Bringing Carl Rogers' Core Conditions into the Online Environment: Using Empathy, Genuineness and High Regard to Engage Students and Build Success

Concurrent Session 3

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Occasionally one hears of a disconnection between instructors and students in online classes. If students feel disconnected, course effectiveness may be compromised. One method to bridge this gap is student-centered learning first developed by Carl Rogers who used empathy, genuineness, and positive regard to create a vibrant learning environment.


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

From those who critique online teaching and learning, one hears of a potential disconnection between the instructor and the students and among the students (Reese, 2015) because of the limited or non-existence of face-to-face contact. As a result, both online students and teachers may be left feeling a lack of engagement and interaction at times. To mitigate this potentiality, online teachers must use a variety of teaching and design methods that facilitate engagement and learning. One such design model, the Community of Inquiry (COI), was identified during the year 2000 by Garrison, Anderson and Archer and is perhaps the most widely known and studied model of online teaching and learning. Essentially, online teaching and learning environments are designed and built around three presences: teaching, cognitive and social.

The CoI continues to be studied and developed. To begin to address this issue, Garrison (2009) recommended further research and exploration geared toward enhancing social presence especially as it relates to students forming relationships and feeling connected. Critical to effective course design, teachers must enhance social presence so that relationships between the instructor and each student and among students are supported and students feel safe to interact thereby leading to more vibrant discourse. Consideration of how interpersonal relationships develop might be helpful to consider within the context of the CoI Model. Perhaps the most widely researched model describing the essential conditions for the formation of relationships is Person or Student-Centered teaching and learning developed by Carl Rogers. Initially, Rogers developed the theory to facilitate the relationship between the counselor and counselee. Rogers (1969) posited that in order for a safe relationship to develop between the counselor and counselee certain conditions by the counselor must be established. These conditions are empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard.

As the years progressed, Rogers applied his theory to the field of education. At a core level Rogers believed that all human beings deserved dignity and empowerment which came from offering each student empathy or understanding, congruence or genuineness and valuing or prizing (Aspy & Roebuck, 1988). Further, 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. Treating students with understanding, genuineness and high regard requires teachers to approach their students as co-learners and step away from teachers serving as the experts.

Empathy or caring helps students feel understood and supported.  Yet, in the Tausch and Huls (2014) study some 60% of university-level students indicated they received no empathy from their professors. Similarly, Rogers, Lyons and Tausch (2014) found that student feelings or emotions are rarely addressed in the classroom. They also found that students tended to be distrustful of their teacher when sh/e was not aware of h/er internal feelings and reacted in a disingenuous manner toward them. If the teacher or facilitator was congruent or genuine when interacting with student(s), they were prone to trust the facilitator. The third condition needed to positively affect the relationship between the facilitator and the student(s) is to maintain high regard so that the student(s) feels valued and free to discuss course content. When the Student-Centered approach is integrated into the online learning environment and modeled for students, they are prone to feel more comfortable utilizing similar strategies as they interact with the facilitator and with other students. In addition, as the facilitator models and uses empathy, genuineness and high regard to interact, students feel emotional safety, freedom, engagement and curiosity which become the pillars of support needed to move to a deeper level of learning (Rogers, Lyon and Tausch, 2014).


Explore the use of empathy, genuineness and high regard to engage online students

  • Role play
  • Case scenarios

Discuss the potential for adding or need to add an interpersonal dimension to the Community of Inquiry Model of online teaching and learning.

  • Facilitated discussion
  • Identification of themes

Take away: Consideration of enhancing online courses by adding empathy, genuineness and high regard with students