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10 Best Practices for Regular and Substantive Interaction

Implementing regular and substantive interactions in online courses improves the quality of learning that happens. Here are our top 10 best practices for ensuring your online interactions are just as engaging as in-person interactions.

cartoon of two students exchanging videos

Beginning last year, the U.S. Department of Education required that all online courses for which students receive federal financial aid involve regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.

Instructor-student interaction is a key component to learning, and this is no less true for distance education and online education. The student is responsible for knowing the syllabus, assignments deadlines, school policies, and reviewing all communication from instructors. The instructor is responsible for initiating regular and consistent contact with each student in their online or distance education courses in order to provide feedback that will help the student improve. 

Aside from now being a federal requirement, RSI is a central component of learning that ensures high-quality course design and delivery. In fact, studies have shown that RSI improves student retention, motivation and success, as well as fosters a sense of community — critically important for online students who are removed from the physical space of a traditional classroom.

With the goal of creating instructor presence, setting expectations, and fostering a greater sense of social community, these ten practices will help ensure your interactions have high impact.

1. Leverage your course syllabus & digital learning tools to clearly communicate expectations around frequency, scheduling, and predictability of communication.

Include information on: 

  • the cadence with which content is posted or delivered (weekly, or other predictable or regularly scheduled basis), 
  • expected schedule for grading assignments and posting grades, along with the frequency and type of feedback students can expect, 
  • instructor availability, office hours, contact info, and protocol for using digital tools to communicate, and 
  • expectations for student and instructor engagement in online discussions.

2. Initiate interaction early, before the online or distance education course begins.

This ensures that students have plenty of time to learn about the structure of the course, course expectations, and read the syllabus in detail.

3. Implement an ice-breaker activity is included at the beginning of the course.

The students and the instructor introduce themselves and begin to form an online community. Get creative; use video; share introductions; ask for reactions.

4. Create instructor presence. The bulk of the interaction is instructor-initiated and guided.

This ensures student understanding that the interaction is expected, not optional.

  • Instructor-facilitated discussions where students can ask questions and receive instant response when synchronous
  • Personal outreach to a student, when a student is absent or has missed an assignment
  • Personalized feedback on assignment submissions

5. Ensure interaction can easily be initiated by a student.

  • Office hour schedule is available
  • Email to instructor (personal asynchronous response to a student’s question)

6. Create several channels for student-to-student interaction are available.

  • Use Q&A or chats for covering a specific activity of the course.
  • Use tools to enable instant communication and collaboration between students who are online simultaneously.

7. Ensure interaction remains consistent and regular throughout the semester.

There is no exact standard for how much RSI is enough, such as “once a week.” 

Factors to consider in determining an appropriate combination of substantive activities and regular interactions: 1) aim or goal of the course; 2) needs of the students, 3) course time frame or number of credit hours. Instructor closely follows student progress in the course, ensuring no student is left behind. May require monitoring and tracking student engagement levels.

  • Highly-structured weekly discussions with clear expectations (e.g., synchronous attendance, length and number of written contributions)
  • Weekly announcements
  • Review sessions before exams
  • Personalized outreach to students whose engagement has dropped off 

8. Ensure interaction is substantive, heavily based on the course content.

  • Announcements are focused on weekly content previews, wrap-ups, brainstorming questions, or clarification of more challenging topics/content.
  • Instructor shares relevant examples and media from daily life to illustrate concepts.
  • Mid-course survey collects student feedback on the course content, potential issues, or any additional needs.

9. Actively facilitate online course discussions and chats.

Post 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; and provide encouragement for students who may be struggling with the complexities of the subject.

10. Choose online tools that make interactions easy – as well as easy to document.

When selecting online tools, consider carefully how they are likely to affect ease of communication for you and your students. When possible, select ones that integrate with your LMS and that will document your feedback, interactions, and outreach. This way, after a course concludes, you won’t have to spend time retrieving messages or demonstrating the feedback you gave students. This will ensure you’re prepared in case you are asked to provide evidence of regular and substantive interaction in the future.


This is by no means a full list of practices and activities for regular & substantive interaction. So remember, if some of your current activities don’t count as regular & substantive interactions, that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. It simply means there is opportunity to create additional interactions throughout your course that can enable meaningful connection, engagement, and community — and Harmonize can help!


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