Cognitive Presence

Topic Progress:

Arguably, among the most important goals of higher education is to produce graduates grounded in the theory, practice and latest thinking both in their discipline and the increasingly important broader social context.  As such, it is incumbent upon higher education institutions to provide those experiences which will allow students the opportunity to develop and practice the skills necessary to think critically within their ever changing environments.

But it is one thing for an educator to say that students will learn to think critically in a particular course, and it is quite another to actually make it so. Kanuka and Garrison 1 argue that asynchronous, text-based communications, such as blogs or online discussion forums, can be effectively leveraged to facilitate critical thinking. However, they note that it is not sufficient to simply try to replicate a typical classroom experience in an online setting. The web enables different ways of interacting with content and ideas as well as different ways of expressing thoughts and ideas.

Among the significant advantages of the online environment may be the simple fact that the asynchronous nature of many online interactions allows time for learners to process their thoughts with respect to any given idea. Too easily, in f2f discussion settings, those who are extroverted and verbally gifted can monopolize the conversation at the expense of those who are more introverted and less likely to share ideas verbally as they need to take time to consider their thoughts and words. Thus, a f2f environment could be unbalanced and favour those quick thinking and verbally articulate individuals.

Expressed in terms of the CoI model, it seems that asynchronous communication on the web could then allow a greater number of participants to engage in sustained communication for the purpose of constructing educationally meaningful knowledge when compared to either a f2f discussion or a large lecture-based environment.

Modeling Cognitive Presence

Garrison, Anderson and Archer 2 proposed the practical inquiry model to visualize how learners engage in the processes of critical thinking.

Practical Inquiry Model

Practical Inquiry Figure

Garrison, Anderson, and Archer’s practical inquiry model (above) is an idealized heuristic showing the processes in which critical thinkers engage. It is not meant to indicate that the order of events is unalterable. In fact, it is most likely that learners will engage in an iterative process whereby they revisit each step multiple times and in random order when considering an idea.

Triggering Event

The bottom left corner of the diagram represents the initial trigger for the process. The trigger can be in the form of a challenging question, the realization of a misconception, or discovering data that challenges an idea. The trigger typically results in a sense of puzzlement, or sometimes cognitive dissonance and unease as previous ideas are challenged.


Following the triggering event, the learner will engage in the process of exploring ways to resolve the tension between what they thought they knew and the data or question that has brought that knowledge into question.


Once the learner has identified potential ways to resolve their question or concern, they begin the process of integrating the new data or information into their previous knowledge to form a coherent and integrated model of the idea.


Finally, the learner will reach a stage of resolution leading to justified action. It is possible that the future action will be based on a new and more coherent model, or it may be that the ‘resolution’ actually leads to further questions and becomes a triggering event itself.

Collaborative Constructivism

Also shown on the diagram is the idea that the processes associated with cognitive presence and critical thinking are not solely internal to the individual learner. There is also a public element as the learner interacts with others. After the initial triggering event, the result of new information in the shared world of knowledge, the processes of exploration and integration occur in the learner’s private world, culminating in the learner sharing with others in discourse.



  1. Kanuka, H., & Garrison, D. R. (2004). Cognitive presence in online learning. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15, 21-39. doi:10.1007/BF02940928
  2. Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15, 7-23. doi:10.1080/08923640109527071