Epistemic Trust in the Online Classroom: How instructors build relationships with adult learners to enhance student learning

Concurrent Session 7
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Brief Abstract

This presentation examines faculty best-practices in epistemic trust-building in online college courses. The presenters will share a theoretical framework to guide faculty approaches, administrative oversight, and professional development. Perspectives revealed by student and faculty interviews will be used to highlight the true importance of the trust relationship in online teaching.


Lisa Rapple is Program Director for Health Care Management in the School of Health Sciences at Excelsior College, Albany, NY
Anna Zendell is Senior Faculty Program Director for the Masters in Health Sciences and Masters in Health Care Administration at Excelsior College. She earned her Ph.D. and MSW in Social Welfare at the University at Albany. In addition to a social work career with people with lifelong disabilities and their caregivers, she has developed and taught online and face-to-face courses at Excelsior College and the University at Albany for over fifteen years.

Extended Abstract

This presentation examines faculty best-practices for building epistemic trust relationships with adult learners in online college courses. The presenters will share a theoretical framework that reveals a path for building epistemic trust in online classrooms. The framework can be used to guide faculty approaches, administrative decisions, and professional development. Perspectives of the adult learners and faculty will be used to highlight the true importance of the trust relationship in online teaching.

Interpersonal, trusting relationships are vital for building online learning communities. A high functioning learning community is characterized by trust, which lays a “foundation for an effective pedagogy of constructivism” (Shea, Sau Li, & Pickett, 2006, p. 176).  In online learning classrooms where trusting relationships exist, important behaviors emerge that enhance collaborative learning. These behaviors include cooperation, motivation, helping one another, enthusiasm, effective feedback for learning, and a perceived sense of satisfaction with the learning experience. These are all vital ingredients for a healthy online learning classroom. But what role does the online instructor play in developing trust relationships with adult learners and thus creating a healthy online classroom?

The learner’s trust of the instructor, as knowledge expert, is a form of trust that is distinctively intellectual and fiduciary. It is referred to as epistemic trust. For trust to be epistemic it must be focused on an expert (the instructor), in a specific situation (the online classroom), where the trustor has a high stake in the outcome (a passing grade, meeting learning outcomes, financial investment). When the adult learner trusts the instructor there is a belief that what the instructor says is meaningful and provides the critical foundations for guiding their learning. When learning in a constructivism classroom and gathering knowledge, adult learners depend on the input of peers, but need to defer to an expert because of their collective lack of knowledge in the subject area.

Through online discussions, private messaging, and feedback the instructor has an opportunity to gain adult learner’s trust, develop a trusting relationship, and establish a trusting learning environment, thus potentiating effective knowledge sharing and knowledge construction.

In an online classroom where the instructor encourages adult learners to re-imagine their current thinking and question absolutes in the world, the adult learner must trust that the instructor will welcome and reward freely expressed questioning of preconceptions and re-imaginations they explore. For adult learners to propose and defend their ideas in the online discussion environment they must overcome feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. This sense of risk and uncertainty creates a need for trust to counter these feelings allowing the dialogue to have rigor. The instructor who has established a trusting classroom environment creates an opportunity for the adult learner to question their current understandings. Adult learners must trust that the instructor will reward and encourage their willingness to share their unique perspective through stories that reflect their values and perceptions without risk of reprisal. Trust allows adult learners to contribute and interact in a confident fashion despite their feelings of vulnerability to the critique of others.

Past research indicates that the way the instructor facilitates the online classroom will promote or impede epistemic trust relationships with learners. By sharing the results of this study, the presenters will clarify the facilitation strategies that promote epistemic trust-relationships. These strategies, or actions, included instructor’s classroom management, communication immediacy, and frequency and responsiveness in the online classroom.

A mixed-method phenomenology research (MMPR) approach was used to discover which instructor actions within these three types of actions influenced an epistemic trust relationship to develop between the instructor and the adult learner.  The level of epistemic trust that instructors had developed with their learners was measured in 48 fully online courses and compared to each instructor’s use of these three types of actions. Four exemplar cases were selected for cross-case analysis. The Epistemic Trust Model was developed from the study that makes visible a path from early trust of the instructor to an epistemic trust relationship with the instructor. The results suggest that instructors that practice certain actions within these three types of actions in the online classroom have the potential to build epistemic trust relationships with adult learners, thereby improving learner motivation, cooperation, critical thinking, satisfaction, and academic performance. The presenters will share in detail the specific actions within each category that were most influential in building epistemic trust relationships. Examples will be used to reveal the stories and lived experiences of the adult learners as they progress in the trust relationship with their instructor. The Epistemic Trust Model developed from this study will be shared and attendees will have the opportunity to apply the model to their own teaching experiences.


  • Attendees will learn the important role of epistemic trust relationships in the online classroom.
  • Will learn teaching strategies to enhance the development of trusting relationships in online classrooms.
  • Attendees will apply the Epistemic Trust Model to improve their students’ motivation, cooperation, and performance.