Title IV of the Higher Education Act and its implementing regulations draw a critical distinction between “distance education” and “correspondence education.”1 While both categories involve educating at a distance, including online education, typically only courses/programs that meet the distance education definition are eligible for Title IV student aid funding.2 The key difference between the two (and between Title IV eligibility and ineligibility in many cases) is that distance education supports “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor” whereas correspondence education does not. This provision is commonly referred to as the “Regular and Substantive Interaction” or “RSI” rule and was last amended in 2020.3 Recent amendments included:

  • New descriptions/definitions for
    • regular – predictable and scheduled basis commensurate with the length of time and the amount of content in the course or competency
    • substantive – teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion (more than one type of engagement is required, however)4
    • instructor – an individual responsible for delivering course content and who meets the qualifications for instruction established by an institution’s accreditor
  • A new requirement to monitor students’ progress and proactively engage in substantive interaction with students when needed/upon request; and
  • A change from compliance requiring an institution to demonstrate actual occurrences of RSI to the institution demonstrating only that opportunities for RSI were provided.

In Practice

Following best practices in online teaching and course design is often the best approach for compliance with the RSI rule. It may still prove helpful, however, to ensure specific components or activities that would qualify as RSI opportunities do appear in the syllabus/course materials. While learning can obviously still occur through ad hoc and student-initiated interaction, and such interaction should be encouraged, for opportunities to be considered RSI, they must be initiated by the instructor, not the students, and should occur on a “predictable and scheduled” basis. Not only would this transparency benefit students but having documentation to demonstrate RSI was scheduled in advance may also be valuable in the event of an audit.

In addition, there is significant crossover between activities that would qualify as RSI opportunities and those that would qualify as opportunities for “academic engagement,”5 which should be made available for each “week of instructional time”6 for financial aid purposes. It may be helpful to consider this overlap when planning RSI opportunities, such as by taking an otherwise student initiated/completed weekly academic engagement opportunity and having an instructor provide feedback, address questions or ask follow up questions, respond to discussion posts, etc. While there is no requirement for how often RSI opportunities must be provided, an approximately once-per-week cadence may serve as a good marker for the typical 3-credit, traditional term course.

Finally, institutions are now specifically required to monitor a student’s “academic engagement and success and ensur[e] that an instructor is responsible for promptly and proactively engaging in substantive interaction with the student when needed on the basis of such monitoring, or upon request by the student.” There is no expectation that new or invasive technologies are adopted to meet this requirement. Rather, instructors can employ formative or summative assessments and invite struggling students to discuss concepts further or (re)engage with course materials as a way of satisfying this new requirement.


The responses below offer practical suggestions for demonstrating compliance with federal rules and should not be considered legal advice. It is possible that enforcement agencies may have different interpretations of these rules and whether the suggestions provided below satisfy minimum expectations. The Center for Academic Innovation (CAI) will continue to update this FAQ section with new questions and answers as additional guidance becomes available.

Regular Interaction

What are some ways to demonstrate that opportunities for RSI are “scheduled and predictable?”

Listing out dates/cadences for RSI opportunities on a syllabus may be the most effective way to demonstrate compliance with this requirement (e.g., “There will be short assignments due each Friday. The instructor will provide feedback on these assignments during the following week.”). Other ways to demonstrate compliance could include designating times for office hours that are announced to students in advance or added to a course calendar, scheduling windows for asynchronous Q&A about specific topics or assignments, or alerting students to specific dates where students can expect written instructor feedback on major assignments, assessments, or drafts.

How should I communicate to my students about their expected participation in the class?

