Facilitator presence builds cognitive and emotional engagement

Building presence through student-facilitator interactions in your online course can have a powerful impact on students’ cognitive and emotional engagement. Your presence has a way of capturing attention and garnering interest and can impact students' mental health and well-being.

Student attention, interest, and enjoyment

Outcomes of Student-Facilitator engagement: Positive affect, cognition, and motivation

Facilitator presence in an online course provides learners with a teacher to observe and a model for their own academic behaviour. A living, breathing, immediately-present model or teacher naturally captures attention and garners interest. The human attentional system has evolved to prioritize human actions, features, and behaviours, which has given rise to a fascinating body of research on social attention. In short, people catch people’s attention (e.g., Theewus & Van der Stigchel, 2006) and in an online learning context, the degree to which students sense the immediacy and social presence of an online facilitator predicts student affect, cognition, and motivation (Baker, 2010).

Social relationships not only capture and direct attention, but they also play a role in cultivating shared meaning and interest. So, while a student may come into a course with just glimmer of interest in a topic, an online instructor’s presence can have a huge impact on whether that glimmer grows into a roaring fire or is snuffed out. Research shows that students' perceptions of their teachers’ presence (their enthusiasm, approachability, and knowledge) are strong predictors of students’ interest (Quinlan, 2019).  Quality interactions with instructors are also predictive of student satisfaction and enjoyment (Jaggars & Xu, 2016).

Supporting student mental health

One of the concerns some facilitators have when teaching online for the first time is how they can support their students who are struggling emotionally or perhaps dealing with a mental health challenge.

Student sitting at computer, gesturing with exasperation

Research on student mental health and well-being indicates that many of the student-facilitator interaction strategies that we’ll discuss here and in the units that follow not only build student engagement and learning, but also can help support student mental health and well-being. In a study by Baik, Larcombe, & Brooker (2019), student surveys uncovered several key areas where students experienced support or drain on their mental health. The table below lists the themes that emerged from this research, along with descriptions of those themes. We have highlighted themes where online course facilitators can have substantial impact and bolded specific areas these facilitators can influence.

Table 3.1: Aspects of higher education that influence student mental health
ThemesDescription of themes
Academic teachers and teaching practices Teaching practices, attributes, individual support, and student-teacher relationships for teachers and tutor/demonstrators.
Student services and supports Awareness, availability and range of services, advice about post-graduate careers/study, coursework, internships, and finances, and peer or professional mentoring.
Environment, culture, and communications Student spaces, facilities, and the digital learning environment, mental-health promotion, diversity of student circumstances, and sense of community.
Course design Study groups/tutorials, practical learning opportunities in and beyond the classroom, pre-requisites, subject choices, and supervised placements.
Program administration Teaching quality, class size, course cost, timetabling (e.g., more flexibility), special consideration, and SSAF fees.
Assessment Clarity and fairness, timing, weighting, and choice of assessments.
Student society activities Inclusivity, variety, and frequency of activities, and promoting activities.

Some student quotations from this study highlight the perceived value of instructors and TAs communicating with their students regularly, articulating clear expectations, and providing students with reminders and support through the term. 

I feel my general sense of well-being would be enhanced…

If teachers would be able to communicate better in lectures the ongoing assessment tasks that needed to be completed. (Science student)


If tutors took more time to get to know their students. Even learning their names. (Arts student)


If lecturers try to be more interactive with students instead of limiting the approach of teaching by simply reading out facts from the slides it would be extremely helpful. (Engineering student)


If teachers would develop more ways to teach topics with the students, whether it be non-assessed sample quizzes, tests online or interactive CALs. (Biomedicine student)


If in first year subjects, the tutor takes possibly the first two tutorials to give advice to the students as to how to approach their readings, lecture note-taking and topic-based study. (Arts student)

(Baik, Larcombe, & Brooker, 2019, pp. 680-681)

Student well-being is interconnected with emotional and cognitive engagement, student satisfaction, and deep learning (Stanton, Zandvliet, Dhaliwal, & Black, 2016), so engaging in student-instructor interactions that support one of these factors in learning naturally bolsters the others.

Identifying mental health and wellness issues online

Identifying student mental health and wellness challenges can be a little more difficult online, when you are not seeing students face-to-face on a regular basis. The table below lists some online student behaviours that can signal that a student is struggling and a mental health issue may be at play.

Table 3.2: Atypical or unusual student behaviours (Barr, 2014)
Atypical behaviours
(a change from the usual)
Unusual behavioursAcademic performance problems
Becoming irritable/short-tempered/obsessive Emails are accusatory, manipulative, sexually inappropriate, or threatening  Late assignments from beginning of course 
Sudden deterioration in quality of work Discussion post contents are: bizarre, fantastical, paranoid, disruptive, confused, or show disorientation  Failing quality of work from beginning of course
Abruptly begins turning in late assignments Student clearly seems out of touch with reality Not returning emails or phone calls
Becoming disrespectful in discussion posts   Not turning in work at all
Stops responding to email   Not re-doing work when given an opportunity
Content of work becomes negative/dark/odd in tone   Ongoing display of anxiety about assignments

Communication around student mental health

Addressing mental health challenges often requires sensitive conversations, which can be a little more difficult in a virtual context. The subtle and often implicit ways we express care and concern (through tone of voice, facial expression, and body language) is a little more difficult online, requiring us to communicate care and concern with a little more intention, using clearer and more direct language. Some suggestions for addressing a possible mental health issue with a student are presented below.

  1. Open the door for communication
    • Talk about the behaviour, not your interpretation of it: If you are reaching out to a student, mention the behaviour you have noticed in the course and let them know that you just wanted to check in to see how they are doing or if there is anything you can help with. Do not ask the student to tell you what is wrong or label or interpret the behaviour.
    • Offer different modes to communicate, but do not attempt mental health counselling: If the student does mention that they are struggling or experiencing an exacerbation of a pre-existing mental health issue through email, you might consider seeing if they feel comfortable talking over the phone or using a virtual communication tool, such as Skype (they can leave the video turned off). This can make communication a little easier, but do consider your own comfort level as well. You should not be providing mental health counselling to students, that is, unless you are a mental health counsellor.
  2. Identify factors in the course that may be leading to or exacerbating the situation for the student.
    • Could you offer them an extension on a deadline?
    • Do they need a little extra help with some of the key concepts or skills in the course? Could you offer the help they need or direct them to other resources?
    • What strategies are they using to learn/study? Could they use some support identifying effective study strategies?
  3. Provide resources in the course that students can access on their own and you can refer them to.
    • Student mental education. Make resources available that educate students on mental health and wellness, as well as mental health self-assessment and self-referral tools (see the supplementary resources below for examples).
    • Mental health and crisis services. If your institution has crisis lines for students and/or campus mental health and wellness services, display these in the course. Your local online students will be able to access on-campus resources and some institutions now offer virtual services for students who are learning from a distance.
    • Accessibility services. Most institutions have services for students with accessibly issues, including issues with mental health. Include information about your institution's accessibility services.

Supplementary resources

Student mental health resources

Here are a few additional resources that you may find helpful from the University of Waterloo that have more information on addressing student mental health issues. Although they are not specific to teaching online, many of the principles and approaches still apply and can be modified for the online context.

Here is a resource that the University of Waterloo has developed to help students self-assess their needs and how to get help. You might have something similar at your institution or may consider creating something like this.

Facilitator presence and behavioural engagement

Outcomes of Student-Facilitator engagement: Academic outcomes, course appraisal, overall experience, and academic integrity violations

Given the impact that facilitator presence and interactions have on student well-being and cognitive and emotional engagement, it is not surprising that it also has an impact on how students behave. The degree to which online facilitators connect with and interact with their online students is predictive of students’ academic outcomes, overall experience, and appraisal of an course (level of satisfaction), as well as their likelihood to commit academic integrity violations.

Student outcomes

Research shows that one of the most predictive factors in determining student satisfaction and student outcomes is facilitator social presence (Jaggars & Xu, 2016; Swan & Shih, 2005; Gunawardena and Zittle, 1997), which is largely structured by student-facilitator interactions (Gunawardena, 1995; Hostetter & Busch, 2006). Jaggars and Xu (2016) conducted research looking at the impact of various metrics of online course quality (such as course organization, learning objectives and assessments, appropriate use of technology, and student-instructor interactions) on student outcomes (i.e., course grades) and sense of satisfactions across 23 different university courses, with representation across the various disciplines (STEM, Arts, Humanities). The results of this research reveal that student-instructor interactions and building positive social presence is more predictive of student outcomes and satisfaction than any of the other online design and delivery factors studied.

[F]requent and effective student-instructor interaction creates an online environment that encourages students to commit themselves to the course and perform at a stronger academic level.

(Jaggars & Xu, 2016, p. 271)

It’s about quality, not quantity

Importantly, Jaggar and Xu’s (2016) research shows that it is not the quantity of student-facilitator interactions that predicts student outcomes and satisfaction, but rather the quality of the interactions. In courses with high instructor presence ratings from students, the instructors tended to

  • invite student questions through a variety of modalities like email, virtual chat, telephone, discussion forums;
  • solicit and incorporate student feedback, sharing student feedback and indicating how they might change things this term, next assignment, or next term;
  • respond to student questions promptly (generally within 24 hours); and
  • post frequent announcements and reminders about course logistics to elaborate on assignment requirements, make suggestions to help prepare for assessments, add interesting information, give reminders of upcoming due dates, etc.

The strategies above seemed to help students feel that the instructor cared about the course and students' performance in the course, which in turn helped students personalize the instructor, feel connected to the course, and strengthen their motivation to learn and succeed. Effective teacher interaction and the sense that the teacher actually “cares” seemed to carry a lot of weight in students' assessments.

