IT Teaching Resources

Cognitive presence in asynchronous online learning

This article examines the contribution of four scenario‐based online discussion strategies

Article Research Promising practices

Title: Cognitive Presence in Asynchronous Online Learning: A Comparison of Four Discussion Strategies
Authors: A. Darabi, M.C. Arrastia, D.W. Nelson, T. Cornille & X. Liang

Key points

  • Questioning in online spaces does not have the same effects as in-person experiences
  • Scaffolding questions in discussions can help trigger deeper, more personal, connected responses
  • Authentic scenarios facilitate greater cognitive demand in online spaces

Some scholars argue that students do not achieve higher-level learning, or cognitive presence, in online courses. Online discussion has been proposed to bridge this gap between online and face‐to‐face learning environments. However, the literature indicates that the conventional approach to the online discussion – asking probing questions – does not necessarily advance the discussion through the phases of cognitive presence: triggering events, exploration, integration, and resolution, which are crucial for deep knowledge construction. Using mixed methods, we examined the contribution of four scenario‐based online discussion strategies – structured, scaffolded, debate, and role-play – to the learners’ cognitive presence, the outcome of the discussion. Learners’ discussion postings within each strategy were segmented and categorized according to the four phases. The discussion strategies, each using the same authentic scenario, were then compared in terms of the number of segments representing these phases. We found that the structured strategy, while highly associated with triggering events, produced no discussion pertaining to the resolution phase. The scaffolded strategy, on the other hand, showed a strong association with the resolution phase. The debate and role‐play strategies were highly associated with exploration and integration phases. We concluded that discussion strategies requiring learners to take a perspective in an authentic scenario facilitate cognitive presence, and thus critical thinking and higher levels of learning. We suggest a heuristic for sequencing a series of discussion forums and recommend areas for further related research.

What would this look like in a course?
  • Be intentional about breakout group configuration, and consider if randomized breakout groups are the best strategy given the objectives of the discussion.
  • Consider the appropriateness of discussion questions, when to use discussion questions, what group size to size plan for, and how to craft the most effective discussion questions.

Darabi, A., Arrastia, M. C., Nelson, D. W., Cornille, T., & Liang, X. (2011). Cognitive presence in asynchronous online learning: A comparison of four discussion strategies. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning27(3), 216-227.