Enhancing computer-mediated teacher-student communication

Cartoon full of yellow eggs with emoji faces
Emojis and emoticons have accompanied electronic messages for quite some time and are becoming increasingly accepted as a way to communicate in online learning. A range of studies have observed positive outcomes in classes where emojis and emoticons were utilised, including improved social interaction, academic performance, and emotional intelligence to manage student behaviour.

In face-to-face communication, teachers and students regularly communicate through body language and non-verbal cues, such as smiling. In an online learning environment, such interactional resources are not always accessible. Emojis and emoticons are paralinguistic cues that are familiar to both students and teachers and are readily available on alphanumerical keyboards, and on emoticon/emoji keyboards on mobile devices. Emoticons make use of letters, numbers, and other characters to approximate facial expressions and gestures, while emojis are small images that usually represent an emotion.

Literature to date suggests that it is beneficial to use these tools while teaching remotely to help meet student social-emotional learning needs (Li et al., 2021), and cultivate social presence. Social presence is the ability to perceive others in a mediated environment (Andel et al., 2020), and is one way teachers can improve the quality of group interactions. Emojis and emoticons can be especially helpful in online environments where teachers might find it challenging to build rapport with students through one-on-one communication in larger cohorts, or where camera-shy students struggle with online communication. For example, instead of providing a verbal response to a direct question such as “How are you today?” or “How was your weekend?”, students could be asked to comment using an emoji as a form of non-verbal communication.

While the exclusive use of emojis and emoticons may appear to indicate a lack of engagement as it is different to more standard forms of communication, students who choose to communicate using these tools rather than speaking or writing a message, may be exhibiting a behaviour called “silent participation” (Kim, 2015). Silent participation may indicate continued interest or agreement in a group when it is done so as not to disrupt the class dynamic, making it important to look out for during online lessons.

Research also suggests that when providing peer-to-peer feedback, students are likely to use emojis or emoticons to soften critiques that may lead to hurt feelings or conflict. Moffitt et al. (2020) found that a positive message with a smiley-face emoticon can be perceived more positively than one without, cultivating an approachable social presence. A simple modification of feedback would see “Be sure to proofread your work”, changed to “Be sure to proofread your work 😊.”

Some teachers may be concerned that emojis and emoticons could be seen as unprofessional in the education context, but literature suggests that their use has no detrimental impact on the level of professionalism that students perceive from their teachers. The perception of the quality of feedback that students receive from their teachers, and the perceived competence of their teachers, has been noted to increase when teachers use emojis and emoticons – this effect is strongest when positive emojis or emoticons (such as a smiley face) are used (Moffitt et al., 2021). Studies indicate that this type of feedback to students is a type of “Emotional Motivational Feedback Message”, which may enhance student motivation, increase enthusiasm, and increase the likelihood that students will utilise teacher feedback to improve their work (Sarsar, 2017; Aritajati et al., 2021).

Research also suggests that we need to avoid going over the top with emojis, and if you are unfamiliar with certain emojis and emoticons, it is best to initially stick to simple smiley faces. Consider the following benefits of emoji use:

  • Helps users to convey emotions and meaning where audible verbal communication and visible body language may not be an available or preferred means of interaction (Aldunate and Gonzalez-Ibanez, 2017)
  • Promotes online social interaction and communication (Berges et al., 2021)
  • Can help to personalise and soften teacher to student feedback (Moffitt et al., 2020)
  • Simple emojis such as smiley faces provide a symbol of emotions and responses that can be understood by broad and diverse audiences (however, be aware that cultural background, linguistic environments, and personal characteristics can influence emoji preferences and the meaning the user draws from them) (Guntuku et al., 2019)

In the future, this emerging area of research will likely continue to grow, with further information being contributed to help us understand and evaluate how these small, simple digital images can be used to improve motivation, the cultivation of a positive and approachable social presence, and smooth class dynamics.

If you’d like to continue the discussion or share how you have been using emojis and emoticons with your students, contact learningandteaching@navitas.com.

Feature photo by Rainier Ridao on Unsplash


Aldunate, N. & González-Ibáñez, R. (2017). An Integrated Review of Emoticons in Computer-Mediated Communication. Frontiers in Psychology, 7:2061. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.02061

Andel, S. A., de Vreede, T., Spector, P. E., Padmanabhan, B., Singh, V. K., & Vreede, G.-J. de. (2020). Do social features help in video-centric online learning platforms? A presence perspective. Computers in Human Behavior, 106505. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2020.106505

Aritajati, C., & Rosson, M. (2021). Smile! Positive Emojis Improve Reception and Intention to Use Constructive Feedback. In Toeppe, K., Yan, H., & Chu, S. K. W. (Eds.), Diversity, Divergence, Dialogue: 16th International Conference, iConference 2021, Beijing, China, March 17–31, 2021, Proceedings, Part I. Springer Nature. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=v8IkEAAAQBAJ&pg=PA248&lpg=PA248&dq=Smile 

Berges, S., Martino, S., Basko, L., McCabe, C. (2021). Zooming into Engagement: Increasing Engagement in the Online Classroom. Journal of Instructional Research, 10, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1314160.pdf

Guntuku, S., Li, M., Tay, L., Ungar, L. (2019). Studying Cultural Differences in Emoji Usage across the East and the West [Paper presentation]. International Conference on Web and Social Media. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332182691_Studying_Cultural_Differences_in_Emoji_Usage_across

Kim, S.-M. (2015). Exploratory Research on Social Media and Digital Writing: Qualitative Interview of Japanese College Students. Journal of Socio-Informatics, 8(1), 13–27. https://doi.org/10.14836/jsi.8.1_13

Li, L., Flynn, K., DeRosier, M., Weiser, G., & Austin-King, K. (2021). Social-Emotional Learning Amidst COVID-19 School Closures: Positive Findings from an Efficacy Study of Adventures Aboard the S.S. GRIN Program. Frontiers in Education, 6. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feduc.2021.683142/full

Moffitt, R. L., Padgett, C., & Grieve, R. (2020). Accessibility and emotionality of online assessment feedback: Using emoticons to enhance student perceptions of marker competence and warmth. Computers & Education, 143, 103654. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103654

Moffitt, R. L., Padgett, C., & Grieve, R. (2021). The impact of emoji use and feedback medium on perceptions of marker personality in online assessment feedback. Learning and Individual Differences, 92, 102093. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2021.102093

Sarsar, F. (2017). Student and Instructor Responses to Emotional Motivational Feedback Messages in an Online Instructional Environment. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 16(1). https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1124912.pdf