Online and On-ground Student Perceptions of the Relationship of Empathy, Genuineness and Level of Regard with Teaching, Cognitive and Social Presence

Concurrent Session 8

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This study involved 248 undergraduate students to examine the relationship between Community of Inquiry presences (teaching, social, cognitive) and Rogers's interersonal characteristics (empathy, genuineness, high regard).  In addition, online and on-ground students were compared according to their experiences with these interpersonal factors.


Denise K. Sommers, EdD, LCPC is an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield, IL where she teaches the online Social Services Administration concentration in the Human Services Department. Dr. Sommers has accrued over 25 years of rehabilitation counseling and evaluation, management, and supervisory experience in the human services arena. She obtained her bachelors’ degree in Human Growth and Development from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign; her master’s degree in Rehabilitation at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina; and her doctorate of education degree in Counseling from the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Her research focuses on the use of service learning in online classes; multiculturalism, social justice and service learning; competencies in Human Services training; leadership in Human Services; and the use of empathy, genuineness and high regard to enhance engagement and success in online teaching and learning.
Cheng-Chia (Brian) Chen, PhD, is an assistant professor of public health in the Department of Public Health at University of Illinois at Springfield. He obtained a PhD in Health Behavior from the Department of Applied Health Science at Indiana University School of Public Health–Bloomington. Chen’s research is broadly focused on health promotion, health policy analyses and online teaching technology. His recent research projects include investigating and developing a better understanding of social determinants of obesity and related health conditions to enhance strategies for intervention, prevention, and health policy making from multidimensional approaches. He teaches biostatistics for MPH students (for both online and on campus sections). He was selected as a Faculty Research Fellow for the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service (COLRS) at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Dr. Martsch has been a faculty member in the Department of Social Work at UIS since 1998. He currently serves as the Department Chair and teaches a variety of courses including research methods, working with groups and families, and Introduction to Social Work. He received his Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his MSW from Florida State University, and his B.A. in Social Work from Boise State University. His research interests are in the areas of troubled youth, small group interventions, and program evaluation.

Extended Abstract



The Community of Inquiry (CoI) Survey is used in research to assess the adequacy of online classroom design and other aspects of online teaching and learning within the context of the CoI Model. Critical to the CoI Model are cognitive, teaching and social presences, which are measured by the CoI Survey (Swan, 2013). Some in the field of on-ground and online teaching and learning, emphasize the importance of interpersonal relationships. Rogers (1969) and Rogers, Lyon and Tausch (2014) maintained that learning is facilitated when the teacher uses empathy, genuineness and high regard to help the student(s) feel safe, trusted, creative and knowledgeable. When students do not feel connected to the teacher or with each other, their perceptions regarding the effectiveness of online learning are diminished (Aragron, 2003; Moore & Kkearsly, 2004).

Some critics of the CoI Model and Survey indicate that the Survey just does not adequately measure interpersonal relationships. Garrison (2009) recommended further research and exploration into the role of interpersonal relationships among the students and the teacher and their effect on the vitality of the online classroom. In an effort to address Garrison’s recommendation and other researchers’ questions about the role of interpersonal relationships in the online classroom, Bockmier-Sommers, Chen, and Martsch (2017) conducted research to address these questions. Initial results indicated a significant correlation between high regard and interaction engagement, followed by empathy and interaction engagement

 To take this research to the next level, Bockmier-Sommers, Chen and Martsch (2017) sampled 248 online and on-ground students from a small Midwestern university to discern whether relationship exists between empathy, genuineness and high regard and cognitive, social and teaching presence.  In addition, these researchers explored whether differences in perceived levels of empathy, genuineness and high regard exists between online and on-ground students. These results will be presented.


Aragon, S. (2003). Facilitating learning in online environments (NewiDirections for adult and continuing education, 100). Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Garrison, D. R. (2009). Communities of online learning. In P. L. Rogers et al. (Eds). Encyclopedia of distance learning (pp. 352-355). 2nd ed. Hershey, PA: IGI Globa

Rogers, C. R. (1969). Freedom to Learn. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company.

Rogers, C. R., Lyon, Jr., H. C., and Tausch, R. (2014). On becoming an effective teacher: Person-centered teaching, psychology, philosophy, and dialogues with Carl R.               Rogers and Harold C. Lyon, Jr. New York, NY: Routledge.

