Enhancing instructor-student relationships through online journaling using Carl Rogers’ person-centered approach

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

This presentation will explore ways to use online journaling within a learning management system and instructor feedback based on Carl Rogers’ model of person-centered learning to enhance teaching presence and the relationship between instructors and students.


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.
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

Central to the concepts of both learning and computer mediation is the notion of interaction. No matter what learning theories we hold - - behaviorist or constructivist, cognitivist or social -- reciprocal events and mutual response in some form must be integral to our notions of how we learn. Similarly, interaction has been widely cited as the defining characteristic of computing media (Murray, 2017, Turkle, 1997). Digital telecommunications connect people beyond the limitations of space and time to promote interactions among people who might not otherwise interact. Because interaction seems to be central to multiple conceptualizations of both learning and learning online, it highlights what is unique in online learning.

Michael G. Moore (1989) identified three kinds of interactivity that affect learning in any environment and that so must be developed online: interaction with content, interaction with instructors, and interaction among peers. Interaction with content refers both to learners' interactions with the course materials and to their interaction with the concepts and ideas they present. Interaction among peers refers to interactions among learners which also can take many forms -- debate, collaboration, discussion, peer review, as well as informal and incidental learning among classmates. Interaction with instructors includes the myriad ways in which instructors teach, guide, correct, and support their students. Each of these modes of interaction support learning and each can be uniquely enacted in online learning environments.

In Garrison, Anderson, and Archer’s (1999) Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, interaction with students becomes teaching presence. A growing body of research has found that teaching presence is a major, if not the major factor, in developing robust learning communities online (Kozan, 2016; Shea & Bidjerano, 2009; Zhu et al., 2019). It stands to reason, then, that finding ways to enhance teaching presence, to enhance interactions between instructors and students, might lead to improved teaching and learning online.

This presentation grew out of the initiation of research into the use of Carl Rogers’ conditions for developing the relationship between therapist and client to minimize disengagement between the teacher and the student. This research began with finding a relationship between empathy and high regard and engagement and evolved to finding a relationship between empathy and high regard and teaching presence. The beauty of using Roger’s conditions is that these constructs can be taught to online instructors and easily broken down into doable techniques that instructors can use in any classroom be it online or face-to-face. In this presentation, we examine the medium of feedback on reflective journal entries to convey empathy, genuineness, level of regard, and  unconditionality.

Our previous research (Swan, Chen, & Bockmier-Sommers, 2020) explored student perceptions of links between Carl Rogers’ person-centered education and the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework. We found significant links between the Rogerian constructs of level of regard and empathy and the CoI concept of teaching presence. The finding suggests potential avenues for investigating practical ways to enhance teaching presence, and thereby learning, in online courses.

In this presentation, we will report the ongoing research exploring exactly those connections. In particular, we are using content analysis to identify indicators of the Rogerian constructs of empathy, level of regard, genuineness, and unconditionality, and then qualitatively reviewing instructor feedback to explore their effects on the instructor-student relationship. Our focus is on student journaling with instructors, which creates a private space for students and instructors to interact. We believe that the journal is an ideal space in which to use Rogerian strategies to enrich the relationship between instructors and students and perhaps improve student engagement and outcomes.

We are investigating the following questions:

  • Can indicators of instructor expressions of empathy, regard, genuineness, and unconditionality be identified in instructor feedback, in particular in instructor responses to students’ journals?
  • Is the number of such indicators found in instructor feedback related to student perceptions of instructor empathy, regard, genuineness, and unconditionality?
  • Is the number of such 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?


We explore the use of Rogerian indicators in journals employed in undergraduate and graduate courses in education, human services, and public health at a small Midwestern university. Instructor responses in the journals were transcribed and associated with anonymized student identifiers, and then coded for instances of indicators of empathy, regard, genuineness, and unconditionality. The relative density of Rogerian indicators in the feedback given to students will be compared with students’ perceived engagement in the courses and with their achievement within them.

Participating students in all classes will be given the Barrett-Lennard Relationship Inventory (BLRI). The BLRI (Barrett-Lennard, 2015) is a survey instrument developed by Godfrey Barrett-Lennard as a means for assessing Rogers’ conditions for successful therapy. The education version is a 40-item measure that assesses the strength and quality of the student-instructor relationship. Barrett-Lennard’s (2015) research has confirmed its reliability and validity. The BLRI will be used to determine student perceptions of empathy, regard, genuineness and unconditionality. These will be compared with the content analyses of instructor feedback.

Presentation Outcomes

After attending the presentation, participants will have a better understanding of Carl Rogers’ person-centered education and a notion of how to use journals in online courses. They will also be familiar with indicators of Rogerian conditions that they might employ in journal responses to enhance their relationships with students in online classes.  Attendees will engage in a small sample of the BLRI survey at the onset of the presentation and will participate in a Q&A and discussion period as well. We will provide slides describing essential aspects of our research, links to related articles, and prospective formats for responding to student journals.



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

Wiley & Sons.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2–3), 87-105.

Kozan, K. (2016). A comparative structural equation modeling investigation of the relationships among teaching, cognitive and social presence. Online Learning, 20(3), 210-227.

Moore, M. G. (1989). Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.

Murray, J. H. (2017). Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace (updated ed.). MIT Press.

Shea, P. & Bidjerano, T. (2009). Community of Inquiry as a theoretical framework to foster ‘epistemic engagement’ and ‘cognitive presence’ in online education. Computers and Education, 52(3), 543-553.

Swan, K., Chen, C. C., & Bockmeir-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.

Turkle, S. (1997). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. Simon & Schuster.

Zhu, M., Herring, S. C., & Bonk, C. (2019). Exploring presence in online learning through three forms of mediated discourse analysis. Distance Education, 40(2), 205-225.