How to develop cognitive presence in your learning community

In an effective learning community, students feel safe to challenge their own preconceptions and reflect on their progress. Here, Hannah Shaw and Mike Hackman offer quick, effective wins to develop cognitive presence in and beyond the classroom


Cardiff University
29 Apr 2024
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Engaged female student in lecture raising hand
image credit: iStock/Drazen Zigic.

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In learning communities, students and teachers work as partners towards course outcomes. These partnerships ensure that students maximise their cognitive engagement both in the classroom and between learning sessions. 

We have worked with dozens of staff and students to co-create a toolkit based around Garrison’s community of inquiry framework. The toolkit provides staff and students with a survey to analyse their learning communities and, more importantly, what actions each party can take to make improvements.

Cognitive presence is focused on developing critical thinking and reflective discussion of course content, empowering students to construct meaning and understanding. While we all aim for lesson design that is cognitively engaging, analysis of the survey results from our toolkit suggests this is where the biggest discord between the learner and teacher perception often exists.

In an earlier Campus article, we focused on social presence, as laid out by Garrison’s framework. Here, we aim to help you, as educators, achieve greater cognitive presence within your learning community. These tips have been selected from a database of suggestions we have collated with the help of dozens of academic and professional staff. All suggestions were reviewed by students to ensure they are practical, helpful and inclusive.

Contextualise the content of your learning sessions

As we build and develop our courses, educators should remember that learners cannot always see the bigger picture, and they might be unsure why certain content and activities have been included. We must therefore provide context at the beginning of each session so learners can understand the relevance of the topic. A slide that highlights how the learning outcomes link to the programme aims, graduate attributes or career pathways can be a way to communicate this. Or you could ask learners themselves to discuss why they think the topic might be important and identify a real-world application for a more effective and learner-oriented approach.

Additionally, sometimes learners can struggle to see the personal and professional skills they are developing within your sessions. Tasking them with writing reflective blogs that summarise what they have learned and the skills they have developed can help to bring this to the forefront. Students could do this anonymously and upload their work to a central location so they can learn from each other. You could then encourage group discussion of their reflections to enhance this process.

Keep students actively engaged

In higher education institutions, particularly in large-cohort programmes, the default method for delivering content is often didactic lectures. However, dialogue with the teacher and among learners is important for enhancing cognitive engagement. The importance of this active engagement cannot be overestimated.

Give students a break from didactic teaching every 15 to 20 minutes and encourage them to share their thoughts on the topic. Or challenge students with a brainstorming task to apply their knowledge.

Digital tools can be valuable in stimulating discussion outside the classroom and continuing cognitive engagement between sessions. Create discussion boards around topics that are interesting and engaging. Assure your students that any and all posts are welcome as long as they build on the discussion and are based on evidence. This can help to encourage contributions.

Support your students to participate in two-way exchanges

Asking your students questions can help to develop their social and cognitive engagement with the topic. To support students in engaging with our questions, our classrooms and lecture theatres need to be safe spaces for debate. 

In our previous article, we offered tips for building a strong social presence, to enhance student participation and encourage collaborative learning. These next tips build on that foundation to help lively discussions develop in response to your questions.

Start off with simple queries (for example, ask for definitions or personal opinions) and be sure to acknowledge and thank students for their contributions. You can provide an online space for contributions as well as offer multiple means of responding.

If your students are reluctant to respond to questions, offer them anonymous discussion tools such as Mentimeters or Padlets. Then, gradually build them up so they discuss their thoughts in pairs/groups before contributing to the discussion board. 

Finally, you can ask groups to volunteer an expansion of what they have written on the discussion board to start generating that whole-class discussion.

As you ask more challenging questions – that is, ones that require students to make connections across topics – allow them to discuss possible answers with each other before contributing.

Finally, use Socratic questioning to stretch your students and encourage them to challenge their perceptions and opinions. Here are questions to get you started: 

  • Is that always true/accurate? 
  • What evidence is there to support your point? 
  • What if you’re wrong? 
  • Why am I asking you about this? 

These questions can be expanded to the whole class to encourage wider contributions. 

Developing and fostering a strong cognitive presence in your learning communities will ensure students appreciate the contextual value of their learning and are equipped for active engagement in your course. Don’t underestimate the importance of a safe space for critical discourse to support students to challenge their preconceptions and recognise the broader views of a topic. As the cognitive presence develops, you will notice that students will more enthusiastically participate in tasks, ask higher-level questions to assist problem-solving and draw more authentic links across their learning experiences.

Hannah Shaw is a reader in anatomy and Mike Hackman is a learning designer, both at Cardiff University.

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