The U.S. Department of Education requires that all online courses for which students may use Title IV funds (federal financial aid) "ensure that there is regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors." The Department of Education has the authority to review distance learning offerings at colleges and universities that receive federal funds.
Regular and substantive interaction is more than a federal requirement, however. It is also a hallmark of effective teaching. Decades of research have established that teacher-student interactions are an essential component of learning. So while it may be tempting to see the Department of Education’s mandate as a burden imposed from outside the university, the reality is that ensuring regular and substantive interaction is entirely consistent with NIU's mission and values as an educational institution.
To count as ‘regular and substantive,’ interactions need to be started by you. This doesn’t mean students should be discouraged from contacting you or asking questions – far from it! But you should expect to take an active part in initiating and guiding a range of interactions with your students throughout the semester. This ensures that interactions are not optional and left up to each student’s individual discretion; rather, they are an integral part of your instructional plan for the course.
Interactions with students should be reasonably frequent and consistently repeated throughout the quarter. This means that once a course begins, long intervals of time shouldn’t pass between the interactions you initiate with students. The mode of interaction may vary throughout the course, depending on your aims and the needs of your students, but the regular cadence of interactions you establish should remain as consistent as possible. Daily communication isn’t required, but at a minimum you should seek to interact with every student at least once each week and you should log in to the course every 1-2 days.
Interactions should be connected to the subject of the course and contribute to the students’ progress toward course, program, and college learning objectives. Routine procedural interactions, such as reminders of upcoming deadlines, aren’t ‘substantive’ on their own; neither are activities like assigning grades, unless they are accompanied by personalized feedback or suggestions for improvement. This doesn’t mean that interactions designed to welcome students or build classroom community aren’t important, merely that they aren’t sufficient by themselves.
There are as many ways to promote regular and substantive interaction online as there are approaches to teaching face-to-face courses. The following recommendations are general suggestions for incorporating interaction into your course, but you should freely adapt and personalize them to support course objectives, the needs of your students, and your own teaching goals.
The syllabus is a good place to tell your students how you’ll communicate with them as well as how you expect them to communicate with you. Let students know how frequently they can expect to hear from you, when you will or will not be available to respond to messages, and how quickly they can expect a response to questions and to work they submit. If you have participation expectations for your students, be sure to include those as well—especially if they affect students’ grades.
Announcements often focus on procedural information, like reminders of course deadlines, but they can also be used to support instruction. For instance, a weekly announcement can: synthesize and then comment on questions from the previous week; note trends observed in assignments; or highlight, contextualize, or illustrate key concepts students will encounter. Try to establish a general rhythm for course communications, using a pattern that is consistent with the structure or thematic organization of the course. Regardless of their frequency, announcements can be treated as genuine invitations into the subject matter of the course rather than mere reminders.
Research shows instructor feedback is most beneficial when it comes soon after students submit work, so avoid lengthy delays in providing students with comments about their progress. Feedback can take many forms: written comments, audio or video notes, individual conferences conducted in person or via online meeting tools, and so on. In all cases, though, feedback should go beyond simply assigning a grade or automatically displaying pre-written comments or general statements (‘good work’, ‘needs improvement’, etc.). Effective feedback communicates to students both what they have accomplished and areas where they may need to improve. It also often offers examples and concrete suggestions for actions students can take in the future to make further progress in their learning.
A common misconception about online discussions is that instructors shouldn’t play an active role in facilitating them. While it’s true that a hands-off approach can be appropriate in some contexts, there are many benefits to facilitated discussions. Consider posting regularly to course discussion forums in order to: pose guiding questions related to the academic subject; propose counterpoints or alternative points of view that students may not be considering; establish connections among students’ ideas; engage in Socratic dialogue; and provide encouragement for students who may be struggling with the complexities of the subject. If the only voices regularly present in discussions are those of students, your course is missing a valuable mode of online instruction.
Online office hours provide a forum for students to ask their own questions, but they can also be used to supplement instruction in more intentional ways. For instance, you might incorporate brief structured lessons at the beginning of an open-ended study session. While it is important not to artificially limit the flexibility of online instruction, it’s perfectly appropriate to require students to participate in some regularly scheduled synchronous (real-time) online sessions provided these are clearly identified as part of the course requirements outlined in the course syllabus.
When selecting online tools or platforms, consider carefully how they are likely to affect ease of communication for you and your students. When possible, select ones that help you document your communications. Email, discussions, chats, or the learning management system gradebook will do this automatically. But it’s good idea to apply extra scrutiny to external platforms, such as those operated by publishers. These can sometimes be difficult to access after a course has concluded, making it hard to go back later to retrieve messages or feedback you gave students. If you do use publisher platforms, be sure to have a plan for documenting interactions in the course; this will help ensure you’re prepared in case you are asked to provide evidence of regular and substantive interaction in the future.
Every course and instructor can benefit from mid-course student feedback. You may already be using mid-quarter surveys or other types of formative assessment to find out more about your students’ perceptions partway through your classes. If so, consider adding a question or two about interactions in the course. For example, you can ask students whether they feel they hear from you frequently enough, what types of interactions they consider to be most valuable, or whether they have expectations about interaction that aren’t being met. Once you’ve had a chance to consider your students’ responses, tell them what you learned and what (if anything) you intend to change during the second part of the course.
As with all mid-quarter feedback, this is also an opportunity to ask students to reflect on their own contributions to the class. Invite students to suggest one or two changes they could make to enhance interactions or to help those interactions contribute more fully to their learning. This will help reinforce the idea that a successful course depends on the efforts of both teacher and students. It may also give you a few new ideas for helping students engage more fully with one another and with you.
One way to be sure that your online course includes regular and substantive interaction is to have a colleague observe the course and then provide you with detailed, constructive feedback. If you are serious about collecting feedback, consider asking more than one person to observe. Ask a trusted colleague in your department and someone from outside your department or division. This will help you gain perspective both disciplinary experts and non-experts. If possible, ask for the observation to extend over a period of a week or more, while the course is in session, to ensure your observers have a chance to see the full range of interactions you facilitate in the course.
The Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning is available to observe your course and offer you supportive—and entirely confidential—feedback about what we see. We are always happy to consult with you, discuss your teaching goals and preferences, and suggest a range of options for you to consider.
As noted previously, the value of regular and substantive interaction between instructors and students has a well established basis in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Here is a very small sampling of some of the relevant research:
Baker, C. (2010). The impact of instructor immediacy and presence for online student affective learning, cognition, and motivation. The Journal of Online Educators, 7(1). https://www.thejeo.com/archive/2010_7_1/baker
Boling, E. C. et al. (2012). Cutting the distance in distance education: Perspectives on what promotes positive, online learning experiences. Internet and Higher Education 15, 118-126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2011.11.006
Dixson, M. D. (2010). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1-13. https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/josotl/article/view/1744
Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. Revised and updated edition. Jossey-Bass.
York, C. S. & Richardson, J. C. (2012). Interpersonal interaction in online learning: Experienced online instructors’ perceptions of influencing factors. Online Learning Journal, 16(4), 83-98. https://dx.doi.org/10.24059/olj.v16i4.229
Regular and Substantive Interaction Overview was developed by Everett Community College and adapted for NIU by the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. This document is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License