Learning to Trust, Trusting to Learn

Trust between students and instructors in the online classroom boosts learners’ confidence, participation, and overall academic experience

Every instructor hopes to build a vibrant learning community in their online classroom where learners are successful in meeting their learning goals. One vital ingredient for such a learning community is trust among learners and trust in the instructor.

Risk and uncertainty are inherent in the online classroom environment. When learners trust their instructor, they are more willing to take risks and overcome uncertainty to contribute ideas and actively collaborate with confidence. They are also more willing to trust the instructor to guide the learning process as the knowledge expert. Research shows that when learners have a trusting relationship with the instructor, they are more cooperative, motivated, and enthusiastic; they welcome instructor feedback; and they help one another, all leading to a sense of community and satisfaction with their learning experience.

Little research has been done in the online classroom to understand the potential benefits of a particular form of trust known as “epistemic trust.” Epistemic trust exists in fiduciary relationships, those in which one person justifiably places confidence and trust in someone else and seeks that person’s help or advice in some matter. It is a special kind of trust akin to the relationship one has with their physician or financial advisor when making personal medical or financial high-risk decisions. The relationship between the online instructor and learner is also fiduciary in nature, and therefore warrants a closer examination. If the instructor can build an epistemic trust relationship with learners, the learners will trust in the instructor as the knowledge expert who can guide them in the learning process. They will trust that the instructor is acting in good faith for their best benefit and will feel confident that the instructor can guide them in their pursuit of new knowledge.

The trusted instructors were highly active and enthusiastic early in the course, which opened the opportunity for learners to take the first steps toward deciding to trust their instructor.

But online classrooms are made up of learners who are strangers to one another, and most times the instructor is a stranger as well. This, along with other barriers within the online space, makes relationship building a challenge. How, if at all, can the instructor build a relationship of trust with the learners within a time frame of a few weeks? If the instructor successfully builds trusting relationships with the learners, can the instructor and learners achieve an epistemic trust relationship to fully realize the positive implications for online learners? These are the questions that I hoped to answer through an in-depth research study of online classrooms in the health sciences and nursing programs at Excelsior College.

To study the impact of epistemic trust in the online classroom, I questioned 800 learners in 48 fully online classrooms at Excelsior to measure their level of trust in their instructor. Additionally, the learners assessed interactions with their instructor and reported their observations of the instructor’s actions within the online classroom. Based on this data, I selected several classrooms where the instructors had achieved a high level of epistemic trust with the learners. In these classrooms, I observed the activities and interactions of the instructor and learners, and conducted detailed interviews with the learners and faculty. The study found that the highly trusted instructors consistently adapted their behaviors in three critical areas: how they manage the classroom, how they communicate with learners, and how they are present in the online classroom.

Learners described progressing through several stages of trust, from an early decision to trust the instructor, to trusting that the instructor is fair and reliable, to feeling a personal connection with the instructor, to the final stage of trusting the instructor as the knowledge expert. Each progressive level of trust builds onto the next. These levels are labeled in scholarly literature as swift trust, competence trust, benevolence trust, and epistemic trust.

Instructor Interactions Build Epistemic Trust

The initial research data revealed that, overall, the instructors at Excelsior College were able to build epistemic trust relationships with the learners in their online classrooms. On the Epistemic Trust Scale, with 42 being a perfect score, the average for the 102 instructors was 37.99. The instructors showed a consistent method in how they manage the classrooms, communicate with learners, and present themselves regularly in the classroom. This speaks to the quality of expectations and guidance given to the instructors by the College. When comparing the epistemic trust scores with the classroom management style and the interpersonal communication style of these instructors, it was revealed that both caused a significant positive impact on the trust relationship. Responsiveness and consistent presence had a lesser positive impact on the trust relationship.

Once the importance of the instructors’ actions in building epistemic trust was established, the inquiry then focused on these questions: How did these highly trusted online instructors build an epistemic trust relationship with their learners? How did the learners describe their learning experience with their trusted faculty?

One of the ways that instructors made personal connections with the learners was by sharing personal and professional stories, and giving examples from their own life experiences, particularly during collaborative activities such as classroom discussions.

From the research interviews and classroom observations, I was able to construct a trajectory of the learners’ trusting responses to actions by the instructor that cumulatively led to an epistemic trust relationship. The actions that built trust began at the start of the courses. The trusted instructors were highly active and enthusiastic early in the course, which opened the opportunity for learners to take the first steps toward deciding to trust their instructor. (Swift trust)

The learners explained that early interactions with the instructor made an impact. Learners commented on their experiences, saying “The instructor’s initial communications to the class influenced my trust,” “The first few weeks lay the groundwork for a working relationship,” and “My instructor was very welcoming from the first day.” The instructor’s demeanor also made a difference, as indicated by a student saying, “I wanted to participate because [the] instructor was excited about teaching the course material.”

