Enhancing the Instructor-Student Relationship: Measuring and Using Empathy, Regard, Genuineness, and Unconditionality in Feedback

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Brief Abstract

This presentation will describe research which explores the use of indicators of empathy, regard, genuineness, and unconditionality in feedback to online students and their capacity to enhance the instructor-student relationship.  It will introduce participants to Carl Rogers' notion of person-centered learning and will include coding instruction and practice.  

Additional Authors

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.
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.

Extended Abstract

During the pandemic of 2020, the need for students and educators to engage in remote learning increased exponentially. With a sudden shift to teaching and learning that allowed no in-person contact, educators needed to find ways to engage with students and show care in a virtual classroom. How important is engagement and the ability to show care in an online or remote learning setting? With most engagement in online learning occurring through assessments, a key element is often missing. This research explores an approach to infuse care, regard, empathy, and genuineness through journaling in online courses. This approach was designed to explore one online teaching strategy to determine whether enhancing interactions between instructors and students would correspondingly enhance learning. It builds on the work of Carl Rogers’ person-centered learning (1969) and focuses on instructor feedback to students because that is the primary opportunity for instructor-student interaction online.

Carl Rogers (1961) was a clinical and educational psychologist who is best known for his person-centered or non-directive therapy (Smith, 2004). Rogers maintained that the client usually knows better how to proceed than the therapist and argued that three conditions were necessary to unlock the client’s insight: empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. According to Tausch and Huls (2014), empathy is defined as “…the emotional and cognitive ability to feel the problems or distress of another person combined with the desire to help or to relieve his/her distress” (p. 136). Genuineness is consistent with being authentic and transparent. Unconditional positive regard refers to accepting others regardless of circumstances (Rogers, 1969). Indeed, recent research has revealed that at least empathy and unconditional positive regard, and possibly genuineness, are critical components of effective psychotherapy (Kirschenbaum, & Jourdan, 2005).

In the 1960s, Rogers became convinced that the relationship between a teacher and a student could be seen as similar to that between a therapist and a client (Rogers, 1969). He theorized that the three conditions were necessary for the creation of relationships that support and facilitate both therapeutic conversations and educational interactions. He further maintained that learning was facilitated when instructors employed empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard (Rogers, Lyon, & Tausch, 2013). Considerable research supports the efficacy of this approach (Cornelius-White, 2007), and there is some indication that it is useful in technology-enhanced teaching and learning (Motschnig-Pitrik, 2013).

The Barrett-Lennard Relationship Inventory (BLRI) (Barrett-Lennard, 2015) is a survey instrument developed by Godfrey Barrett-Lennard as a means for assessing Rogers’ conditions for successful therapy. The BLRI splits unconditional positive regard into two constructs, unconditionality and regard in response to factors uncovered in validity studies. The education version is a 40-item survey measure that assesses student perceptions of the strength and quality of their relationships with their instructors along four dimensions – , empathy, unconditionality, regard, and genuineness. Barrett-Lennard’s (2015) research has confirmed its reliability and validity. The BLRI will be used to determine student perceptions of empathy, positive regard, and genuineness.

Our previous research investigated links between the BLRI and the Community of Inquiry survey. We found strong correlations between empathy and positive regard and teaching presence in particular. The findings suggested avenues for future research into practical ways for enhancing teaching presence in online courses. They seemed to indicate that online instructors could enhance teaching presence in their courses by working to project empathy and high levels of regard for their students. The research reported in this paper reports on the first step in that inquiry.

This ongoing research project is investigating the following questions:

  • Can indicators of instructor expressions of empathy, positive regard, and genuineness be identified in instructor feedback?
  • Is the number of Rogerian indicators found in instructor feedback related to student perceptions of instructor empathy, positive regard, unconditionality and genuineness?
  • Is the number of Rogerian indicators found in instructor feedback related to student engagement and/or student outcomes?
  • Can instructors be taught to use a Rogerian approach to responding to student journals to enhance the instructor-student relationship and improve student engagement and outcomes?


