The Importance of Trust in Nurturing Student Engagement Online

Positive relationships between students and instructors are crucial to meeting students’ academic and socio-emotional needs as outlined by the American Psychological Association (APA). As university educators, we contend that trust is an essential ingredient in these relationships. While teaching is inherently relational, we argue that models of “good teaching” must include trust to acknowledge that learning is not simply a cognitive process; it has affective elements. Evidence from student perspectives suggests that, for them, “good teachers” show attention, affection, and appreciation as part of the teaching process. If a student trusts that their teacher is engaged in and cares about their learning journey, as a unique individual, they are more likely to meet their academic goals.

The importance of nurturing trusting relationships between students and teachers is even more important online, as the teacher-student relationship often becomes a proxy for the social, pastoral and cultural support that campus-based students access outside of class. Online students do not usually ‘hang out’ on institutional websites; thus, their online subjects and teachers are their primary experience of ‘university’ itself.

In research responding to the shift to online learning, students said a critical issue was a lack of adequate support, interaction, and engagement with their instructors. Further, online learning has fostered increasing participation of historically underrepresented students in higher education (HE). Students at the margins are not often well-served by the educational status quo (Sybing, 2019); they enrol online due to anxiety rooted in previous negative educational experiences, or because practical responsibilities – such as childcare or employment – mean they cannot meet the requirements of campus timetables. Trust thus becomes especially important for online learners, as many are wary of education itself, and all desire interaction and engagement with their teachers.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Thus, two categories of trust are important:

(1) cognitive-based trust, grounded in students’ belief in their instructors’ capability and dependability, and

(2) affective-based trust, grounded in students’ perceptions and experiences of their instructors’ interpersonal care and concern.

Below, are five critical characteristics for nurturing and developing trust between students and educators:

  • Competence:  confidence and willingness to share knowledge clearly and respectfully.
  • Openness: view issues from multiple perspectives; understand one’s own and others’ doubts, uncertainties, and vulnerabilities.
  • Congeniality: create an inclusive environment that nurtures equity.
  • Sincerity: demonstrate authenticity in speech and action.
  • Integrity: prioritise availability, presence and following through with expected or promised action.

We urge HEI policymakers, practitioners and educational developers to increase their focus on relational factors in online learning environments, particularly on the development of students’ trust in teachers’ ability to support their learning and personal needs, which are interrelated.

We’d like to ask the SEDA community, what do you do to nurture trusting learning relationships when teaching online? How has this worked for you and your students?

Rebecca Bennett, Cathy Stone & Ameena L. Payne (see below for mini bios)

Further Reading

Biesta, G. J. J., & Stengel, B. S. (2016). Thinking Philosophically About Teaching. In D. H. Gitomer & C. A. Bell (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Teaching (Fifth, pp. 7–67). American Educational Research Association.

Lawrence, J., Shaw, H., Hunt, L. and Synmoie, D. (2020), “Rapport and Relationships: The Student Perspective on Teaching Excellence“, Thomas, K.C. and French, A. (Ed.) Challenging the Teaching Excellence Framework, Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 129-150.

MacKenzie, A., Bacalja, A., Annamali, D., Panaretou, A., Girme, P., Cutajar, M., Abegglen, S., Evens, M., Neuhaus, F., Wilson, K., Psarikidou, K., Koole, M., Hrastinski, S., Sturm, S., Adachi, C., Schnaider, K., Bozkurt, A., Rapanta, C., Themelis, C., … Gourlay, L. (2021). Dissolving the Dichotomies Between Online and Campus-Based Teaching: A Collective Response to The Manifesto for Teaching Online (Bayne et al. 2020). Postdigital Science and Education.

Payne, A. L., Stone, C. & Bennett, R. (2022): Conceptualising and Building Trust to Enhance the Engagement and Achievement of Under-Served Students. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education.

Sybing, R. (2019). Making Connections: Student-Teacher Rapport in Higher Education Classrooms: Student-teacher rapport in higher education classrooms. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 19(5), Article 5.

Dr. Rebecca Bennett is an interdisciplinary teaching/research academic in the Kulbardi Aboriginal Centre at Murdoch University in Western Australia. In this role she applies her years of university teaching experience to help talented and ambitious Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, enabling undergraduate and post-graduate students achieve their academic goals.

Dr. Cathy Stone’s professional background is in social work, student support, and research aimed at enhancing student equity in higher education. She was an inaugural Equity Fellow during 2016 with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, where she is currently an Adjunct Fellow.

Ameena L. Payne is an incoming doctoral student at Deakin University. She teaches within the disciplines of education and business in both higher and vocational education at Swinburne Online. Ameena is a Fellow of Advance Higher Education Academy (AdvanceHE) and the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA).

4 thoughts on “The Importance of Trust in Nurturing Student Engagement Online

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  4. Hi! I am so glad I found this blog! 🙂

    I have worked online for 10 years already, my students are earning their M.Ed. degrees. What has worked best for me is to start strong with the relationship building and engage in dialogs to learn something personal about each student. We meet over online conferencing, talk on the phone and email a lot. I try my best to convince my students that my only reason to be faculty is to help them in their individual learning process, and there are no such small questions that they shouldn’t ask. And if I don’t have an answer right at the moment of our discussion, I will email them about it later. These discussions are the best part of my work!


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