D. Randy Garrison
May 13, 2019

This post builds on a previous post regarding the outcomes of a community of inquiry learning experience (July 2018). Notwithstanding the encouraging findings addressed in the previous post, I suggested at the time that this is an important topic requiring further research. As such I was very pleased to see several recent articles that focused on outcomes in collaborative learning environments. The first article by Sofer and Cohen (2019) looked at completion of an online course and pass/fail outcomes. They concluded that engagement significantly predicted both completion and success. This is interesting in itself but the crucial question I had was how does one create engaging learning experiences? In this regard I believe that the Community of Inquiry (CoI) theory is a popular and validated guide to design and deliver engaged learning experiences. In fact this is supported by the second study I want to describe that explores success in the form of retention but also provides insight into the influence of engagement in retention (Boston et al., 2019).

The Boston et al. (2019) study provides a fascinating look at the CoI framework from the perspective of retention. The premise is that retention in online learning environments is influenced by very different variables compared to face-to-face settings. Using CoI indicators and a wide spectrum of student records it was revealed that “a significant amount of variance in re-enrollment can be accounted for by indicators of Social Presence” (p. 3). Furthermore, of the other significant indicators “... four were from teaching presence (33% of all teaching presence indicators) and nine were from cognitive presence (75% of all cognitive presence indicators)” (p. 13). These findings provide testimony to the value of collaborative learning environments and specifically to the efficacy of CoI indicators (especially social presence) to predict success in terms of persistence.

It is of particular interest to note the influence of social presence in persistence. The Boston et al. study found that responses to the social presence item #16 (Online or web-based communication is an excellent medium for social interaction) “account for over 18% of the variance associated with whether a student returned to studies in the semester subsequent to completing the survey” (p. 13). The authors state that this is “a remarkable finding, especially in light of the sample size obtained” (p. 13). I can attest to the “remarkable” finding that one item of the CoI questionnaire could account for over 18% of the completion variance. Years ago I was studying dropout in college level programs. I had gathered considerable data associated with a range of psychosocial variables which were transformed into five distinct factor scores (Garrison, 1985; 1990). This comprehensive set of measures ended up explaining 18.2% of the persistence/dropout variance. Considering that a wide range of distinct variables could only explain 18% of the variance, it is remarkable that one variable could explain the same amount of variance when predicting complex behavior such as persistence.

I have great confidence in the findings of this research as I have worked with many of the authors of this study who have contributed significantly to the development of the CoI framework. However, while Social Presence (SP) is an interesting and complex variable, I must reiterate a caveat that I have noted previously. I have argued that SP can certainly contribute to creating a sense of community but it can also inhibit critical discourse when participants are reluctant to critically challenge others (Garrison, 2017). This position is supported in another recent study (Lawa, et al., 2019). While SP can improve learning effectiveness, these authors state that SP also appears “to have weak adverse effects on learning performance” (pp. 9-10). The explanation is that unstructured social discussion may not positively affect learning performance. This perspective is even more strongly supported in a study by d’Alessio et al. (2019). These authors found that building social presence was not sufficient. Their findings suggest “that students equally thrive when they feel like they are exchanging ideas with their instructor and peers and that they receive feedback on their ideas and work” (p. ?). They also state that their findings support the CoI theoretical framework. From a practical perspective; “Student interactions and group discussion require clear instructor guidance to keep the student on track and make social activities effective in achieving learning targets” (Lawa et al., 2-19, p. 10).

When discussing outcomes associated with a community of inquiry, it is essential to address the process or transactional nature of the community. