexual orientation. Gay and lesbian instructors have valid concerns about whether self-disclosing their sexual orientation in the classroom is wise. Liddle (1997) found that her revelation to her undergraduates that she is a lesbian did not have a negative effect on her evaluations. (It was in the context of a class on human sexuality.)  She normally teaches graduate students at her institution and had little contact with undergraduates, so she believes this to be an example of an “untainted” audience.

Obviously, at most colleges, students talk about professors and word about a professor’s sexual orientation would probably spread. This was the case for Roy Cain, a social work professor at a large university in Canada. He conducted qualitative research through open-ended questionnaires on his students’ reactions to his “coming out” in two courses, one on social work practice and the other on human sexuality. Although the students’ written comments were generally positive, he questioned their candor, wondering if they were being positive for the sake of saving face or not offending the professor. Since he was well known in his department, most of the students would have had access to the information that he is a gay male. He also observed that his self-disclosure allowed him to discuss power differentials in academia, the social work profession, and larger society (1996).

Special Case 3: Self-disclosure in out-of-classroom encounters. Fusani (1994) investigated four qualities of students’ interactions with faculty outside of class. His work was strongly influenced by that of higher educational professionals such as Tinto, Pascarella, and Terenzini. His study involved students and faculty completing questionnaires. The students rated communication behaviors of instructors with whom they had encounters outside of class, such as visits during office hours. The faculty, in turn, rated themselves on the same communication behaviors. For example, students responded to “Sometimes my instructor talks about his/her personal life during office visits” (p. 254) while professors responded to “When appropriate, I tell students about my personal life during visits” (p. 255). Fusani found that the students did not recognize or perceive the faculty members’ self-disclosure behavior in the same way the instructors did (student mean was 24% different, in the negative direction). Fusani suggested that students may even overlook teacher self-disclosure; that is, they do not really listen if they have another goal for the office visit. On the other hand, he says, teachers may self-disclose less than they think they do. Fusani’s research reminds us of the primary value of self-disclosure in our roles as educators—illustration, or concept clarification. Our self-disclosing for the sake of relationship development may not fit into the student’s agenda.

Special Case 4: The possibility of indirect self-disclosure. Up to this point I have been discussing the specific, direct, intentional (but not always planned) verbal efforts at self-disclosure—telling stories about one’s life, expressing values and opinions, and giving information about oneself that is not readily available or visible. As communication experts we know that verbal communication is only part of communication, and often the minority part. We also know that all communication is not intentional, as much as we wish it would be. So there are two areas where we self-disclose and might not even realize it.

Nonverbal behavior: A great deal of nonverbal behavior is nonscripted, but adaptive. We are unaware of it; likewise, we can never be totally aware of how it is perceived. We do not necessarily like that our nonverbal communication is, or is perceived as, a form of self-disclosure, but it is. We are self-disclosing when we fold our arms in front of us; do not maintain eye contact; refrain from smiling; turn our bodies away from the other speaker; or look at our watch or cell phone. Likewise we are self-disclosing when we do maintain a gaze with the other speakers, incline our bodies toward a speaker, minimize distance, smile, and keep our cell phones out of our line of vision.

Ambady and Rosenthal (1993) conducted research on the perceptions of high school and college students about teacher nonverbal behavior, using very short silent video clips of various types of actions. They found that regardless of the length of the videos, students made conclusions about the personalities and effectiveness of the teachers based on the nonverbal communication. Teachers who were more nonverbally active—walking around, nodding their heads, gesturing—were evaluated as more effective. These, of course, seem like unfair judgments, but conclusions about nonverbal behavior often do. Their conclusions are not a statement of what should be, but an affirmation of what is.

Creating a defensive or supportive climate. Jack Gibbs, who worked for the Office of Naval Research and held a Ph.D. from Stanford, proposed what creates a defensive climate and how we can consciously create a supportive climate. This is old research, an article from the 1960s, but that does not negate its validity or value. Although this is foundational knowledge to most in the communication field, it bears repeating. In our business and in fulfilling our agendas, we can forget that the way a question is phrased or the feedback offered can create defensiveness rather than a supportive climate. Gibb (1961) states

Defense arousal prevents the listener from concentrating upon the message. Not only do defensive communicators send off multiple value, motive and affect cues, but also defensive recipients distort what they receive. As a person becomes more and more defensive, he or she becomes less and less able to perceive accurately the motives, the values and the emotions of the sender. (p. 141).

An instructor who self-discloses in such a way that it creates a defensive climate will, according to Gibb, lessen his or her ability to communicate the course content clearly. How does one knowingly or unknowingly create a defensive climate?  Gibb proposed six polarities: evaluative vs. descriptive communication; controlling vs. problem-oriented communication; strategic vs. spontaneous communication; neutral (unconcerned) vs. empathetic communication; superior vs. equal communication; and certain vs. provisional communication. Specifically, if questions, self-disclosed anecdotes, or statements of opinions and values imply judgment; control (as opposed to a respect for the students’ free will); strategy; lack of concern; superiority or status; and dogmatism, the instructor will find self-disclosure counterproductive and deleterious.

Let me give two examples. I used to say, when students would tell me about a plan of action that was in opposition to the course requirements, “It’s your funeral.”   For instance, a student would say she was going to have to be absent on a test day. “It’s your funeral” was meant to be a clever warning and a sign that I maintained rigor in my class, but it was not interpreted that way. My comments created a perception of neutrality and unconcern. I have since learned to be more careful. Secondly, recently a student chose to give her personal experience speech (a very short narrative to introduce herself to the class) on why she got her tattoos. Although I wanted to say, “I don’t understand why you young whippersnappers want to plaster your body with permanent marks,” (evaluation) or “I would never get a tattoo” (superiority), I restrained myself. My opinion would only have created a defensive climate and surely limited my credibility as a communication instructor. I had asked the student to share a personal experience (spontaneous); if I do not want such a story, I should assign a different speech.

We know also as communicators that it is more productive to phrase comments as observations that are open to revision (provisionalism) rather than ultimate truths (dogmatism, certainty) and to focus on the problem rather than the people (control). Granted, following Gibb’s guidance to create a supportive, rather than a defensive climate, takes some effort and sensitivity, but the communication classroom would be the ideal, and even mandatory, environment for doing so. Reflecting on Gibb’s work causes one to wonder about all the classroom behaviors that may or may not create a supportive climate. For example, what about knowing the names of one’s students?   What about how papers are passed out?  The questions here could be endless, and there is no controlling for every possible factor or nuance. However, Gibb reminds us that although the climate of the classroom is about more than us, we are responsible for it.

In the end, the question is “What do we want in the classroom?”  It is for students to meet the learning outcomes of our courses. We all have different ways of getting to that goal, and we all have corollary goals as well: for the students to grow in their self-efficacy and metacognition overall: to be retained and graduate; to consider entering our discipline (if they show promise, of course); to give us stellar course evaluations at the end of the term; and because we are human beings, to like and respect us. We know from experience and common sense that students must be engaged before they can learn, and we also have varying ways to get to the goal of student engagement. Self-disclosure is one of those, but it is neither a simple path nor one we even know we are using sometimes.


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