eCoaching Tip 36 Cognitive Presence in Online Courses — Are You Doing It?

February 16 2007 (Refreshed Aug 13 2012; Checked Nov 11 2019)

eCoaching Tip 36: Cognitive Presence in Online Courses — Are You Doing It?

How would you rate yourself and your course on the scale of cognitive presence?”

As a refresher, cognitive presence is one of the three presences identified by Garrison and others in their Community of Inquiry model. The essential character of cognitive presence is that learners are able to “construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

This tip focuses on the concept of cognitive presence —  what it is and what we can do to increase it. Cognitive presence is a highly desirable feature of any course as it fuses three key ingredients for successful and effective online learning: practical inquiry, critical thinking and community-building.

Previous tips encouraged including learning experiences that promote social presence, sharing who we are, both personally and professionally, so that we create a climate of trust and belonging. A climate of trust then serves to support “interaction and a questioning predisposition” (Garrison, 2006). Thus, social presence might be considered a precondition for cognitive presence, as we need a climate of trust to express and say what we think and thus to build understanding and meaning.

What is Cognitive Presence?

Cognition is a fundamental characteristic of any learning event, as our brain must physically change for lasting learning to occur. Cognitive presence is sharing how our brain is adapting, integrating, thinking and sometimes struggling with concepts, ideas and structure. It is a presence that requires that we observe our own learning processes and how we build and confirm meaning. It is a rich concept with many dimensions and possibilities.

Given the richness of this concept you may want to consider this tip as a first look at cognitive presence that lays the groundwork for deeper thinking. If you would like to know more about cognitive presence sooner rather than later, check out the research site at the University of Calgary called “Communities of Inquiry” —

1. More about What Cognitive Presence is…

The definitions of cognitive presence in the literature are generally derived from the work by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2001). Here is a slightly expanded definition of cognitive presence that emphasizes the “meaning” work that learners are doing.

Cognitive presence is defined as the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained discourse in a critical community of inquiry.”  (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

Another definition of cognitive presence combines community with concept growth. I think this is a particular fitting definition for the online teaching and learning environment.  “Cognitive presence is the process of constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry”. (Garrison, 2006)

If collaborative inquiry is part of cognitive presence, this implies the existence of (1) a community of learners, and (2) interaction that includes meaningful discourse including traditional critical thinking processes.

These definitions focus on the construction of meaning through a process of inquiry. This means a shift from “lecturing and telling” to questioning, probing and open inquiry.  Thinking of cognitive presence as talking or writing about our thinking also suggests the importance of reflecting and thinking time in courses and grappling with problems for which there may not be ready answers.

2.  Model of Practical Inquiry Supports Goal of Cognitive Presence

The theory on cognitive presence links back to Dewey’s work on reflective thinking and practical inquiry (1933) and the literature and research on critical thinking as well as the concept development theory work in Vygotsky (1968). This means that achieving cognitive presence in your course requires a focus on higher-order knowledge acquisition and application.

Here is a way to design for achieving cognitive presence in your course that builds on the strategies for problem formulation and resolution strategies.  Think of it as a process of inquiry with four phases (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008).

Depending on your course length and your course goals, you can design these phases and steps into your course either once or multiple times.

  • Triggering event — the problem, challenge, task proposed by you, the instructor  in your course design. This means modeling and coaching in the use of  problem-solving strategies as a way of achieving some of your course goals.
  • Exploration — the process of both individual reflection by the students and the discourse through which the problem formulation occurs. Some of the indicators that exploration is occurring are divergent ideas, exchange of information, brainstorming, and requests for feedback on ideas.
  • Integration — the process by which the members of the community reflect individually and as a group and then reach some convergences by connecting ideas, identifying relationships and patterns, and proposing solutions.
  • Resolution — the group or larger community applies and tests solutions in the real world scenarios. Learners defend their resolutions and the thinking that supports them.

As noted in the beginning of this tip, achieving cognitive presence is a complex process that occurs over an entire course. You may find that preparing triggering events and exploration activities easier than the steps of integration or resolution.


Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think (1998 Edition ed.). Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., &  Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 1-19. Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1).

Garrison, D. R. (2006). Online collaboration principles. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(1). Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2008). Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, Principles, and Guidelines.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Vaughan, N., & Garrison, D. R. (2005). Creating cognitive presence in a blended faculty development community The Internet and Higher Education,  8(1), 1-12. Retrieved from

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes.Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Note: These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized, expanded and updated  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2016) coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2019