Enhancing Cognitive Presence in Online Case Discussions with Questions Based on the Practical Inquiry Model

Author Information
Ayesha Sadaf
Larisa Olesova
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Ball State University
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
George Mason University
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

Despite the growing body of research on the effects of different strategies on cognitive presence in online discussions, there is little known about the design of questions that may influence cognitive presence in online discussions. Cognitive presence is associated with ‘the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse in a critical community of inquiry’ (Garrison et al., 2001, p. 11). The concept of cognitive presence emerged from the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework proposed by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000), to guide the use of online learning environments in support of social constructivist approach to learning. In this practice, we designed discussion questions with the Practical Inquiry Model (PIM) to increase cognitive presence in online discussions. During online discussions, students were presented a case followed by four question prompts representing four levels–Triggereing, exploration, integration, and resolution–of cognitive presence. The results of the practice showed that students’ responses to questions based on the PIM resulted in higher levels of students’ cognitive presence, i.e., integration of ideas and resolution of problems. Other findings are provided in the support document to validate the efficacy of the use of discussion questions designed with PIM as an effective practice for online learning. I also discuss how the use of PIM questions aligns with the Online Learning Consortium’s Five Pillars of Quality Online Education.
This practice can help instructors design more effective question prompts that demand cognitive collaboration of learners to integrate, synthesize, and evaluate discussion ideas, resulting in meaningful discourse requiring cognitive presence.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

This practice implemented question prompts designed with the Practical Inquiry Model (PIM), which describes four levels of cognitive presence that can be observed in students’ online discussions postings: (1) Triggering- becoming aware of a problem through initiating the inquiry process; (2) Exploration- exploring a problem by searching for relevant information and offering explanation; (3) Integration- interpretations/construction of possible solution, and (4) Resolution- applying or defending potential solutions with a new thought/idea. Triggering and exploration represent the low-levels of cognitive presence where students are presented with a triggering question and then they begin to understand the problem through engaging in a meaningful dialogue. The integration and resolution represent high-levels of cognitive presence where students build on each other’s ideas and synthesize information to provide real world solutions.

Students were presented a case followed by four discussion question prompts representing four levels of cognitive presence, designed to advance students through the phases of cognitive presence in the context of the case-based discussions.

Students were than required to post responses to two different discussion threads. The first discussion thread required response to the first two question prompts (triggering and exploration) and two comments on other students’ post by midweek. The purpose of asking triggering and exploration question prompts during the first half of the week was to first help students understand the nature of the problem and then search for relevant information to provide possible explanations.

During the second half of the week, students were required to post in the second discussion thread, which required two responses to two question prompts (integration and resolution) and one comment on other student’s post. The purpose of asking integration and resolution question prompts was to help students create solutions based on their discussion and provide justifications for their solutions.

This practice can be implemented in any learning environments. Learning activities and assignments are replicable in any fields and areas of study. This practice is relevant to undergraduate and graduate levels. The online case-based discussions have been developed in Blackboard. It can be archived and copied to any other courses if instructors would be interested in using this approach. The results of this innovative practice have been presented at 2016 American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference in Washington DC and several faculty and staff development workshops have been offered at George Mason University.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Over the past academic year, this practice has been implemented in the online course “Instructional Design & Technology” in the Fall 2015 for 24 students. To see the effectiveness of this practice, the comparison of the questions prompts designed with the PIM and the regular or so-called “playground” (PG) prompts was done. The PG questions require students to explore, analyze, and interpret a specific aspect of the course material or “playground” for discussion. The comparison between the two types of questions revealed differences in percentage of segments within each level. The PIM resulted in higher percentage of segments within integration (34%) and resolution (7%), as compared to the PG question. Looking at the individual learning outcomes, more than half of the students’ (15 of 24) reached the resolution in the two discussions based on the PIM questions, whereas, only two students’ responses achieved the resolution level in discussions based on the PG questions.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

Learning Effectiveness
The comparison between the two types of questions revealed significant differences between discussions by levels of cognitive presence including triggering, exploration, integration and resolution. A non-parametric Wilcoxon signed-rank test showed an increase at the integration and resolution levels with the PIM question prompts. The median values at integration were higher in week 2 of PIM#1(Md=2.00) and week 3 of PIM#2 (Md=3.00) compared to week 1 of PG#1 (Md=1.00) and week 4 of PG#2 (Md=1.00). The median value at resolution was found only in week 3 of PIM#2 showing that the PIM question prompts can move students’ responses to higher levels of cognitive presence compared to the PG question prompts.

Student Satisfaction
Students’ perceptions of their cognitive presence in online case discussions designed with PIM prompts showed that students had high perceptions of their cognitive presence related to both integration (M= 4.24, SD= 0.67) and resolution (M= 4.24, SD= 0.56) facilitated by PIM prompts.

Among the 13 cognitive presence survey items, students' had highest perception that cased-based discussion questions piqued their curiosity (M=4.29, SD=0.46) to explore content and provide solutions to the problems. Additionally, students thought that case discussion questions helped them reflect on the course content and understand fundamental concepts in this class (M=4.29, SD=0.64). In addition, more than half (13 of 21) of the students commented that they valued case discussions and questions prompts as meaningful and engaging when asked what went well in the course in the open-ended survey responses. One student stated, “I liked question prompts and cases to explore because they were well thought out and carefully formed to engage students in meaningful learning and conversation in blackboard.” This shows that students’ perceptions of cognitive presence are high when questions are designed based on PIM to solve authentic problems through dialogue in an online community.

This practice relates directly to the OLC Pillar of accessibility. This practice makes the required discussion forum accessible to our students in geographic places that make it difficult or cost-prohibitive to participate in a traditional forum at the Ball State University campus.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

This practice can be designed and implemented using any Learning Management System (Blackboard in our case) to locate resources and other instructional materials. Any survey tools to collect students’ responses when they participate in this activity can be used (Qualtrics or Google Forms etc.).

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

There are no extra costs except access to the Internet.

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Ayesha Sadaf
Email this contact: 
Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Larisa Olesova
Email contact 2: