Carl Rogers, Teaching Presence, and Student Engagement in Online Learning

Concurrent Session 3
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Brief Abstract

This session reports on research linking Carl Rogers' model of Person-Centered learning and to the Community of Inquiry framework student engagement in online learning. Implications for practice center on usefulness of applying Rogers' Person-Centered Model of the relationship between the counselor and the client to the development of teaching presence in online 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.
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.
Premiere online scholar and James Stuckle professor, University of Illinois Southern; OLC Fellow and Outstanding Achievement Award in Online Learning; member of IACEHOF and significant role in development and dissemination of the Community of Inquiry (COI) framework. Karen Swan is the James J. Stukel Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership and a Research Associate in the Center for Online Learning, Research, & Service (COLRS) at the University of Illinois Springfield. Karen’s research has been in the general area of electronic media and learning for the 25 years since she received her doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. For the past 20 years, she has been teaching online, researching online learning, and writing extensively about her experiences. She received the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) award for Outstanding Individual Achievement, National University Technology Network (NUTN) Distinguished Service Award, and the Burks Oakley II Distinguished Online Teaching Award for her work in this area. She is also an OLC Fellow and a member of the International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame. In 2010 she also was given the Distinguished Alumni award by her alma mater.

Extended Abstract


 Online programs in the social sciences are becoming more prevalent. Reese (2015), for example, concluded that variables, such as collaboration, freedom to create knowledge and critical thinking, along with interactive instruction, increase engagement and the acquisition of course content. Because online classes are rapidly becoming important in giving access to a greater breadth of students in more “people” oriented programs, it is perhaps also important to incorporate “people” oriented approaches. One such approach, advocated by Carl Rogers (1969) seeks to build empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard into the relationship between instructors and students. Similarly,  the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000), which was specifically designed for online learning, addresses learning processes from a collaborative constructivist point of view. Building from the notion that social presence supports learning in the online environment, the CoI framework represents online learning as supported by three presences: social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence.

This study examines the relationship exists between Carl Rogers’ Person-Centered approach, operationalized as four conditions -- empathy, level of regard, unconditionality, and genuineness (Barrett-Lennard, 2015) and teaching, cognitive, and social presences. It is hoped that the addition of Rogerian approaches to CoI ones will enhance teaching presence and facilitate and support diverse perspectives, respectful and empowering dialogue, and thoughtful and insightful assignments.


Methods and Results:

The researchers conducted an online survey to measure the constructs of person-centered model (empathy, level of regard, unconditionality, and genuineness) and all the presences (social, teaching, and cognitive) in the Community of Inquiry framework. The Barrett-Lennard Relationship Inventory (BLRI; Barrett-Lennard, 2015) contains a total of 40 items with which respondents are asked to indicate their agreement on a six-point bi-polar scale ranging from -3 (NO, I strongly feel that it is not true) to +3 (YES, I strongly feel that it is true) (Barrett-Lennard, 2015). It returns scores on four subscales – one each for empathy, level of regard, unconditionality, genuineness.  The Community of Inquiry (CoI) survey consists of a total of Likert-type 34 items (ranging from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree) and measures student perceptions of social, teaching, and cognitive presences in the online courses they take on three subscales. Both measures measure student perceptions of teaching and learning in online courses.

The subjects (n = 242) were a convenience sample of students who had taken at least one online course at a small midwestern university in the United States. For the data analysis process, all variables were initially screened by checking regression assumptions, including linearity, homogeneity of variance and multicollinearity. Multivariate outliers were identified through Mahalanobis distances with p < .001 (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007) and removed from the collected dataset before the regression analysis was performed.

Of the 242 eligible students who completed our online survey, 67% (n = 163) students were on-campus students who had taken at least one online course. On the contrary, 33% (n = 79) were students who only took courses online. The majority of participants in this study were females (70%).

Pearson correlations and partial correlations (controlling for each of the seven main variables) were run to explore the relationships between the CoI presences and the Rogerian approaches. Results indicated significant correlations between all three presences and both level of regard and empathy. The relationship between teaching presence and empathy was the strongest, with empathy accounting for approximately 11% (r = .328, p < .001) of the variance in teaching presence.

Accordingly, multiple regression analysis was used to assess the potential influence of person-centered concepts on teaching presence. The prediction model was statistically significant, F(4, 237) = 21.407, p < .001, and accounted for approximately 27% of the variance in teaching presence (R-squared = .265, adjusted R-squared = .253).



Rogers’ person-centered approaches, empathy and level of regard in particular, may enhance teaching presence and improve its effects on the development of social and cognitive presence in online courses. The combination of Rogerian counseling approaches and strategies designed to develop the CoI presences could be an innovative method for improving the quality of online teaching. It clearly deserves further investigation.




Arbaugh, J. B., Cleveland-Innes, M., Diaz, S., Garrison, D. R., Ice, P, Richardson, J. C. & Swan, K. (2008). Developing a community of inquiry instrument: Testing a measure of the Community of Inquiry framework using a multi-institutional sample. The Internet and Higher Education, 11(3-4), 133-136.

Barrett-Lennard, G. T. (2015). The relationship inventory: A complete resource and guide. John Wiley & Sons.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Reese, S. A. (2015). Online learning environments in higher education: Connectivism vs. dissociation. Education and Information Technologies, 20(3), 579-588.

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

Tabachnick, B., & Fidell, L. (2007). Using multivariate statistics (5th ed.), New York: Pearson Educational Inc.