Communities of Inquiry (CoI): Cognitive Presence

Throughout this series, we’ve unpacked the three presences of Charles Sander Peirce’s Community of Inquiry (CoI) model. In my previous posts, we’ve looked at social and teaching presence. Cognitive presence, the final presence, combines both social and teaching presence. Today we’ll discuss how you can incorporate cognitive presence in your online course.

Venn Diagram Shows the Community of Inquiry Model
Community of Inquiry Model

What Is Cognitive Presence?

Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2001) define cognitive presence as the extent to which students “are able to construct meaning through sustained communication.” In other words, students are more likely to grasp and retain information when you create assignments and activities about that topic.

For example, one of my favorite graduate classes, Strategic Media Analysis, focused on the art of cinema. For our Media Evaluation project, we compared two films of our choice in a PowerPoint. On the final slide, we explained which film we believed told its story more effectively based on how the film’s creative departments amplified, reinforced, and further communicated the narrative. This project provided opportunities for sustained communication about the course curriculum. It also helped me and my classmates grasp and retain the lessons we were learning.

In his article, Cognitive Presence and Critical Thinking (2017), Garrison asserts that cognitive presence is “a process of inquiry that includes thinking, listening and expressing thoughts in the process of critical discourse.” He stresses that cognitive presence “cannot be understood in isolation; it is a purposeful and collaborative process interdependent with teaching and social presence” (Garrison 2017). Cognitive presence allows you and your students to explore concepts of the course through collaborative discussion.

This third presence revolves around “practical inquiry and critical thinking” (Beck 2015). You create the ideal environment for cognitive presence when you help students engage in critical thinking and encourage them to develop their own questions and responses in a spirit of practical inquiry.

Implementing Cognitive Presence

Much like teaching presence, cognitive presence begins during the design of a course. When online instructors “interact with the content of a course, engage in critical thinking about concepts and issues in the learning community, and apply knowledge to appropriately challenging assignments” cognitive presence begins to take shape in an online course (Beck 2015). In her article, Beck (2015) highlights several decisions and activities that illustrate cognitive presence, including:

  • Drawing from a range of sources to provide an appropriate content foundation for the work students will be doing.
  • Creating an environment for civil discourse, where multiple perspectives are valued.
  • Helping students make connections between concepts explored and practical applications (including personal experiences and potential scenarios in future workplace settings).
  • Expecting, modeling, and facilitating individual and collective reflection.

Cognitive presence focuses on helping students connect and apply new ideas. Remember, if students perceive your course content and activities as relevant to their personal needs and/or goals, they’ll be motivated to learn and remember the content long after your class ends. I kept this in mind when I recently redeveloped my online speech course. I included several opportunities for students to connect and apply the new ideas and techniques they would learn about public speaking.

Throughout the class, my students analyzed TED Talk speakers as well as provided feedback on their classmates’ weekly speeches. In their final Discussion Board, they reflected on how they would apply the ideas and techniques they learned to their lives. My students also applied these ideas and techniques as they presented their final speeches to their classmates in real time.

Aside from a couple minor technical glitches (outside of our control), my students really enjoyed their final speech assignment along with the community they formed with their peers. This is what the Community of Inquiry model is all about.

Cognitive Presence in your Classroom

As instructional designers and educators, we should empower our students with invaluable skills that they will use the rest of their lives. Our course design, as well as our instruction, must reflect this mission. While Communities of Inquiry do not form overnight, you can take simple steps to infuse the different the presences of the model in your design and your teaching. As you consider what we’ve discussed in this series, think of ways you can:

  • Build relationships and community with your students
  • Design and facilitate discourse, as well as add human dimension to your course
  • Help students connect and apply the new ideas they are learning
  • Encourage students to live out the lessons you teach them

What is one way you plan to build a stronger Community of Inquiry? What is your biggest takeaway from this series? We’d love to hear about them in the comments or on Twitter!


Beck, D. (2015, September 9). Community of inquiry: Cognitive presence. The EvoLLLution, Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R. (2017, September 5). Cognitive presence and critical thinking [Editorial]. Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical Thinking, Cognitive Presence, and Computer Conferencing in Distance Education. American Journal of Distance Education.

Author: Ann Broda, Instructional Designer

Ann is pursuing her PhD in Communication through Regent University and also teaches speech online at Olivet Nazarene University. In her free time she enjoys spending time with family and friends, participating in theatre, drinking coffee, biking, traveling, and reading.

3 thoughts on “Communities of Inquiry (CoI): Cognitive Presence”

  1. I still don’t understand what cognitive presence is separate from teaching and social presence.

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