eCoaching Tip 51 A Garden of Three Presences — Social Presence, Teaching Presence and Cognitive Presence

Oct 6, 2007 (Refreshed in 2010; Lightly revised Nov 29 2019))

eCoaching Tip 51: A Garden of Three Presences — Social Presence, Teaching Presence and Cognitive Presence

Of all the best practices for online teaching, the most important practice is “being there.” Being there is the core of presence, letting your students know that you are there to direct, to guide, to listen and to share your expertise with your learners. This tip takes you on a guide through a Garden of Three Presences for Online Teaching and Learning — Social Presence, Teaching Presence and Cognitive Presence  (Garrison, 2006, 2007). This tip defines the three types of presence and then lists tools and behaviors — for both faculty and students —that support these three types of presence.

But first, a brief segue into how I came to choose the garden metaphor for this summary of the three presences. I was recently reminded of St. Augustine’s description of memory as an “inner chamber, vast and unbounded” in which images are stored and how Augustine believed that images are not simply stored, but are gathered, acted on, and reordered to be  “ready at hand” (Tell, 2006).

In many respects Augustine’s conceptualization of memory and memory processes is similar to the constructivists’ theories of acting on, processing and storing information to make the knowledge our own.

With this as foundation, here is a tour through the garden of three presences as a way of storing, acting upon and remembering these presences. Enjoy and be sure to be present in all these ways for your students.

 The Multicolored Groundcover of Social Presence

As we start our walk through our Presence Garden, envision a groundcover awash with a rich abundance of bright and muted tones and colors. Groundcover is the metaphor equivalent of Social Presence, laying the foundation for connectedness for learning and for community.  Social presence surrounds us with its support, interest and respect.

What is Social Presence? Social presence is the ability to project oneself socially and affectively and getting to know each other as three-dimensional people despite not meeting face-to-face. Social presence is the foundation of building trust and presence for the teaching and learning experiences.

How do you achieve this? What behaviors help to create social presence?

Social presence may be the easiest and most natural of the types of presence to achieve. Sharing where you live, your family, your pets and who you are as a person, your likes and dislikes encourages students to share who they are as well. Something as simple as sharing a picture of your favorite scene or whether you stop at Starbucks every morning builds connections to you and your students. My own favorite place in the whole world is St. George Island on the Gulf of Mexico, and I make an annual visit there each February.  Although the National Gallery in Washington DC, Paris and the city of Bruges in Belgium are close behind.

Designing ways for your learners to share more of who they are is one way to help build these connections and for each to become more real to each other. All these connections lay the foundation for creating a climate of trust and safety. This climate of trust prepares the learners for your teaching presence and the cognitive presence of the community.

Tools and Behaviors by Faculty and Students for Social Presence
  • Introductions and sharing in the pre/or first week
  • A special discussion thread or forum for informal exchanges
  • Sharing times and spaces within the course site and schedule
  • Willing to think aloud about why you think what you do
  • Showing respect and care for others
  • Taking advantage of the cultural foundation and environment of your institution

 The Path-Guiding Bushes of Teaching Presence

As we walk through the garden enjoying the colors and shapes of the groundcover, we begin to see a series of paths outlined with small and large bushes. These bushes guide and channel our energies, questions and learning experiences. These bushes are the metaphor for your teaching presence.

What is a good definition of teaching presence?  Simply put, teaching presence is the work of teaching that is done before and during the course. It includes all the preparatory work in designing and developing the course and the hands-on teaching of directing and supporting the learners during the course delivery. Teaching presence is manifested in the course materials — in the syllabus, assignments, choices of readings and discussions.  Teaching presence is also manifested in everything you do to guide, support and shape the learners’ experiences.  Effective teaching presence sets clear expectations and supportive guidance.

The work by Garrison and others at the Community of Inquiry offer this more formal definition: Teaching presence is the “design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educational worthwhile learning outcomes.” (Garrison, 2006b)

Tools and Behaviors by Faculty
  • Sets clear expectations for students; is specific about how learners are to be present in the learning events
  • Is visibly present in the course site every day if possible; is substantively present at least four days a week.
  • Coaches and guides learners to keep pace with their learning and think deeply about what they know and why they know it
  • Encourages questions regarding activities, assignments, etc.
  • Restates assignments, coaches the pacing on assignments, provides rubrics
  • Helps students not to be surprised by course requirements and events
  • Uses announcement tools to ensure students are aware of responsibilities, due dates and other activities
  • Uses email or other private communications for confidential correspondence and gentle and firm guidance as might be needed

The Open, Tended and Untended Spaces or Jungles of Cognitive Presence

The garden paths lead us to garden spaces of all kinds. We see open spaces ready for gentle planting of seeds and small plants; tended spaces with flowers, plants, and bushes carefully organized; and untended wild spaces, almost jungles, filled with untested ideas, unverified meanings and overgrown and hidden biases.

What is cognitive presence?  Here is one way to describe it. Cognitive presence is the extent to which a group of learners are able to “construct meaning through sustained communication.” (Garrison, 2007)

Cognitive presence requires attention, effort and commitment from both the faculty and the learners in a course community.  What is achieved with cognitive presence is an understanding on an intellectual level and on an affective level that the learning activities involve and tap into existing real meaning structures. Integrating existing learning with new learning requires knowledge, reflection, discussion and confirming of meaning.

Tools and Behaviors by Faculty and Students
  • Faculty sets high expectations for student inquiry and expectations
  • Faculty examine student responses and then probes, challenges, questions learners, thereby encouraging thought and analysis of ideas
  • Learners participate thoughtfully in the discussions, responding to content and thoughts and questions from other learners so that a “sustained communication” occurs.
  • Faculty and students strive to ensure that project outcomes are long-lasting and meaningful.

Cognitive presence requires a focus on meaning. This may mean that depth and problem solving is favored over concept awareness and covering content. Tending the cognitive presence section of the garden is not for the faint of heart. It requires time, listening, reflecting and careful responding to encourage sustained conversation.

More on cognitive presence is in eCoaching Tip 36 Cognitive Presence in Online Courses — Are You Doing It?

Leaving the Garden of Three Presences

As you and your students complete a course, the natural process of the last week or so is a pruning and focusing time.  It is a time to “fix” one part of the garden in one’s memory and move on.  There is time to do another section in another course. Yet all the sections of the garden flow together and complement and enhance the other.

We could probably work on this summary and improve the metaphors immeasurably, but this is all for now and I welcome shaping ideas.

I hope you have enjoyed this walk through the Garden of Three Presences. And that this these images will make it easier to remember presence and how to achieve it.


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

Garrison, D. (2007). Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive and teaching presence issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1), 61-72. Retrieved from

Tell, David.  Beyond Mnemotechnics: Confession and Memory in Augustine.  Philosophy and Rhetoric. Vol. 39, no. 3, 2006. pp. 233-253.

Note: These E-coaching 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 and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by