(Jaggars & Xu, 2016, p. 278)

Jaggars & Xu also interviewed instructors in this study and found that those who had high instructor presence tended to be cognisant that online students may feel lonely, isolated, or struggle with motivation relative to students attending in-person classes. This insight, care, and ability to see things from the students’ perspective may have motivated these instructors to reach out a little more often, contributing to students’ achievement of learning outcomes and enjoyment of the course.

Reducing student attrition

Facilitator presence and student-facilitator interactions are strong predictors of reduced attrition (student course or program drop rates) in online courses. Key factors in preventing attrition include cultivating a sense of belonging (Oomen-Early & Murphy, 2009) and monitoring student progress to address early signs of disengagement and struggle (Beaudoin, 2002; Dennen, 2008). The impact that student-facilitator interactions have on student retention can been seen in both undergraduate and graduate courses and programs (Lovitts & Nelson, 2000; Joyner et al., 2014).

Check and reflect

Here is a list of some key barriers to student success in online courses:

  • technical difficulties;
  • perceived isolation;
  • challenges balancing study;
  • work and family commitments;
  • confusion with content;
  • poor academic performance; or
  • lack of motivation.

Reflect a bit on this list in relation to your own online course specifically.

Now, think about your own teaching experience, and your online course specifically. Do you think your online students may experience any of the following?

  • Problems using new software tools and technology for the first time
  • Social isolation due to a lack of sufficient opportunities to interact with you or with other learners
  • Difficulty keeping up with the workload for your course
  • Difficulty balancing study with work and family commitments
  • Difficulty learning specific concepts, or mastering especially confusing material
  • Poor performance overall
  • Lack of motivation
All of these barriers to student success can arise in nearly any online course. As you work through this resource, consider which strategies may help you to alleviate some of these problems for your online students.

Academic Integrity (AI)

Research shows that one of the biggest factors in preventing Academic Integrity (AI) violations (e.g., copying other students’ work, sharing assessment questions and answers, plagiarism, and contract cheating) is student-facilitator interactions (Bretag et al., 2018; Harper et al., 2018). Students who have committed academic integrity violations report negative experiences or a lack of opportunity to:

  • reach out and receive help from their course facilitators (instructors and/or TAs),
  • receive clear assessment instructions and the opportunity to clarify expectations (i.e., what is required of them), or
  • receive formative feedback so as to learn from assessments and improve.

Cheating the system vs. cheating on you

Whether you are an instructor or TA, if you have built a relationship with your students when they commit an academic integrity violation they are not simply cheating “the system,” they are cheating on you. Students are less likely to commit an academic integrity violation when they perceive personal connection with their instructors and TAs, as this makes the AI violation a moral transgression that is more personal and immediate (i.e., impacts someone they know and care about or they feel cares about them). Just as in other domains of life, having a close relationship with someone does not guarantee fidelity; there are many reasons people cheat. It does, however, substantially reduce the likelihood.

AI violations are often acts of desperation

Student-facilitator interactions have a positive impact on reducing AI violations not only by building a sense of connection, but through the information these interactions can provide facilitators, enabling them to identify struggling students before they start acting out of desperation or by providing students with some choice and control over their learning/assessments. Students who cheat are not necessarily “bad students” or “bad people.” AI violations are often reactive behaviours that stem from desperation. They often occur when students are feeling highly anxious and don’t see a clear way out. As discussed earlier, human cognition, which includes decision-making, does not function very well under high levels of stress or strong negative emotions. So, another important strategy for preventing AI is providing students with the support and guidance that keeps them away from acts of desperation. Regular interactions with your students, which can be as simple and quick as posting weekly assessment reminders or more time-intensive virtual office hours or meetings, can prevent students from feeling that the only choice they have is to cheat or to fail. In the next section we’ll go through some strategies that can help you monitor your students and provide them with the help and support they need in order to prevent them from getting to a place of anxiety and desperation that leads to AI violations.

Using student-facilitator interaction to identify AI violations

Sadly, some students will cheat, no matter what we do. In these cases the students’ reasons and motivations for cheating may be outside our sphere of influence. The best we can do for these students, and the other students in the class, is to accurately identify the students who are cheating. Research shows that one of the most effective strategies for identifying students who have cheated is getting to know them and their work through formative assessments and increasing personalized communication, such as conversations through discussion forums, hand written assessments, video assignments, etc., (Bretag et al., 2018; Harper et al., 2018). As an online course facilitator, you may not be able to alter the assignments in a course, but you have the opportunity to get to know your students. Knowing students and their work can help you identify a change in tone, writing style, or performance on the higher stakes assessments that are most often the locus of AI violations.

Supplementary Resource

Academic Integrity

For further tips on how to enhance academic integrity in your online course see this resource: 


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