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Jul 14, 2014 Phylise Banner

Pedagogy of Learning Design: Fostering Critical Thinking Skills with Cognitive Presence

Cognition and Learning Design

In this post of the Pedagogy of Learning Design Series, we'll explore cognitive presence and roles we play on the critical inquiry path leading toward higher levels of learning.

Fostering Critical Thinking Skills with Cognitive Presence

In the previous blog post, The Pedagogy of Learning Design: Crafting Optimal E-Learning Spaces with Teaching Presence, we explored teaching presence - the design, development, management, facilitation, and direction within the learning space. This installment will focus on cognitive presence and a practical inquiry approach to helping our learners acquire knowledge and confirm understanding.

Practical Inquiry Model

The practical inquiry model reflects four phases of critical thinking and cognitive presence: (a) the initiation phase with a triggering event that begins the dialogue about a particular issue; (b) the exploration phase in which learners move between private reflection and social exploration, exchanging information about the issue at hand; (c) the integration phase in which participants begin to "construct meanings" or solutions to the issue from the ideas explored in the previous phase; and (d) the resolution phase in which the proposed solution is "vicariously tested" (Garrison et al., 2001, p. 11).

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 7-23.

When we talk about critical thinking skills, we are touching on cognitive presence. Perhaps the most difficult of the three presences to grasp, cognitive presence relates to how we move through the learning process - approaching problems, seeking out new knowledge, gaining new levels of understanding, and sharing that understanding with the learning community. The goal is to have our learners integrate key concepts into their own worlds, explore associated resources, and bring new knowledge and new ideas into the learning process.

Climbing the Learning Ladder

Cognitive presence supports scaffolded learning – the sequential progress of learning through content review and activities, leading to an understanding of content and context. The scaffolding process includes instructor and peer support leading up the so-called “learning ladder” until learners can apply new skills and concepts independently.

Think about a time when you were learning a new skill or concept. The sense of puzzlement, followed by inquiry – questions you needed to ask in order to grasp that new skill or concept. You asked questions, received responses, had a dialogue, and perhaps even asked more questions. You engaged with concepts in order to synthesize their meaning, so that you could shape new meaning and apply those new skills or concepts. Cognitive presence supports learner engagement with new skills and concepts, and helps them to progress through the scaffolded learning process.

Establishing cognitive presence means focusing on knowledge acquisition, synthesis, and application. Here are some strategies in support of cognitive presence, following a practical inquiry model.

Assessing Prior Knowledge

Past experience and prior knowledge play a key role in the critical thinking process. As designers, instructors and facilitators, we work to enable our learners to reach established learning goals, and to support their acquisition of new knowledge and ideas. Knowing where our learners are starting from is integral to designing pathways to learner success.

Creating Triggering Events
Triggering events are the problems and challenges that you suggest throughout the learning experience, such as assignments and questions integrated into communication and interaction exercises. This is the first phase in a practical inquiry process, which relies on a structured activity focusing the learners on seeking a solution to a problem. As a learning facilitator, integrating standard terms such as “analyze," “evaluate," and “synthesize” in your own dialogue will assist learners with expressing and defending their points of view in the forums.

Guiding Contextual Exploration
When learners are faced with a problem to address, they should also be provided with a means to explore possible solutions. Associated readings and related resources provide context and meaning within our learning environments, and provide the framework for inquiry and exploration. If you provide associated resources, give learners a list of key questions to keep in mind when they are reviewing content. That will guide their exploration, and provide the "stem" for them to branch out on with divergent ideas.

Feedback also plays a role in the practical inquiry process, especially when additional direction is provided to learners along with remedial assessment. If someone is having trouble understanding a concept – and you can usually deduce this from simple interactions – do more than simply direct them to the reading material. Provide avenues for them to explore concepts further, along with instructions on why these concepts matter in the learning and work that they’re doing.

Integrating Concepts
Integrating concepts is the process by which the learners reflect individually on learning activities, communicate their thoughts with others in the group, collectively connect ideas, and establish relationships between existing knowledge and new information.

Supporting Resolution
Success in learning comes when we come to resolution, and can defend that resolution with the application of new ideas. Keeping a careful watch on learner progress is important here – from an individual and group perspective. As instructors and facilitators, we need to stay involved as learning events progress, guide the subject and substance of conversation so that learners are able to make sense of complex information, and provide input to help them represent their resolutions.

Wrapping Things Up
At the end of each learning event, provide guidance as to what resolution should look like with a wrap-up related to the content, context, and learning activities. This allows learners to assess what they have accomplished, and understand why they were tasked to accomplish it. Wrapping up closes the practical inquiry loop, and provides that closure we need to settle our brains before we jump back into a new practical inquiry cycle.

Aha! (Again)

The work we all do in support of eLearning events allows us to journey alongside our learners through the critical inquiry process, all in support of cognitive presence leading to repeated “aha!” moments. We design, develop, and deliver environments where our learners can grow, evolve, connect, and share -- integrating key concepts from learning events into their own worlds, and returning to the discourse with new ideas and new knowledge.

Throughout this series we have explored social, teaching, and cognitive presence – the key elements within the Community of Inquiry framework. In the next (and last) installment of this series, we will take a look at the indicators and assessment tools associated with this framework, and how we can measure our effectiveness in each of these presence areas related to the work we do in the design, development, and delivery of eLearning.

Interested in learning more about instructional design in the virtual classroom? Click on the graphic below to read about our Virtual Classroom Design Mastery Series certificate and how you can earn your Virtual Classroom Instructional Designer Badge.

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Published by Phylise Banner July 14, 2014
Phylise Banner