Exploring Nonverbal Communication through Service Learning

Amy Edwards Patterson and Melissa Berg
Moraine Park Technical College, USA


In this study, participants were encouraged to complete service learning projects and consider the role of nonverbal communication during their service as part of a college communication class. Like students at several technical colleges, many students at Moraine Park Technical College in Wisconsin plan to establish careers in “other-oriented” fields, such as nursing, education, and entrepreneurship. The Moraine Park Technical College mission focuses on innovative education for an evolving workforce and the community, and students at Moraine Park build job-readiness skills, including the communication skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century workforce. These communication skills include strong nonverbal skills and, to encourage student understanding of nonverbal communication in a time when students can’t always “read” others’ nonverbal behavior (Bauerlein, 2009), direct instruction and discussion of nonverbal communication is often needed. By analyzing the role of nonverbal communication during service learning activities, students can apply course content on nonverbal communication to real world situations.


Consider Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and text messages. Are these communication tools keeping students from adequately understanding and sending appropriate nonverbal messages? Although these communication tools expand our opportunities to communicate, research also shows that electronic communication devices can, in fact, negatively impact interpersonal communication (Kein, Moon, & Picard, 2002). Modern technology contributes to “declines in communication styles among family members” (Matsuba, 2006), and Mark Bauerlein (2009) argues that Generation Y students might “read comments on Facebook, but they don’t ‘read’ each other’s posture, hand gestures, eye movements, shifts in personal space and other nonverbal—and expressive—behaviors.” This lack of understanding of nonverbal cues will potentially hurt students in the workplace, affecting both their job performance and ability to find and maintain employment. An employee could offend others or give the wrong impression through their nonverbal cues. Some researchers estimate that more than half of a message is sent through nonverbal means (Burgoon, 1994), with some estimating that nonverbal communication represents two-thirds of communication (Hogan & Stubbs, 2003) or even as much as 93% of meaning (Mehrabian, 1968). Nonverbal communication can reinforce, regulate, or contradict verbal communication. Thus, students who actively consider nonverbal communication due to classroom experiences and instruction have an advantage in the workplace compared to peers with a limited grasp of nonverbal cues.

In this study, students were asked to complete service learning projects and consider the role of nonverbal communication during their service as part of a college communication class. Studies have already shown community engagement to impact overall interpersonal communication (Chan Cheung Ming, Lee & Ma Hok Ka, 2009). For example, Hoffman et al. completed a study in 2008 on improving interpersonal communication through community service; in particular, the study focused on community college students’ use of technology during a community gardening project. “The results of the study confirm … that when participants are afforded opportunities to engage in interpersonal communication with each other while working in a gardening project, the perceived need to use electronic technology (e.g., cell phone) significantly decreases” (Hoffman et al., 2008). Setting aside electronic technology allows students greater awareness of their nonverbal communication, and this awareness strengthens students’ nonverbal understanding.

Although many assignments could give students opportunities to analyze nonverbal communication, service learning provides students with a particularly rich outlet to actualize, analyze, and explore nonverbal communication in an interpersonal setting. In addition to giving students an advantage when they begin to search for work after graduation (Levesque-Bristol, Knapp, & Fischer, 2010; Littlefield, 2006), service learning also prepares students for community engagement and communication across diverse populations, leading to greater success in today’s diverse workforce (Groh, Stallwood, & Daniels, 2012). Chan Cheung Ming, Lee, and Ma Hok Ka also found that service learning prepares students to become leaders, improves the students’ overall self-confidence, improves interpersonal and intrapersonal communication skills, and increases students’ problem solving skills (Chan Cheung Ming, Lee, & Ma Hok Ka, 2009). According to Molee, Henry, Sessa, and McKinney-Prupis, students participating in service learning projects also experience an improvement in critical thinking skills (Molee, Henry, Sessa, & McKinney-Prupis, 2010). When one operates at a higher level of critical thinking, that person tends to notice and be more attuned to other people when communicating (Molee, Henry, Sessa, & McKinney-Prupis, 2010). Being a more focused communicator will allow the student to be aware of the nonverbal communication that is taking place during a conversation.


Through service learning, the researchers aimed to provide students with the opportunity to directly analyze and apply their understanding of nonverbal communication. Because service learning experiences encourage students to develop as a “whole person” (Permaul, 2009), students involved in service learning experience increased feelings of self-competence and increase their ability to problem solve (Peters, 2011), strengthening their communicative abilities. Similarly, Beran and Luhin tell us that service learning benefits both the students and communities involved by putting the relationships at the center of the experience (Beran & Luhin, 2012). Having the knowledge that they made a difference in the community gives students a sense of accomplishment and increased self-confidence, which allows students to feel comfortable and confident in communication situations and contemplate nonverbal cues.

Many nonverbal categories are important for students to consider as employees, family members, and students. As part of the service learning experience in the study, students analyzed many categories as part of their service learning experience. Although nonverbal communication can be split into several different types of categories, the researchers consider paralanguage, artifacts, chronemics, kinesics, proxemics, and haptics the most important and relevant categories to analyze during the service learning experience:

  • Paralanguage: This category includes the aspects of voice production that accompany spoken language; thus, an understanding of this category encourages students to consider not just the words they speak, but how they speak those words to influence or impact listeners.
  • Artifacts: The category includes objects people wear and display to others. Students must realize everything from clothing and hairstyles to furniture arrangements in a room will send others a message.
  • Chronemics: This category explores the ways individuals conceptualize, arrange, and use time. In both college and the workplace, students must recognize the messages they send with their time management.
  • Kinesics: Classic nonverbal cues such as body language and eye contact are part of the nonverbal category of kinesics. From practicing job interviews to participating in classroom interactions, students need an awareness of their use of kinesics to relate to others.
  • Proxemics: The category of proxemics, which covers the way people use social distance in interactions, plays a role in conversations, presentations, and other interpersonal communication moments. Students might remember the “close talker” from television’sSeinfeld, but not all students remain aware of the signs sent through their social distance, whether the student is standing near or far from someone during a social interaction.
  • Haptics: The category of haptics includes touching behavior, including playful touch, accidental touch, and task-related touch. Students and employees need to consider the types of touch needed to complete their jobs, as well as the effectiveness and appropriateness of certain types of touch.


The literature review on service learning and communication revealed a great deal of previous research on service learning and its impact on students’ leadership skills, critical thinking skills, concern for community, and overall communication competence. However, one of the most useful aspects of communication knowledge and competence is nonverbal communication, an area not found within current research on service learning. With much of communication being nonverbal, and youth reportedly losing understanding of nonverbal communication due to new technology, it is imperative that students learn this skill during their collegiate career. The researchers approached the project with a research question: Can students who engage in service learning projects effectively learn and analyze nonverbal communication through their service activities?

The researchers selected three classes of Oral and Interpersonal Communication at Moraine Park Technical College in Wisconsin. One class met on the Fond du Lac campus, and two sections met on the Beaver Dam campus. Oral and Interpersonal Communication is a required course for many of the Associate Degree programs at Moraine Park. The course explores topics such as the communication process, interpersonal relationships, self-concept, listening, verbal and nonverbal messages, cultural differences, and group interaction. In particular, the course is designed to ensure that students develop speaking skills, understand verbal and nonverbal communication, and hone listening skills. In addition to the course assignments, many course outcomes are achieved in part by classroom activities, such as presentations and group projects. When studying nonverbal communication in the classroom, students participate in discussions and activities based on the material being covered. For example, during previous semesters, students viewed and discussed movie and television show clips to apply nonverbal communication theories and concepts to cinematic examples of the concept. Using a variety of activities, assessments, and reflections ensures that students will learn pertinent course concepts; service learning opportunities progressed from these activities.

The study was conducted during the Fall 2012 semester. At the beginning of the semester, students were assigned to volunteer three to six hours of their time at a nonprofit organization of their choice. Locations for the service learning projects included elementary school classrooms, homeless shelters, a domestic abuse shelter, and nursing homes, among other organizations. Students spent time discussing their service experiences with their instructors and peers within the classroom setting, and students also had to reflect on their work with their supervisors in the service learning setting. In fact, many students reported that their supervisors shared positive feedback with students on their thoughtful communication. Small group reflection, ink-shedding activities, mini-presentations, and group activities played an important role in reflecting on service learning experiences during class meetings, and reflective essays were also regularly required.

The service learning project culminated in a reflective essay that applied communication concepts and theories to students’ service learning experiences; students analyzed the experience to consider connections to communicative theories. After the students’ essays were graded, all students were invited to allow the researchers to use their essays in this study. At that time, students were also invited to take a survey on the role of nonverbal communication during their service learning experience. The researchers developed the questions in the survey based on the information found to be lacking in the literature review. The survey asked students to consider the role of nonverbal communication in the service learning experiences; in particular, the nonverbal communication categories of: paralanguage, or the combination of the aspects of voice production that accompany spoken language; artifacts, or objects people wear and display to others; chronemics, or how individuals conceptualize, arrange, and use time; kinesics, or body language; proxemics, or the way people use social distance in interaction; and haptics, or touching behavior were applied to the service learning experience. These categories are explored and analyzed below based on student surveys and reflective essays.

Understanding Paralanguage through Service Learning

While studying paralanguage, which includes the various vocal qualities such as intonation and pitch expressed during verbal communication, students often express surprise that it “counts” as a nonverbal category of communication. However, students soon recognize the nonlinguistic nature of paralanguage, and students found that intonation, rate, pitch, volume, dialect, and articulation played a role in their service learning experience. Although paralanguage remained a consistent element anytime words were spoken, students interested in careers in nursing and education pointed to particular examples of paralanguage that will have the greatest impact on their careers. During the service learning project, students found paralanguage to impact their experience and their understanding of others.

One student, Regina[1], completed her service learning with local emergency medical technicians, or EMTs. Interested in healthcare as a career field, Regina had the opportunity to ride along with an ambulance to assist paramedics by completing paperwork and interacting with patients during the ride to hospital to learn relevant information. Her first call involved a car accident with two teenage drivers: “As nervous as I was,” she explains, “I couldn’t let any of it show. The EMTs warned me beforehand that I need to speak as calmly as possible for the well-being of any patient that rides in the back.”

Regina writes that paralanguage greatly influences patients; the use of pitch, rate, and tone, for example, can reveal the confidence of the person attending them. She shares:

In order to keep the patient calm, you have to show that you’re calm. I’ve been a patient myself, and if I thought for one second the people taking care of me were scared or nervous, I would have gotten more worked up…Car accidents are scary when you’re a new driver, whether it’s a one vehicle or multiple vehicle accident. If you want to feel safe and comforted, the personnel taking care of you must show a certain level of confidence.

Regina noted that her calming tone of speech helped soothe the teenagers, who were stressed and scared following the car accident.

Students also noted the need to monitor speech while working with the elderly; in these situations, students tried to speak in a calm, respectful manner. “Paralanguage was important, because if I talked too loud, residents might think I was yelling. But for one woman, if I talked too quietly, she couldn’t understand me,” a student clarifies. Many students worked with disadvantaged elderly residents in their service learning projects, and the students recognized the need to treat the elderly with respect to strengthen their interpersonal relations and make the service learning experience more comfortable for everyone involved. Students noted that paralanguage can help convey a respectful and appropriate tone.

Jordanne, a student in Early Childhood Education, volunteered with young children at a domestic abuse shelter. In this situation, she noted, “Paralanguage had to be soft with a tone of caring and understanding.” Another student, Michael, volunteered in a daycare center. He revealed a need to simplify his usual speech patterns when speaking with the children. Other students who worked with children noted a similar need to use an “easygoing” voice, and one student explained, “Sometimes teaching children can be frustrating, because they don’t understand. You have to maintain a calm voice and just keep trying to teach in different ways.”

Considering Artifacts through Service Learning

As they study nonverbal communication, students must also develop an awareness of the messages sent by their artifacts, or the objects they choose to display—whether those artifacts include appropriate clothes for a given situation or an object within their grip. Artifacts comprise the nonverbal category that students can most directly manage. Playing with an artifact such as a cell phone during a face-to-face conversation can send others a negative message, as would a student wearing pajamas to a job interview. Through the service learning experience, students recognized that artifacts could help establish roles and send messages about values, hobbies, or interests.

Regina, for example, had to wear gloves for safety during her experience with the ambulance. John described the floor of the nursing home where he volunteered, covered with pads meant to protect the residents, as well as scrubs that employees wore to show their roles in the organization. Clothing was a common artifact noted by the students. Another student who volunteered in a nursing home, working one-on-one with a resident, added, “I dressed up while volunteering. This is so the facility would trust and appreciate me. It was also so the resident would know I wanted to be there volunteering my time with her.”

McKenna, who served at a daycare center, recognized the ways children use artifacts: “Children used objects to describe themselves when they played or did show-and-tell. You could tell which days their parents let them pick their outfits, because the outfits were very unique but showed their personality!”

Leila had similar experiences in the kindergarten classroom, where she explained, “Kids bring in toys for show and tell, and this way the other kids find out more about this child and their interests outside of the classroom.” Students recognized that artifacts can show what a person values. In Michael’s experience at an elementary school, “one autistic child [in the classroom] had to surround himself with different things to help him feel comfortable and safe.” Another student added, “Some of the third-grade girls were dressed a little too old for their age.” Students noted that artifacts could play a prominent role, enhance a child’s confidence, or even create distractions in the classroom environment.

Alex volunteered with a rehabilitation center. Artifacts created a welcoming environment in the center where Alex served: “When I arrived, the director gave me a tour. They have beautiful common areas with large televisions and vivid wildlife to look at. The residents love to watch the flashy colors of the tropical fish reflect off the water as the song of the finches fill their ears. The facility also has a little store for the residents … There were lots of people visiting, playing cards, listening to music, and building puzzles.” Alex shared that these artifacts made volunteers feel comfortable, too.

Using Chronemics in Service Learning

An understanding of chronemics will serve students well when managing time or making strong first impressions. While completing the service learning project, chronemics, or the way a person chooses to structure and value time, impacted the completion of the students’ projects; some students began searching for an agency right away, while others waited until closer to the due date to complete the project. In addition, students found that chronemics impacted the messages they sent, as well as the messages received from others. Some students had “monochromic” experiences, where each moment was planned during the experience, while others had “polychromic” experiences that allowed more flexibility with time.

Megan volunteered with an elderly woman who, she says, has “fallen through the cracks” with necessary assistance. While working with the woman, she found patience a necessity; she couldn’t rush situations. She had to force herself to adopt a more polychromic approach to time: “I had to have patience to allow her to do things for herself instead of just doing them for her. By doing them for her it made her feel like she was worthless and it took away her sense of independence … There are many times she would tell me a story only to repeat it again three minutes later.” Megan, who traditionally had a monochromic approach to work and studies, found that flexibility was crucial during her time spent with the elderly woman. After the project, she continued to volunteer with the woman and she shared that the more time she spent with her, the easier it became to adopt new temporal traits during their time together.

While volunteering in elementary school classrooms, students also found chronemics to affect the children’s ability to complete work and follow along with the classroom teacher. In addition, this nonverbal category could impact students’ learning process outside of the classroom. Kallie, for example, volunteered with a third-grade classroom. While helping the children with math and reading, “it reminded me how I struggled so much with learning fractions and money, and I can tell the kids that it does get easier.” She worked with children one on one in the hallways, giving them time to receive direct attention. The experience allowed her to use chronemics with the children in a positive manner: “It helps their learning process tremendously. I think that every child deserves a chance to ask questions that they are too scared to learn in class and one-on-one time really breaks down a problem for them.” Similarly, Leila found in kindergarten classrooms that “teachers had a very specific learning plan they followed throughout the day; otherwise, [the children] would not have learned everything they were supposed to.”

During her “ride along” with the EMTs, Regina noted the importance of arriving early. She proudly noted that, soon after being paged about an accident, she was the first to arrive at the station—although she added that the paramedics and ambulance driver arrived within seconds. During emergencies, time can be “everything,” she shared. In their surveys and reflective essays, many students shared that arriving early conveyed a good impression to their service organization.


