Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI)

The U.S. Department of Education requires that all online courses for which students may use Title IV funds (federal financial aid) “ensure that there is regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.” The Department of Education has the authority to review distance learning offerings at colleges and universities that receive federal funds.

Regular and substantive interaction is more than a federal requirement, however. It is also a hallmark of effective teaching. Decades of research have established that teacher-student interactions are an essential component of learning. So while it may be tempting to see the Department of Education’s mandate as a burden imposed from outside the college, the reality is that ensuring regular and substantive interaction is entirely consistent with Buffalo State's purpose and values as an educational institution.

Characteristics of Regular and Substantive Interaction

Initiated by the Instructor

To count as ‘regular and substantive,’ interactions need to be started by the instructor. This doesn’t mean students should be discouraged from contacting you or asking questions – far from it! But you should expect to take an active part in initiating and guiding a range of interactions with your students throughout the semester. This ensures that interactions are not optional and left up to each student’s individual discretion; rather, they are an integral part of your instructional plan for the course.

Does Meet RSI Does Not Meet RSI
You post a discussion question and actively facilitate the ensuing conversation A student happens to drop in during your regularly scheduled open office hours
You ask a student to visit you during office hours or to schedule a webconference with you You add numeric grades to the course gradebook
You provide personalized comments (in any medium) for an individual student’s assignment A student submits a quiz that is automatically graded

Frequent and Consistent

Interactions with students should be reasonably frequent and consistently repeated throughout the semester. This means that once a course begins, long intervals of time shouldn’t pass between the interactions you initiate with students. The mode of interaction may vary throughout the course, depending on your aims and the needs of your students, but the regular cadence of interactions you establish should remain as consistent as possible. Daily communication isn’t required, but at a minimum you should seek to interact with every student at least once each week and you should log in to the course every 1-2 days.

Does Meet RSI Does Not Meet RSI
You routinely post announcement or send messages that you have written specifically for the course You send a welcome message during the first week of class and a mid-semester message around week five
You actively facilitate a required online discussion for every course unit You encourage students to participate in an optional, one-time online review session before the final exam
You hold a required one-hour online review session every other week during the semester  

Focused on the Course Subject

Interactions should be connected to the subject of the course and contribute to the students’ progress toward course, program, and student learning outcomes. Routine procedural interactions, such as reminders of upcoming deadlines, aren’t ‘substantive’ on their own; neither are activities like assigning grades, unless they are accompanied by personalized feedback or suggestions for improvement. This doesn’t mean that interactions designed to welcome students or build classroom community aren’t important, merely that they aren’t sufficient by themselves.

Does Meet RSI Does Not Meet RSI
You send a message previewing concepts introduced in the next unit and listing questions for students to have in mind when reading the textbook chapters You remind students of the course attendance policy
You post an example from last night’s Bills game in the course’s ‘Real-World Physics’ discussion to illustrate the concept of coefficient of restitution You post an announcement about an upcoming assignment deadline
  You post to the course’s ‘General Topics’ discussion thread lamenting the outcome of last night’s Bills game

Recommendations for Promoting Regular and Substantive Interaction

There are as many ways to promote regular and substantive interaction online as there are approaches to teaching face-to-face courses. The following recommendations are general suggestions for incorporating interaction into your course, but you should freely adapt and personalize them to support course objectives, the needs of your students, and your own teaching and course design goals.

  1. Set clear expectations for interaction in the syllabus
    • The syllabus is a good place to tell your students how you’ll communicate with them and how you expect them to communicate with you. Let students know how frequently they can expect to hear from you, when you will or will not be available to respond to messages, and how quickly they can expect a response to questions and to work they submit. If you have participation expectations for your students, be sure to include those as well — especially if they affect students’ grades.
  2. Send course announcements or other messages at regular intervals throughout the semester
    • Announcements often focus on procedural information, like reminders of course deadlines, but they can also be used to support instruction. For instance, a weekly announcement can: synthesize and then comment on questions from the previous week; note trends observed in assignments; or highlight, contextualize, or illustrate key concepts students will encounter. Try to establish a general rhythm for course communications, using a pattern that is consistent with the structure or thematic organization of the course. Regardless of their frequency, announcements can be treated as genuine invitations into the subject matter of the course rather than mere reminders.
  3. Provide timely, individualized, and in-depth feedback on student work
    • Research shows instructor feedback is most beneficial when it comes soon after students submit work, so avoid lengthy delays in providing students with comments about their progress. Feedback can take many forms: written comments, audio or video notes, individual conferences conducted in person or via online meeting tools, and so on. In all cases, though, feedback should go beyond simply assigning a grade or automatically displaying pre-written comments or general statements (‘good work’, ‘needs improvement’, etc.). Effective feedback communicates to students both what they have accomplished and areas where they may need to improve. It also often offers examples and concrete suggestions for actions students can take in the future to make further progress in their learning.
  4. Actively facilitate online discussions and chats
    • A common misconception about online discussions is that instructors shouldn’t play an active role in facilitating them. While it’s true that a hands-off approach can be appropriate in some contexts, there are many benefits to instructor-facilitated discussions. Consider posting regularly to course discussion forums in order to: pose guiding questions related to the academic subject; propose counterpoints or alternative points of view that students may not be considering; establish connections among students’ ideas; engage in Socratic dialogue; and provide encouragement for students who may be struggling with the complexities of the subject. If the only voices regularly present in discussions are those of students, your course is missing a valuable mode of online instruction.
  5. Conduct regularly scheduled online review sessions, tutorials, office hours, or individual appointments
    • Online office hours provide a forum for students to ask their own questions, but they can also be used to supplement instruction in more intentional ways. For instance, you might incorporate brief structured lessons at the beginning of an open-ended study session. While it is important not to artificially limit the flexibility of online instruction, it’s perfectly appropriate to require students to participate in some regularly scheduled synchronous (real-time) online sessions provided these are clearly identified as part of the course requirements outlined in Banner and in the course syllabus.
  6. Choose online tools and learning environments that make interactions easy – and easy to document
    • When selecting online tools or platforms, consider carefully how they are likely to affect ease of communication for you and your students. When possible, select ones that help you document your communications. Email, discussions, chats, or the Brightspace gradebook will do this automatically, but it’s good idea to apply extra scrutiny to external platforms, such as those operated by publishers. These can sometimes be difficult to access after a course has concluded, making it hard to go back later to retrieve messages or feedback you gave students. If you do use publisher platforms, be sure to have a plan for documenting interactions in the course; this will help ensure you’re prepared in case you are asked to provide evidence of regular and substantive interaction in the future.

Regular and Substantive Interaction by Buffalo State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Based on a work from Everett Community College.

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Article ID: 150710
Tue 3/28/23 2:40 PM
Thu 4/25/24 8:49 AM