Online cognitive presence – does your topic have it?

Over recent weeks we have been looking at various kinds of online presence (i.e. social, teaching and affective) keeping students engaged with you and each other in a friendly and non-threatening learning environment. Equally important is that they can engage in deep and meaningful learning and to this end, it’s timely to consider what ‘thinking’ or cognitive presence your FLO site has.

Cognitive presence can be thought of as “the extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a Community of Inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication” (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, 2000, p.89). In order to do this, there needs to be trust between you and your students so that students go beyond that ‘check-box’ approach to learning and engage in more meta-cognition around their learning.

This is where having that social and teaching presence established is important. Consider your topic’s cognitive presence in terms of to what extent engaging in the learning activities via FLO is intellectually challenging for the students.

For students to construct meaning, student-student and student-teacher interaction is needed as well as opportunities for critical thinking and collaborative problem solving. The quality and quantity of these impacts overall cognitive presence. What kinds of activities are you asking of your students? Lots of only watching, reading and quizzes do not make for a good quality cognitive presence. Students will bore easily and potentially disengage because of the lack of intellectual challenge. Littky (2004) suggests a focus on the ‘three Rs’ of student engagement:

  1. Relevance – prompting student curiosity and making connections to previous learning and knowledge.
  2. Rigour – asking students to solve problems that are meaningful to them personally.
  3. Relationships – designing a learning environment where students can work collaboratively.

So, what can you do to keep students cognitively engaged? Consider the following:

  • Alignment of learning outcomes and learning activities – students need to understand the purpose and relevance of the learning activities. Ensure they are explicitly aligned with learning outcomes and emphasise how they address the learning outcomes. Think of creative higher order learning activities and assessments to keep students engaged. Make sure you highlight these in the topic booklet along with links to Flinders Learning and Teaching principles and other resources used to develop them.
  • Ensure the FLO site makes sense – are resources easy to find? Are learning activities and their order clear? A clearly navigable FLO site is invaluable in a good quality cognitive presence. The FLO topic baseline is a great place to start.
  • Background knowledge check – ask students to complete an introductory survey to get a feel for what they know and why they are doing the topic. Share results back to the students at the beginning of semester and maybe get them to discuss these in small groups in relation to their own learning goals to help with social cohesion. You may also adjust some of the learning activities accordingly, if appropriate.
  • Encourage discussion forum participation – welcome students, set expectations and moderate forums to model how a good discussion forum can be helpful for exploring ideas and developing knowledge. By making connections to other students’ posts and out to external links, readings and other media you can make connections to learning outcomes explicit for the students. Encourage critical thought and reflection.
  • Provide usable feedback – this is crucial for students to improve. Students can also benefit from peer feedback so think about including this somewhere in your topic.

In summary, think about how you are challenging your students with factual, conceptual and theoretical knowledge. Review your FLO site to ensure:

  • content (both remedial and extended) is easily available
  • structure / flow of your site is clear
  • there are both individual and group assignments
  • quizzes are appropriately challenging and confirm students’ understanding.


Written by Cassandra Hood
Academic Developer – CILT

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). Retrieved from

Littky, D., & Grabelle, S. (2004). The big picture: Education is everyone’s business. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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