Based on results given in the survey administered and the students’ reflective essays, students also learned kinesics, the use of body language, during their service activities. Students noted that they saw body language used by supervisors, other volunteers, and individuals utilizing the services. Students who worked with individuals who were seeking services based on financial need often reported sad or depressed facial expressions and poor posture. Eye contact was reported by the majority of the students as the form of kinesics most often recognized and used.

Jordanne, who volunteered with children at a domestic abuse shelter, reported that she noticed kinesics as soon as she arrived, and added that they changed throughout her time there. When she first met the children, Jordanne had to use slow and careful movements. Jordanne also mentioned that she needed to appear calm and relaxed with these children at all times.

Another student, Nathaniel, observed kinesics while completing his service learning project at a local homeless shelter that operates only during the winter months. He noted that more than once he observed communicators rolling their eyes, crossing their arms, or turning their backs when they did not like what the speaker was saying. Even when a speaker’s words said one thing, Nathaniel found body language sent a message that listeners were likely to believe when the words and the use of kinesics conflicted.

A student who volunteered at the Salvation Army noted many people who came in for services were displaying nonverbal cues such as looking down, avoiding eye contact, and fidgeting, which he interpreted as the person being embarrassed to be there. All students were able to identify kinesics and also make a good connection to the message that the other individual was communicating to them through it.

Discovering Proxemics through Service Learning

The reflective essays and survey results also indicated that students learned proxemics, the use of social distance in interactions, during their service learning projects. All students reported on the survey that everyone used perceived acceptable social distance during their activities. One student reported that the distance used by the supervisor at one service organization changed as the time went on. The supervisor began to use a closer social proximity as time passed, as she felt a relationship developing between herself and the student volunteer.

Jordanne reported noticing individuals using social distance during her service at the domestic shelter. She noted that upon her arrival, the children she was working with kept their distance from her. However, as time went on the children moved through the space zones and into the closest zone, the intimate zone, by the time her service was completed.

Students who worked with adults during their service reported socially acceptable and appropriate use of social distance. Adults remained in the social zone of proxemics unless they had an established relationship with a staff member or regular volunteer of the organization. As one might expect, children were observed using closer social zones with volunteers during their brief service time.

Recognizing Haptics through Service Learning

Haptics, the use of touching behavior, was noted by some during their experience, but not others. Students seemed hesitant to note haptics, often noting, “Touching behavior wouldn’t have really been appropriate.” The one form of haptics students reported that most people used was a hand shake.

Megan completed her service learning in a local kindergarten classroom. Megan noticed that many of the kindergarteners did not have a good grasp of the appropriate use of touching behavior. This can probably be seen in any kindergarten room where the term “keep your hands to yourself” can frequently be heard. Megan visited the class toward the beginning of the school year. It would be interesting to see if the children had a better grasp of appropriate touching behavior toward the end of the school year, as much nonverbal behavior is learned over time.

Jordanne shared that the children at the domestic abuse shelter first shied away from her. Then, they began interacting with her and moved through the space zones. Finally, they began to feel so comfortable with her that some even sat on her lap, thereby using touching behavior to communicate their comfort with and trust in her. Jordanne plans to continue volunteering with the shelter, and she expects that the children will continue to become more comfortable with her.

Although some students did not have the opportunity in their service to note changes in haptics, those who did clearly learned this form of nonverbal communication and were able to identify changing uses of it as well. Since there are many times and places where touch is inappropriate in our society, it is interesting to note that no student mentioned the lack of touch as an appropriate use of haptics. Perhaps this is an area for further investigation.


The study showed the power of nonverbal communication in service learning and civic engagement. Service learning not only allowed students to build communication skills in the “real world” environment, but the service learning experience gave students an opportunity to consider and analyze nonverbal communication, providing more meaningful understandings of the service learning experience. One student, who spent her time at an assisted living center, shared that she found her understanding of communication helped shape her experience with the residents:

Whether it was just a friendly wave, or a fifteen-minute conversation, I know they enjoyed seeing a smiling face. Some of the residents’ stories were simply amazing. Learning to communicate in this class greatly helped me in my time there. I was conscious of my body language, tone, and clarity of my words when it came to people who were hard of hearing. I used touch to my advantage by a giving a hand shake, a hug, or a pat on the back. It meant something more to me knowing what a difference [nonverbal communication] could make in my conversations.”