While participation should be encouraged regardless of what federal rules require, the new RSI rules require only that students are given “opportunities” to engage in RSI. Though, the new RSI rules do also separately require instructors to intervene when students are found to be struggling on the basis of academic engagement monitoring, which may not be possible to demonstrate without student participation occuring. Being able to document instances of active engagement may prove helpful in other areas as well, such as when evidencing the last date of attendance for Return of Title IV Funds (R2T4) purposes. It would therefore be advisable to communicate in one’s syllabus or courses description materials both (i) the schedule of RSI opportunities and other forms of academic engagement and (ii) descriptions for how students and instructors will be engaging with one another during and after these opportunities take place. For example, if a course uses discussion boards, a syllabus might include language similar to the following: “Student participation in weekly discussions is critical in informing the instructor of how well students are progressing through the course. The instructor will facilitate these discussions, and may also follow up directly with individual students to continue these conversations and further promote learning.”

Is there anything in particular that we should be thinking about for mini-courses (7 week courses)? Do the requirements change at all?

Please consult with the U-M Registrar’s Office before designing courses with unique term lengths as condensing a course can have implications for financial aid, add/drop, and withdrawal procedures. The Operations Section of the OHP Playbook contains additional information on this topic.

Regarding the application of these recent rule changes, interaction must still be predictable and scheduled and must also occur as needed based on assessment of student progress and success or when requested by the student—all to be considered “regular.” Specifically, the frequency/amount of instructor-student interaction opportunities must be “commensurate with the length of time and the amount of content in the course or competency.” Because shorter courses are expected to have a similar total number of interaction opportunities as longer courses awarding the same number of credits, the frequency of RSI opportunities would likely need to be greater within that condensed period (e.g., if a 3-credit, 14-week course has approximately one RSI opportunity per week, the same course condensed into 7 weeks could be expected to feature approximately two RSI opportunities per week instead).


Substantive Interaction

Do the rules distinguish between synchronous and asynchronous activities? If so, do they have any requirements for synchronous activities?

Both academic engagement and RSI can be either synchronous or asynchronous. While synchronous options are often listed without other conditions (i.e., the student simply showing up might suffice), asynchronous options are often conditioned on the presence of “interactive” elements.

Regarding RSI, specifically, one of the substantive interaction examples provided is “direct instruction,” which we believe applies to synchronous instruction of any kind but likely would not be interpreted as inclusive of asynchronous direction instruction unless instructor interactive elements are also present. Additional guidance from the Department on this issue would be appreciated. In the meantime, we would strongly recommend ensuring that some opportunity for active participation beyond attendance/passive completion is made available to the student whenever relying on asynchronous activities to meet RSI or academic engagement requirements.

Does autograding or computer-generated feedback count toward RSI?

The Department still considers autograding to lack the presence of an “instructor,” even when an instructor has written specific feedback scenarios. This does not mean autograders should not be used, and indeed autograded assignments are still helpful for demonstrating “academic engagement” and can be used as part of monitoring efforts. However, “human” feedback would still be needed, perhaps directly alongside the autograded feedback, for such feedback to count as RSI (e.g., multiple choice mixed with short answers reviewed by the instructor and/or accompanied by substantive feedback from the instructor about why certain answers are right or wrong or perhaps suggestions for where to look for additional information).

For the “at least two” types of substantive interaction requirement, how often do at least two need to be demonstrated?

Two or more types of substantive interaction can be featured at any point during the course (as long as at least one type satisfies the “regular” requirement). Specifically, the Department has stated that:

The definition requires an institution to perform at least two of those activities, and since we apply the regulation at the course or competency level, we also require an institution to perform at least two of those activities over the period of time that the student completes the course or competency. We believe that requiring a specific timeframe, sequence, or frequency that the activities need to occur within that timeframe would be impractical and would extend beyond our purview under the Department of Education Organization Act. 85 FR 54758-59, Preamble.

Monitoring Academic Engagement and Supporting Struggling Students

What does student progress monitoring look like?

Instructors are not required to personally monitor each student’s engagement throughout each class session while also instructing, facilitating discussion, or responding to questions from students, etc. Instead, the Department is asking that instructors are able to generally determine when a student is “engaged and successful throughout a given course or competency,” which can be achieved through a number of means, including:

  • evaluating a student’s level of participation in synchronous class sessions;
  • monitoring the student’s activity on course websites or materials;
  • considering the quality of the student’s assignments or responses to questions about course materials;
  • or evaluating the level of the student’s understanding of course materials during conversations with instructors or performance on exams.

