The ins and outs of regular & substantive interaction online

Jul 27, 2021 12:42:34 PM

In this blog post, we’ll offer some clarity on regular and substantive interaction—and outline some unique ways for online course designers and instructors to implement it.

The Department of Education’s official regulations for substantive interaction

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many instructors to rethink their courses and how they interact with students, but it also pushed the Department of Education to more firmly define regular and substantive interaction. 

The final regular and substantive interaction regulations are as follows:

  • Put more emphasis on how much the student knows rather than how long they’ve spent in class.
  • Clearly define which courses may receive Title IV aid by more clearly defining regular and substantive interaction.
  • Outline direct assessment programs as well as alternative credit hour equivalents.
  • Add “juvenile justice facilities” into the regulation language to keep students in juvenile facilities eligible for Pell grants. 
  • Allow Title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) enrolled students at eligible foreign institutions to complete up to 25% of their chosen program at a US institution.
  • Encourage educational program development across US employers.
  • Create a new disbursement system for Title IV, HEA receiving students (in subscription-based programs) that is entirely student- centric.
  • Require prompt assessment of applications for Title IV, HEA enrollment.
  • Allow clock hour programs. 

When designing an online course, one of these requirements matters more than any others: more clearly defining regular and substantive interaction. 

We now know that, in conjunction with the definition of distance learning, regular and substantive interaction must include at least two of the following forms of interaction and assessment: 

  • Direct instruction
  • Feedback on coursework
  • Engagement over course content and competency of the topics
  • Group discussions
  • Additional activities approved by accreditors

As for the legal requirements on the level and amount of time spent on engagement, the regulations on “regular interactionare outlined as follows:

“predictable and regular basis commensurate with the length of time and the amount of content in the course or competency” 


“promptly and proactively engaging in substantive interaction with the student when needed, on the basis of such monitoring or upon request by the student.”

These changes reshape how students learn at a distance, and how instructors measure the engagement and benefits of students. 

No, it’s not about checking a box.

Research (like this ) shows that more connection and engagement often results in better retention and more successful student outcomes. 

Teachers and college instructors want to provide students with this level of engagement and individual attention, but it can be a challenge to know where to start or improve. This was made even more difficult by the pandemic-induced shift to remote and hybrid learning for the masses. So, how can educators go beyond the grade book? How can we do more to meet these guidelines that are truly helpful for students— not just checking the box? 

Adding regular and substantive interaction to online courses

As instructors and course designers, you’re likely already finding ways to integrate substantive interaction into your online courses without even realizing it. 

In a webinar on regular and substantive interaction by the Bates Online Learning Center, several instructors commented on their existing methods of implementation, including:

  • Breaking classes down into “pods” and meeting with each pod for two hours each week
  • Office hours to speak with each student individually
  • Meaningful evaluations of individual coursework
  • Mapping out the next ten months of the course with the students
  • Sitting with each student before the course even begins to ask them their goals

Keeping an open and direct line of communication between students and instructors often leads to higher engagement with the coursework. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to do it.

It could be as simple as web conferencing with individuals or groups or adding a chat function to offer office hours and ungraded discussions for students to connect socially.

Let’s dive into a few other options.

Create a community

A weekly discussion of coursework as part of the course requirements improves critical thinking skills. Essentially, it employs higher order thinking, allowing students to put the topic into terms that they understand. By working together in a forum, students also feel a sense of community, reinforcing their drive to continue the course. 

If you use a forum integration, consider an option that allows you and your students to keep conversations organized. This will make sure thoughts and subjects don’t get lost in the structure. You should also use a tool that encourages the use of video and images in your forum discussions to enable visual processing—plus a host of other benefits.

Make it easy to remain anonymous

Students engage at levels they’re comfortable with, and it’s generally the most outgoing students that speak up. This leaves a lot of shy students behind and may disengage them with lessons. To avoid that, add an anonymity feature to forums and other class discussions, so they can engage without feeling embarrassed or awkward.

Flag questions

With forums, Zoom lectures, and loads of other conversations happening between students and the class as a whole, it can be very easy to miss questions. To avoid student questions getting lost in the shuffle—and to keep students from feeling ignored—add a flagging option to your course discussions. 

Activity reports

There are always a few students that stand out because they engage the most with class discussions and ask the most questions. Adding activity reports to your course makes it far easier to assess engagement levels of each student, as individuals, and touch base with those that aren’t engaging meaningfully with the content or their peers. 

Set achievable goals

Speaking with students at the beginning of a course, whether one on one or as a group, and laying out the coursework ahead creates expectations for what’s coming. Knowing in advance keeps students from feeling as overwhelmed as the course load increases. It also sets expectations for how they’re to handle class discussions and what their level of engagement should be. As the course progresses, set regular check-ins against goals, and model the type of work or discussions needed for success.

In all likelihood, you’re already doing everything you can to increase engagement and retention of students in your online courses. But there are tools and features you can add to an online course design that make engagement stronger and easier to measure. Don’t be shy to test out new tools as technology evolves—your students will depend on your willingness to connect in new and effective ways.

Whether you are flagging questions, creating a community with forums and general discussions, or monitoring activity to ensure that no student falls behind, there are tools to alleviate some of your administrative burden. You can focus on what’s important—helping your students get ahead. 

Want to start improving student engagement? Download our  Student Engagement Guide.

Download the Guide

Subscribe by Email

*By completing this form you are opting into communications from Harmonize and 42 Lines.