Using communication before content to develop cognitive presence

Cognitive presence goes beyond physical presence and enables students to feel comfortable in the learning environment, writes Alison Thirlwall. It puts the educator in students’ minds as a supporter and guide

Alison Thirlwall's avatar
University of Wollongong
27 Dec 2023
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Female university students in class

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The instruction from the administrator – that students must not be allowed to leave class to move their cars – made my heart sink. Students who are worried about parking fees find it hard to engage with content, so teaching is wasted.

Of course, students can be distracted in numerous ways because, like everyone, they have competing challenges in their lives. Other issues could include fear or shyness of their classmates, educators and administrators. The need for greater connection with students beyond the traditional classroom relationship, to support engagement and a sense of inclusion, became apparent during the pandemic, and these practices are still valuable now that face-to-face learning has returned.

So, this article offers advice about reducing distraction and developing openness to learning.

What is cognitive presence?

Ensuring that you, as an educator, are cognitively present for your students is a key way to connect with them in the classroom. Cognitive presence goes beyond physical presence and enables students to feel comfortable in the learning environment; it puts the educator in students’ minds as a supporter and guide. Providing multiple opportunities for students and educators to connect breaks barriers and leads to better learning experiences. By sharing concerns, students can approach content with a clearer mind and the confidence that others have challenges, too. Connecting through different channels can also enable students to communicate with each other, which helps them recognise their value as a member of the class. A sense of community gives learners the confidence to ask questions and find solutions to challenges presented by the subject.

How to improve cognitive presence in your classroom

I have been using a “communication before content” approach for more than three years to gain students’ trust, reduce distractions and prepare them for learning. I have noticed the difference in the level of student comfort in the class and their willingness to engage with me in a constructive fashion. Surveys show that students are happy, too. Here are six tips to boost cognitive presence in your classes.

Email out weekly class updates

Send an email early in the week that contains details of the topic and the planned activities, plus assessment reminders and anything interesting or useful. As the connection develops, you can include a comment about what you have been doing – such as going for a swim or enjoying a film – to share a personal connection. Add a reminder about contact details to encourage students to raise any issues, so you know if anyone needs extra support. Once a basic template is designed, it is easy to update and refresh each week to keep it interesting.

Make a student a class representative

Appoint a willing volunteer as class representative to provide a link between the educator and students, especially for those who are less confident or culturally more remote. The representative is a conduit for two-way communication between students and educator. You can make the choice of representative democratic; students can vote anonymously via an app, such as Mentimeter, or use a random selection tool, like Wheel of Names, if they are reluctant to decide. Put the class representative’s picture and contact details on the learning management system (LMS) to show the importance of the role.

Encourage a WhatsApp group that doesn’t include the teacher

The class representative creates and manages a class WhatsApp group that students use without the educator’s involvement. This is ideal for gathering repeat queries and allowing students to make anonymous requests through the class representative. Also, the class rep can load the weekly update to the WhatsApp group for those who do not read their emails, and students can respond directly to each other’s queries, adding to the sense of community.

Be consistent with class materials on the LMS

Being clear and consistent with the presentation of learning materials helps students know where to find items. Show which activities are compulsory, so learners can manage their time effectively, which helps to reduce their stress. Give a variety of resources, including video clips and news articles, to keep the theory fresh and interesting, and use formative online quizzes to give students low-stakes challenges. Put your contact details and picture on the LMS to reinforce cognitive presence.

Share students’ work and feedback

Use Padlet for displaying students’ work. Showing comments gives everyone a chance to see how they are doing and pick up ideas from their classmates. The system has many options, such as recording and loading slides, to keep it interesting and fun. It is useful for demonstrating and encouraging constructive feedback from all users. It also results in a handy record of activities for future reference.

Use icebreakers and visual support to drive engagement

Icebreakers help reduce anxiety about working with strangers. Have a quiet individual introduction on Padlet in the first week. Then encourage more social, pair or group introductions later when teams have to be formed and confidence has increased.

Pictures of interesting assessments or guest-speaker visits allow students to see themselves and feel part of something special

These are ways educators can connect with students to encourage them to open their minds to learning and block out the distractions. Of course, these approaches take extra time to develop but the results are excellent because students appreciate the personal support.

Finally, Reader, I don’t know who has a car.

Alison Thirlwall is associate professor of management in the School of Business at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, UAE.

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