Cognitive Presence

Winnie the Pooh taps his head as the word "think" is on the screen.

The final factor in the community of inquiry model is cognitive presence, the “exploration, construction, resolution and confirmation of understanding through collaboration and reflection” (Joo et al., 2011, p. 1655). In other words, cognitive presence is the intellectual and mental effort and processes required for learning. As cognitive presence is linked to collaboration and reflection, it is heavily influenced by the communication strategies and methods used within the course (Garrison et al., 1999).

With online courses, it can sometimes be easy to passively consume content and get to the end of the course without truly learning. The MOOC is structured in a way that requires active engagement from the learner, and therefore, cognitive presence.

Every section of the course ends with a practice activity that serves as a knowledge check and helps students confirm their understanding of the concept. Some of these practice activities include:

  • Pairing activities which require the learner to match two related concepts, or pair together to parts of a phrase
  • Sequencing activities in which  the learner must put the words in the correct order to figure out the phrase or sentence that describes a concept
  • Sorting activities require the learner to categorize items, such as sorting habits into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories, or identifying if certain practices are ‘open’ or ‘closed.’
  • Selection activities ask the learner to identify the correct items in relation to the concept presented
  • Drag and drop activities in which the learner matches two concepts or phrases

The variety of different practice activities available helps enhance cognitive presence, as the learner does not feel as though the activities are repetitive. Many activities essentially ask the learner to perform the same type of cognitive tasks, but the different structure of the activity makes it seem new and different.  However, some activities require greater cognitive presence than others, and are better suited to helping a learner check their understanding. Sequencing activities, for example, as well as some pairing activities, often assess a learner’s ability to string together a coherent sentence more than they assess their knowledge of the content.

Every section of the course also ended with an explore activity. These activities, facilitated via either the discussion board or Padlet, required the learner to provide their perspective on the content, share an example from their life, or find example content from other places on the internet to share with their classmates. These activities forced the learner to actively engage with content; however, since this was not a graded course, a learner had no feedback on their participation in these activities, and it is possible that examples that they shared were not relevant and correct, but they would never know.

Learners were also provided with the opportunity to check their knowledge of the concepts introduced in a module through quizzes that were offered at the end of the module. Learners were allowed to complete these quizzes as many times as they wanted, an approach that has two immediate consequences. First, if a learner does not correctly answer a question the first time, they have an opportunity to shift their understanding and correct their knowledge through an additional attempt. Simultaneously, this approach also means that the learner may be getting correct answers simply through guessing, without making an effort to revisit material they didn’t understand; limiting the number of attempts would increase the pressure that a learner feels to know the content before pressing ‘start.’

Finally, the learning portfolio that learners were asked to develop throughout the course provided an opportunity for the learner to reflect on how the course content directly impacted them as a learner or teacher, and to identify ways they could incorporate their learning into their everyday life and practices. This was a further way for learners to apply knowledge in a way that was personally meaningful.


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Learning To Learn Online by Nicole Crozier and Joanna Lake is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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