Swan, K., Vahey, P., Van ‘t Hooft, M., Kratcoski, A., Rafanan, K., Stanford, T., Yarnall, L. & Cook, D. (Spr 2013). Problem-based learning across the curriculum:                           Exploring the efficacy of a cross-curricular application of preparation for future learning. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 7(1). pp. 91-                 110.

Research Questions

1.Does a relationship exist between social, cognitive and teaching presences and empathy, genuineness and high regard?

2.Do perceived differences in empathy, genuineness and high regard exist between on-ground and online students?



Participants were 248 mid-western students enrolled in online courses. Of the 248 eligible students who completed our online survey, 67.30% (N=167) students were on-campus students who had taken at least one online course. On the contrary, 32.70% (N=81) were students that only took 100% online courses. The majority of participants in this study were females (70.60%). The Figure 1 illustrates the detail sample selection process.



The Barrett-Lennard Relationship Inventory (BLRI) contains a total of 40 items that was developed by Dr. Godfrey Barrett-Lennard. The BLRI comprises three subscales: Empathy, Level of Regard and Genuineness. The BLRI is structured as a self-report questionnaire, with a six-point bipolar rating scale ranging from -3 (NO, I strongly feel that it is not true) to +3 (YES, I strongly feel that it is true).

The Community Inquiry Questionnaire (CoI) contains a total of 34 items and was used to review student impressions of the social, teaching, and cognitive presences in the online courses they take. Table 1 below summarized the variables for this study.


Barrett-Lennard Relationship Inventory (BLRI; 40-item online survey) measured empathy, genuineness and level of regard.

Empathy - Helps students feel understood & supported

Genuineness/Congruence - Prone to trust facilitator or teacher

High Regard (Level of Regard) -Helps students feel valued

Community of Inquiry Questionnaire (CoI; 34-item online survey) measured teaching, social and cognitive presence.

Teaching Presence - Defined as the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educational worthwhile learning outcomes.

Social Presence - Defined as the ability of learners to project themselves socially and affectively into a community of inquiry.

Cognitive Presence - The extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a community of inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication.

Data analysis

The data analysis in this study involved Pearson Correlation analysis (research question 1) and independent t-tests (research question 2).


Research question one investigated whether a relationship exists between social, cognitive and teaching presences and empathy, genuineness and high regard. The mean scores and standard deviations of survey items from the participants were tabulated as shown in Table 2. The results revealed that all variables were positively and directly correlated. The highest correlation was observed between empathy and teaching presence (r = .52, p < .001).

Research question two examined differences in empathy, genuineness and high regard exist between on-ground and online students. As shown in Table 3, there are no significant differences in empathy, genuineness and high regard between on-ground and online students (p > 0.05). 


Discussion and Take-away Point(s):

  • Rogers’ three core conditions had different levels of correlation with three presences from Community of Inquiry.
  • Of the three relationship conditions, empathy was moderately correlated to all three presences (teaching, social and cognitive).
  • Level of regard was moderately correlated with social and cognitive presences.
  • Online students and on-ground students perceived no significant differences with regard to empathy, genuineness and level of regard in their respective classes.


            These findings support if a classroom is designed using the CoI Model, the class contains interpersonal interaction or relationship between the teacher and the students. In addition, the finding that no differences exist with regard to empathy, congruence and high regard between online and on-ground students, which supports the contention online classes can be as interpersonally interactive as on-ground classes.

Interactivity (Active Engagement)

Presenters will respond to attendee questions and engage attendees in a conversation about interpersonal interaction in the online classroom. In addition, the presenters will engage attendees in a discussion of practical applications for increasing interpersonal interaction in the online classroom.

Audience Appeal

Quality relationship, as defined by high levels of empathy, genuineness and high regard, is a construct that is being widely discussed and examined internationally. In the context of online teaching and learning, students have been shown to find classrooms in which the instructor demonstrates empathy and high regard tend to be more engaging (Bockmier-Sommers & Chen, 2017). In addition, Garrison (2009) has recommended that additional research be directed toward discerning if the CoI Model adequately assesses the interpersonal aspects of online teaching and learning.