eCoaching Tip 55 Getting an Early Start on Cognitive Presence

January 21, 2008; Checked March 23 2020

eCoaching Tip 55 – Getting an Early Start on Cognitive Presence

This tip focuses on ways instructors can get an early start on cognitive presence in their courses. As you may recall from other tips, we are present cognitively when we construct and confirm constructing and confirming meaning about ideas through sustained discussion. (Garrison, 2008).  In other words, cognitive presence focuses on strategies that support learners’ understanding and use of course content.

How do we do this?  What do we know about engaging students in sustained discussion about significant ideas?  How do we know what they already know?

We often wait until the middle or even the late middle of a course before students get involved with complex or difficult problems, but today’s students want to dig in and become involved in “real” stuff from the very beginning. This is actually a good learning strategy.  Working with real life problems helps learners connect the course content to real problems and challenges.

Doing Complex Thinking More Quickly

Here is a learning strategy to get your students doing complex thinking quickly.  Start with a real challenge. What do we mean by that? Rather than starting your course with the easier, less complex problems, start with the type of problem intended in your learning outcomes.

Here’s how to do this. In one of your initial discussion postings, require each student to describe a problem, question or difficult question they have about the course content. This may mean that they start at the back of their textbook — with continuing issues, problems, or future directions and research.

Direct them to select a case study or scenario that is challenging and that they want to know how to (1) address, (2) manage, (3) resolve, (4) develop expertise, or (5) develop a set of alternative strategies.

Yes, there can be problems with starting with difficult problems at course  beginnings.   What are they and what can you do?

Possible Problems with this Strategy

  1. Students might complain that they do not know enough to know what they want to know. This is actually a valid complaint.To ask really intelligent questions requires knowing enough to frame a question.

One response to the learners is that the problems and tasks and goals they specify only need to fit where they are in their current state of knowledge.  The problems do not have to be earth shattering, but they should be challenging for the individual. The purpose of this strategy is to get them actively engaged, to stir up their brain cells about the content to do some initial mind mapping of the upcoming course content.  We want them to think about how they will use the course content in some way in their lives.

Another response is that — over the course of the course —  these problems and questions will serve as touchstones or measures of what they have learned and the useful skills and areas of knowledge yet to be explored and worked with.

  1. A second response from the students is that they might complain that this will take too much time.Well, it may take a bit longer than they had planned for the first week, but it will be worth it.
  2. Students might also respond that they would like to do this task with someone else. Actually that is a good strategy as students can begin talking and expressing their ideas verbally or in writing immediately. Students can choose, for example, to work in teams of two for this task. Teams of three might work, but the goal is to really engage the students, so two is recommended. Working in teams for this task requires students to get to know at least one other person well enough to get a sense of what the other student believes and their goals and the potential relevance of the course content to the other learner as well.

Benefits of This Strategy

Posing a cognitive challenge in the first week also has many benefits.  Here are a few and you may well come up with many more.

  1. Developing a question requires thinking, reflecting, and broad ranging panic usually – but is a powerful strategy in helping the students look forward and getting a sense of the course content, problem space, and discipline perspectives and then fitting it into what they know or don’t know.
  2. With this dialogue you will get a look inside your students’ heads — getting to know their zones of proximal development, as Vygotsky would say. You will get a sense of the depth and breadth of any preexisting knowledge that students have about this topic through the problems and challenges identified by the students. This can be good news, or bad news as you may find yourself wondering if you need to redesign your course for a better match to your particular students.
  3. Developing a list of the problems, tasks, and issues identified by the students creates a personalized, customized problem set for the course. By creating their own set of problems, the students are providing teaching directions for themselves and they can — over the course of the term — come back to them, and revise, address, change, etc, in light of the new knowledge, content, and perspectives of the course.
  4. The set of problems posed by the students also provides a base of common learning outcomes for the class as a whole.This is an additional foundation for community and sustained conversation.  As course topics are discussed, critical questions focusing on relationships, issues and directions can refer back to these challenges. For example, a common on-going course question might be one of these relationship questions, such as
    • How does this content help illuminate or recast any of our first week course challenges?
    • How is this content related to XX?
  1. These types of questions lead to another benefit as the course is quickly launched as a community of inquiry problem-solving experience (Garrison and Arbaugh, 2007 and Garrison, 2004). We talked about this problem-solving model in eCoaching Tip 36 Cognitive Presence — Are You Doing It?

There are four steps in that model.   Here it is again for your convenience:

  • Triggering event — the problem, challenge, task proposed by you, the faculty member as part of the design of your course. This means a focus on problem-solving for part of your course goals. (Note:  Now you have a number of problems as posed by the students.)
  • 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, requests for feedback on ideas, etc.
  • 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.

Tools for Supporting First Week Challenges

As suggested earlier, you can use a discussion forum area for students to post their problems, challenges, and questions. Another option is to use a blogging tool. The blogging tool is very well suited to this experience as it provides ownership and identity of the blog and sustained conversation over time.  Each of your students or teams of students can use their blog for their own particular challenge, question or problem and you and all the students in the class can return to that blog space as the question, challenge becomes clearer or ideas and resources to help with it are found.


Boettcher, J. V. (2007, 2012). eCoaching Tip 36: Cognitive Presence in Online Courses — Are You Doing It? Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2004). Critical Thinking, Cognitive Presence, and Computer Conferencing in Distance Education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1). Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2007). Researching the community of inquiry framework:  Review, issues and future directions. The Internet and Higher Education, 10, 157 – 172.

Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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 at judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2020