What do posture and presence have to do with online learning?

mcBy Dr. Michael Cottam

Amy Cuddy’s recent book, Presence, expands on her very popular 2012 TED talk Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, and explains research about power, confidence, and personal presence. Cuddy’s area of research helps to explain how our face, our body positions, our overall posture and even the way we use a mobile device may affect the way we think, feel and perform in everyday situations. The factors that contribute to presence are complex, and I encourage you to watch the TED talk and read Cuddy’s book for a more complete exploration of the topic. Here I will highlight a few points from her research in hopes of helping us develop confidence, authenticity, and personal power in our academic work.

Cuddy defines presence as “the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, and potential.” Presence is an experience that comes and goes for all of us; we each are more or less present from time to time in our lives. When we are present, our body chemistry changes, bringing higher testosterone levels and lower cortisol levels. We think more clearly and are more personally powerful, more fully ourselves, and this can be extremely important in our day to day professional and academic performance.

Kevin High2_use

One aspect of Cuddy’s research indicates that adopting different postures prior to entering a stressful situation can affect the outcomes of our performance. Our posture can be divided roughly into high-power and low-power poses. A high-power pose is an open, spacious pose, often with the arms open, hands on hips or spread wide to the side. A low-power pose, by contrast, is more hunched, often with the arms crossed or the hands close to the body or touching the neck or face. The research indicates that spending as little as two minutes in a power pose can boost our confidence, our performance, and improve the impressions that others have of us.

Examples from Cuddy’s talk and book include performance differences in situations such as:
• Public speaking or elevator pitches
• Job interviews or evaluations
• Negotiations or debates
• Athletic competitions

If power poses can help us to be “present” in these situations, how might they help us in our academic studies? I suggest that our body language can have a similar impact on our academic work, even in the online learning setting.

Sandra Low2_useLet me suggest that you pay attention to your own body when you are reading online, watching videos or writing. Do you create a safe, closed space when you are getting ready to participate in a discussion or when you are writing your class paper? What happens if you take a couple of minutes to assume a power pose and then
go back to your class work? What happens if you sit hunched over your laptop, or even your smart phone?

One of the fascinating studies that Cuddy sites in her work involves the effects of screen size on personal presence. Apparently, the smaller the screen we work on, the less confident and assertive we are. This is alarming considering how much time we all spend working, reading and sending email on our smart phones. We believe we are being more productive when we work on our small devices; however, we may be undermining our power and presence even as we answer more email.

Let’s add more situations to the list that Cuddy provides in her work. Try putting down the smart phone and doing a power pose as you prepare for your online course activities.
• Writing or replying to a discussion post
• Drafting and editing a research paper
• Recording a video presentation for your class
• Taking an online exam

I’m interested in hearing from you all. Do you have a story of how you have applied Cuddy’s research to your classwork or to your profession?


Dr. Michael Cottam is Director and AVP for Online Learning for Webster University