What is ‘Swift Trust,’ and Why Do I Want it in My Classes?

engaged online student

Due to the shift to performance-based funding in many states, colleges and universities have sharpened their focus on student retention. Because of this, I have sought out information about best practices in retaining students, in particular online students, to help do my fair share in this effort for the schools where I teach. While I found many articles about the importance of social presence, one of the more interesting discoveries was from a chapter in Trust in Organizations on the concept called “swift trust.” Although it is mostly put into practice and studied in workplace settings, it certainly applies to education, too.

During the first two weeks of class, most faculty work to build a learning community among their learners. Cultivating swift trust should be part of those activities, too. This might be happening serendipitously, but it is important to take a deliberate approach. Because online students do not have the same chances to make small talk before class starts and in between activities, the opportunity to get to know each other in the same ways as their brick and mortar peers do is much less likely or even non-existent. Informal and purely social interactions are hard to come by in most online courses, which erodes the chance of trust being built naturally (Carroll, 2007).

As you’re working to build social presence, you also can do a few things early in a course to develop swift trust with and among your students, and then create interactions to maintain it. All of this should have benefits for your class. Dirks and Ferrin (2001) found that trust can have “consistent and positive… effects” on people’s perceptions and attitudes of groups they are in (p. 455). This can translate into good things for classrooms in terms of engagement, satisfaction, and retention.

Why should we want to do this in our classes? In 1995, Meyerson et al. introduced the concept of swift trust as a special characteristic found among work groups, teams, or committees. It requires people within a group to be willing to “suspend doubt” about whether others who are not known to them can be depended upon to help with a task and will be beneficial (Meyerson). When given swift trust, people respond favorably, thus cultivating a better working relationship.

It is easy to see how this concept can apply to both instructors and learners. The trust is given because in general, when groups—real or virtual—first come together, their initial inclination is to give everyone the benefit of the doubt (Ferazzi, 2012). With swift trust, students should experience better in-group interactions and express more satisfaction with group work—even short-term group work—than without it (Costa, 2003). While swift trust does decrease over time if communication is not maintained (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998), hopefully as time passes, classes or groups form more meaningful bonds naturally or through targeted assignments for that purpose so that they can continue to work well together (Ferazzi, 2012).

But do we really need to help our students to trust each other in our classes? Doesn’t this just happen on its own? Nancy Settle-Murphy (2006) and her colleagues at software company FacilitatePro found that their clients identified building trust as the hardest thing groups have to do when they are first assembled. The same is often true in education.

“Groups” does not have to mean group work—the class as a whole is a group, and in an online class, students are likely to be required to interact with one another in a meaningful way on a regular basis. Because of this, we need to be deliberate in the opportunities we create for students to build trust with us as instructors and with one another. Consider how a question asked in face-to-face class a few weeks into the term can spark a rich, lively conversation, but the same question in an online discussion board might fall flat because no one actually responds to one another in any meaningful way. The participation is more to fulfill a requirement and students might not really care what others have said or want to engage with them. Swift trust can help to change that.

To facilitate swift trust, instructors should take the lead and immediately begin to develop trust with the class as a whole (Ferrazzi, 2012) and model how they should do the same with their individual classmates (York & Richardson, 2012). Certain types of assignments can be given early in the term to give opportunities for both informal and formal interactions to encourage connections to be made between students, thus leading to trust (Carroll, 2007). For instructors more technically inclined and who teach solely in an online environment, videos can help build trust with your students, but so can simple phone calls (O’Leary & Quinlan, 2007). There are many ways that will fit the many personalities and needs of both instructors and students to help make important connections and cultivate trust—not just in the first couple of weeks but throughout the entire term.

Join Wren Mills on April 30 for the live online seminar, “Engage Early, Build Trust, and Gain Student Retention and Success.” During the program, she’ll provide specific strategies for applying swift trust principles to your course to create a rich learning environment. Learn More »


Carroll, B. (2007). Building trust in virtual teams. Leading Virtually. Available online at http://www.leadingvirtually.com/15/

Costa, A. C. (2003). Work team trust and effectiveness. Personnel review, 32 (5), 605-622.

Crisp, C. B. & Jarvenpaa, S.L., (2013). Swift trust in global virtual teams: Trusting beliefs and normative actions. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 12(1), 45-56.

Ferrazzi, K. (2012). How to build trust in a virtual workplace. Harvard Business Review. Available online at https://hbr.org/2012/10/how-to-build-trust-in-virtual

Jarvenpaa, S. L., & Leidner, D. E. (1998). Communication and trust in global virtual teams. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(4), 1–36.

Meyerson, D., Weick, K. E., and Kramer, R. M. (1995). Swift trust and temporary systems. In R. M. Kramer and T. R. Tyler (Eds.) Trust in organizations: Frontiers in theory and research. Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA. 166-195.

Settle-Murphy, N. (2006). Building trust within virtual teams – Small steps add up. Guided Insights. Available online from https://www.guidedinsights.com/building-trust-within-virtual-teams-small-steps-add-up/

York, C.S. & Richardson, J.C. (2012). Interpersonal interaction in online learning: Experienced online instructors’ perceptions of influencing factors. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(4), 83—98. Retrieved from https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/olc-online-learning-journal/

Wren Mills is the assistant director for the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Western Kentucky University.