Because many students focused on service learning opportunities that related to their chosen career fields, students had the opportunity to see firsthand how nonverbal communication would play a role in their career. Jordanne, who worked with children at a local domestic abuse shelter, noted, “Nonverbal communication was just as important as verbal, and maybe a little more important, since I needed to watch my posture, movements, and voice control around these children.” Jordanne explained how the domestic abuse center made her recognize the special skills needed to work with children who have dealt with abuse:

The biggest thing that I learned through this experience was that abuse is out there more so than noticed. Children are greatly impacted by this act. Although [the children] may not necessarily be the ones being abused, they are the ones that are uprooted from the only home they knew to live in a room the size of a bedroom with other people. They are moved into a safe shelter with no privacy and everything is shared. With new people all around them, they are scared that these people are going to hurt them until they are comfortable, and they are skeptical of what the next adventure in their lives is going to be and where. I learned … one really needs compassion and understanding for the families that are living there.

Annalisa, who served in a classroom and would like to work with children in her future career as a nurse, reflected, “When watching the children’s nonverbal communication there is a lot to be told. You can tell when they are bored, when they have to go to the bathroom, when they don’t feel good, and even when they get excited about something. The things that do not get said can sometimes be read so clearly through nonverbal communication.”


In addition to revealing the positive experiences shared by the students, representatives from the nonprofit organizations shared appreciation for students’ focus on strong communication in the service setting. During the semester when the study took place, an AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer assisted Moraine Park and other local colleges with locating, implementing, and evaluating service learning efforts. When analyzing the three sections participating in the study, the AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer estimated the economic impact of these students’ service learning efforts on the community to be at least $2,946.30. However, the study also showed a greater need to relate the nonverbal categories to students’ lives. For example, a student wrote in the survey, “I didn’t really use chronemics. I just went with the flow.” However, we would argue that “going with the flow” was, in fact, a use of chronemics that could be analyzed by the student. A limited number of students declared that they “didn’t use” certain categories, which reveals the need to ensure students understand that the nonverbal categories are always being used, even when it’s not obvious. When analyzing the use of haptics, for example, the lack of touch in a certain situation can be considered just as much as a handshake or a hug. Eyler, Gilles, and Schmiede recommend that reflection on service learning should be continuous, connected, challenging, and contextualized (1996), and this experience highlighted the importance of challenge and contextualization in ensuring that students understand the nonverbal categories and build the skills to smoothly relate them to personal experience.

Although assessment measures such as the reflection essay allowed the researchers to understand the role of nonverbal communication in the students’ experiences, in-class dialogue and discussion strengthened the students’ understanding of the experience as well as the connection to course objectives and material. In-class discussion also gives students an opportunity to reflect on the service learning experience in a comfortable, informal setting. Interactive dialogue allowed students to use their nonverbal skills in the classroom setting and share their experiences with the service organizations. Future areas for research on this topic might include students’ understanding of haptics in the service learning field, as well as the role of interactive dialogue in the classroom in allowing students to further enhance nonverbal communication skills following the service learning experience. In addition, we would recommend future research on the impact of service learning on the community or the nonprofit organizations being served, with a focus on the ways nonverbal understanding in particular can benefit community partners.


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About the authors:

Amy Patterson

Amy Patterson serves as a communication instructor at Moraine Park Technical College in Wisconsin. Patterson has presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, TYCA-Midwest, and the Computers and Writing Conference. Patterson co-authored a communication textbook with Sarah Z. Johnson in 2012, and her current research interests include ecocomposition and service learning.

Communication Instructor, Moraine Park Technical College, 700 Gould St., Beaver Dam, WI 53916.aedwards@morainepark.edu

Melissa Berg

Melissa Berg is a communication instructor at Moraine Park Technical College in Wisconsin. Previously, Berg served as the District Director of the Muscular Dystrophy Association in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the Director of Special Events for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin. Following her nonprofit event planning experience, she also owned and operated a corporate event planning firm.

[1] All student names have been changed.

© 2014 Journal for Civic Commitment

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

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