Published on 2015/09/09
The EvoLLLution | Community of Inquiry: Cognitive Presence
Online educators must proactively facilitate cognitive presence in their students to ensure they are maximizing their learning from the course.

This is the third installment of a four-part series by Debra Beck discussing the value of the Community of Inquiry framework for success in online, in-class and blended learning modalities. The first part of the series introduced the concept, and in this installment Beck will discuss the role of Cognitive Presence in the success of developing a Community of Inquiry.

Interacting with the content of a course, engaging in critical thinking about concepts and issues in the learning community, and applying knowledge to appropriately challenging assignments are essential elements of cognitive presence.

One of the three core components of the Community of Inquiry online learning framework, cognitive presence develops around two key concepts: practical inquiry and critical thinking. The steps that we take to engage learners in the latter, and to create learning environments where they develop their own questions and responses in the spirit of the former, all build cognitive presence in our online classrooms.

Cognitive presence begins in decisions about the content itself: What will we cover? Where will we place our energies and focus? It continues with decisions about assignments that will best take students deeper into that content. What learning activities will most immerse students in ways that promote critical inquiry and application in meaningful ways?

Online instructors facilitate cognitive presence in a variety of ways. Decisions and activities that illustrate this component include:

  • Selecting learning activities that spark intellectual curiosity about content and concepts;
  • Drawing from a range of sources to provide an appropriate content foundation for the work students will be doing;
  • Facilitating discussions that engage with and critically analyze different perspectives related to the concept covered;
  • Creating an environment for civil discourse, where those multiple perspectives are valued;
  • Encouraging students to explore relevant resources and sharing key insights and connections to concepts discussed in the course;
  • Asking students to independently explore, analyze and share resources related to concepts discussed in class;
  • Helping them make connections between concepts explored and practical applications (including personal experiences and potential scenarios in future workplace settings);
  • Setting up a grading rubric for online discussions that emphasize original contributions to group understanding of a diverse range of perspectives, critical analysis of issues, and creative approaches to problem solving; and
  • Expecting, modeling and facilitating individual and collective reflection.

For my courses, cognitive presence emerges in three primary ways: unit discussions that encourage students to explore and apply key ideas and resources to situations from familiar experiences, individual or group inquiry projects that ask students to explore an aspect of the content in greater depth and apply what they are learning in meaningful ways, and embedding reflection—formal and informal—into class work.

Discussions take center stage in most of my courses. In those spaces, students are expected to participate in conversations resembling those they would have in a face-to-face setting. A couple of key differences: no one can sit in the back of the virtual “room” (active participation is expected and rewarded) and they have time to consider and write a thoughtful response.

In the case of the former, the class discussion rubric rewards students who check in regularly, post consistently over time, and actively contribute to expanding the group’s overall understanding of a topic. Busy adults occasionally balk early at the expectation that they visit the class often and participate regularly, but discover that I am right when I assure them that more frequent check-ins mean fewer posts to read at once and a more manageable setting for considering and responding to what their classmates and I share. A few will continue to struggle with that expectation, but most find a routine that fits their schedules and fosters rich interaction and learning.

The benefit of having a chance to think about what they will say certainly is not unique to my online classes, but many students regularly and voluntarily describe it as valuable. Students who share this information often also identify themselves as shy or introverted, generally more reluctant to speak up in face-to-face classes.

Individual or group inquiry projects allow students to dig deeper on a topic of interest, providing comprehensive opportunities for inquiry, exploration, integration with previous knowledge and sharing with others.

Reflection also plays an important role in the learning that takes place in my courses. Some of reflection takes place in formal settings, via assignments that ask students to share more detailed feedback to identify challenges early (mid-term reflection) or to bring closure to the course for them and me (final reflection). Some courses also have included weekly journal assignments that help students synthesize takeaways or ask lingering question.

Other reflection takes place in the moment, in the discussions where students may be asked to step back and respond to a situation or concept being discussed. They also regularly find themselves responding to prompts that help the group bring conversations to a collective close. Each facilitates reflection and continued processing of ideas and information as part of the learning process.

This is the third of a four-part series by Debra Beck outlining the Community of Inquiry framework from a postsecondary perspective. Please click below to receive updates when future installments are published.

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2015/09/09 at 11:41 am

It makes a lot of sense that students who describe themselves as introverted have an easier time with this mode of participation, even if at first the level and frequency sounds intimidating. Student who require more time to synthesize their thoughts and consider new information have just as much or more to contribute to class understanding and we need to value that contribution.

CCook 2015/09/09 at 1:04 pm

Hopefully there are ways to translate some of these principles to in-class learning where students are often faced with the choice between having to come to quick conclusions to share or fade into the background. We need to be able to create that space for students to be thoughtful and thorough in their analyses rather than just rewarding the students whose hands fly up as soon as the instructor is done talking.

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