Importance of Responsiveness and Consistency

As the course continued, learners gauged the instructor’s presence in the classroom not by frequency or extent of time in the online classroom, but by the instructor’s immediate responsiveness to inquiries and the instructor’s transparency about their activities and interactions in the classroom, such as when things would be graded and being consistent in their participation in discussions or projects. Through these actions, the learners believed the instructor to be available. Learners said the instructors were “quick with responses, timely, prompt to address questions and concerns.” One learner explained, “My professor kept his word and stayed consistent with grading and expectations. This added to the trust.”

One instructor stressed the importance of creating a presence: “My feeling is, they don’t see you face-to-face, and they don’t hear your voice. So, you just must be as strong of a presence as possible in the classroom. That really helps them connect to you and perhaps be invested more. They know someone’s out there paying attention to what they are doing.” The learners also said repeatedly that they believed the instructors to be fair and consistent in “word and deed.” (Competence trust)

Importance of Interpersonal Communication

One of the ways that instructors made personal connections with the learners was by sharing personal and professional stories, and giving examples from their own life experiences, particularly during collaborative activities such as classroom discussions. The instructors were viewed by the learners as mentors and role models. The instructors were helpful with both technical and content issues. They gave constructive praise and caring messages to individual learners to encourage their participation. Most importantly, they provided one-on-one assistance to struggling learners. Through all these actions by the instructor, the learner came to believe the instructor cared about their individual success. (Benevolence trust) “My professor believed in everyone no matter their strengths and weaknesses,” said one student. Another learner commented, “My professor sent me personal messages of encouragement when I seemed to be struggling.”

Importance of Classroom Management

The most impactful influencer for building trust was the instructors’ classroom management style, which was more formal and structured. This strengthened the trust relationship and reinforced the learners’ belief that the instructor is reliable and cares about their success. Classroom management included managing classroom conduct, aiding learners to meet deadlines, and encouraging learners who struggle with deadlines. Learners explained, “The instructor promoted an environment of collegiality among the class” and “The professor was excellent with communication and keeping us up-to-date.”

The instructors also provided guidance to improve quality of work and guided learners to think more deeply on complex topics. This served to move collaborative discussions to more sophisticated levels. One instructor explained it this way: “I’m trying to help learners transform their thinking, to really use those analytical skills.” The learners believed the instructors offered ideas that furthered their knowledge and improved their learning experience. They described it as “the instructor turned on the light bulb” and “the professor was good at stretching my mind.” Another learner explained, “It is extremely important to have trust in your professor that you are getting the tools and information you need to be successful.” (Epistemic trust)

This study showed that the instructors who are best at building epistemic trust relationships with learners adapted their actions in the classroom in three distinct ways: their communication was personable and engaging, their classroom management was structured and deliberate, and their classroom presence was responsive and consistent. In response to the trusting relationship with their instructor, the adult learners trusted the instructors for their intellectual value and content expertise. And as a result, the trusted instructors expertly guided them through the learning process to a successful learning experience and outcome. This research opens the door to more investigations of how trusting relationships improve the learning experience and support the success of online learners.

Levels of Trust

We encounter various levels of trust in our everyday relationships with others. Each level of trust is distinct from the others. As interactions increase, trust can grow and move from one level to the next, building on another. However, only fiduciary-type relationships can become epistemic, where a person is willing to be guided by another person’s expertise.

Swift trust:The mailperson who brings your mail (you don’t know the mailperson well, but they were hired by an authority, and circumstances force you to decide to trust them until they give you cause to decide otherwise).

Competence-based trust: The daycare center where you leave your child or pet (you have regular interactions and conversations with staff, so you come to believe they are competent, fair, and reliable).

Benevolence-based trust: Your best friend or a family member (you can count on them to do what’s best for you beyond their own needs or wants; they will “go the extra mile” for you).

Epistemic trust: Your personal lawyer or doctor helping you make a legal or medical decision (to achieve this level of trust, you must already believe the expert is competent and looking out for your best interest; however, it also requires that you give over authority to that expert to guide you in something important that has personal consequences and risk). In the case of the online classroom, the learner is giving over epistemic authority to the instructor as the knowledge expert to guide them in their learning process.