The first step in exploring the use of a Rogerian approach to instructor feedback is to see whether or not such indicators really can be found therein. This paper reports on content analyses of instructor feedback in student journals in graduate level courses on educational technology leadership. Instructor responses in the journals were transcribed and associated with anonymized student identifiers. One hundered and four responses were extracted and coded for instances of indicators of positive regard, empathy, unconditionality and genuineness by three researchers. The researchers then met and resolved differences between their coding and update coding protocols. The protocol tables provide definitions and examples for professional development in future phases of the ongoing study. The protocol tables are shown in Figures 1-4. Figure 5 gives an example of a completed coding result for two students’ 8 journal entry feedback comments.

Figure 1

Regard: subcategories, definitions and examples



Figure 2

Empathy: subcategories, definitions and examples

Figure 3

Unconditionality: subcategories, definitions and examples


Figure 4

Genuineness: subcategories, definitions and examples

Figure 5

Sample Coding in the Transcript


Session Outcomes

This presentation provides the breakdown of frequency of Rogerian indicators by multiple instructors in several courses. Calibration techniques in the coding of the journal feedback will be shared. The research reported in this presentation provides evidence that Rogerian approaches linked to teaching presence can be found in instructor feedback. 

Participants in attendance will have the opportunity to complete a sampling of the BLRI.  In addition, attendees will participate in a coding exercise using the indicator tables and a sample of journal entries. 

Limitations, Implications, and Future Research

The next steps in this ongoing research are to extend the work to include feedback from other instructors in other classes, including classes outside of education, to undergraduate as well as graduate students. Other kinds of feedback, such as feedback on papers, quizzes and tests, and other sorts of assignments will be explored.

At the same time, participating students in all classes will be given the Barrett-Lennard Relationship Inventory (BLRI).  The results of the BLRI collection will be compared with the content analyses of instructor feedback to see if student perceptions of instructor behaviors agree with what was found in the coding of their feedback. This is important not only for research purposes but also for practical ones – strategies proposed in potential professional development need to be validated by student perceptions.

Finally, both content analyses and survey results will be compared to student outcomes to investigate the effects of employing Rogerian approaches on students’ satisfaction, learning and retention in classes and programs. Anecdotally, participating instructors have reported that student engagement in the courses in which Rogerian approaches have been employed has increased, and that students have expressed their appreciation of instructors’ empathetic and respectful feedback. We are hopeful that future findings will substantiate such reports and uncover their underlying processes.


Barrett-Lennard, G. T. (2015). The Relationship Inventory: A Complete Resource and Guide. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons.

Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research. 77(1), 113-143.

Kirschenbaum, H., & Jourdan, A. (2005). The Current Status of Carl Rogers and the Person-Centered Approach. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 42(1), 37–51.

Motschnig-Pitrik, R. (2013). Characteristics and effects of person-centered technology enhanced learning. In Cornelius-White, J.H., Motschnig-Pitrik, R., & Lux, M. (eds). Interdisciplinary Applications of the Person-centered Approach, 125-131.

Rogers, C. R. (1961) On Becoming a Person. A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rogers, C., Lyon, H. C., & Tausch, R. (2013) On Becoming an Effective Teacher—Person-centered Teaching, Psychology, Philosophy, and Dialogues with Carl R. Rogers and Harold Lyon. London: Routledge.

Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become. (1st edition.) Columbus, OH: Charles Merrill.

Swan, K., Chen, C.C., & Bockmier-Sommers, D. (2020). Relationships between Carl Rogers’ person-centered education and the Community of Inquiry Framework: A preliminary exploration. Online Learning, 24(3), 4-18.

Tausch, R., & Hüls, R. (2013). Students, patients, and employees cry out for empathy, In: C.R. Rogers., H.C. Lyon, Jr., & R. Tausch (Eds), (2014). On Becoming an Effective Teacher: Person-centered Teaching, Psychology, Philosophy, and Dialogues with Carl R. Rogers. New York, NY: Routledge.