85 FR 54757, Preamble.

Who is/should be responsible for student progress monitoring?

While the rules themselves specify only that the “institution” is responsible for monitoring academic engagement, it is worth noting that “instructors” are ultimately responsible for providing substantive interaction where needed on the basis of such monitoring and instructors would serve as the last line of defense where no monitoring is occuring at the departmental or institutional level. As U-M does not have a university-wide policy addressing this requirement, individual academic units would have flexibility in setting their own procedures as desired. Where specific technologies or academic support staff would be leveraged as a means of meeting the monitoring requirement, there may be benefits in coordinating an approach at the department level as well.

Do we need a school/program level monitoring system to create an official record or do the faculty just need to ensure that they are meeting these guidelines?

There is no requirement to create a school/program level monitoring system. However, having such a system could prove helpful in documenting compliance efforts and, depending on its use, could potentially be used to remove burden from individual instructors. Departments are encouraged to engage their faculty in conversations around whether centralized monitoring solutions or the adoption of department-wide monitoring practices may be desirable.


Does RSI still need to be “instructor initiated” under the amended rules?

Yes, instructors are still responsible for initiating RSI but must now only provide for the “opportunity” for RSI regardless of whether individual students take advantage of those opportunities. However, with the new monitoring and intervention requirements, struggling students who reach out to instructors can also, in effect, initiate RSI. While instructors must respond to students who are seeking additional support, this requirement should not be viewed as replacing any other instructor-initiated RSI obligation.

How does this regulation (if at all) relate to “last date of attendance” in a course for bursar/registrar/financial aid functions?

While the updates to RSI do not impact attendance, the Department also moved certain concepts associated with Return of Title IV Funds (R2T4) provisions into a new definition for “academic engagement” as part of this same rulemaking process, which does have an impact on attendance. Unless an academic unit has its own policy addressing this issue, taking attendance is not specifically required at U-M. However, when R2T4 issues arise, the determination of a student’s last date of attendance would need to be based on the last recorded date of “academic engagement.”

Academic engagement is any “active participation by a student in an instructional activity related to the student’s course,” which can include but is not limited to attending classes where there is an opportunity for interaction, submitting an academic assignment, taking an assessments, participating in an interactive tutorial, webinar, etc., participating in study groups or online discussions assigned by the institution, or interacting with an instructor about academic matters. Academic engagement does not include logging into an online class without further participation or participating in academic counseling or other opportunities that are not specific to the course itself. 85 FR 54808.

Is there any difference in the Department’s RSI and Academic Engagement expectations for graduate versus undergraduate courses?

There are no stated differences in expectations based on the level course level. However, the Department is likely to defer to the institution’s accreditor in making determinations about what difference may be appropriate across degree levels.

Where can I find additional resources on this topic?

The Center for Academic Innovation maintains this Collection of Additional Resources.

134 CFR 600.2
2There are exceptions, such as when student schedules feature only a limited amount of correspondence course credits as part of an otherwise eligible distance-education program.
32020 amendments to 34 CFR 600.2. These amendments are scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2021.
4Specifically, two or more of the following are needed: (i) Providing direct instruction; (ii) Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework; (iii) Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency; (iv) Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or (v) Other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.
5Academic engagement is defined as “Active participation by a student in an instructional activity related to the student’s course of study… [such as] (i) Attending a synchronous class, lecture, recitation, or field or laboratory activity, physically or online, where there is an opportunity for interaction between the instructor and students; (ii) Submitting an academic assignment; (iii) Taking an assessment or an exam; (iv) Participating in an interactive tutorial, webinar, or other interactive computer-assisted instruction; (v) Participating in a study group, group project, or an online discussion that is assigned by the institution; or (vi) Interacting with an instructor about academic matters.”
634 CFR 668.3. Note that “academic engagement” also creates an attendance record in online courses when determining the return of financial aid, where applicable (e.g., 34 CFR 668.22).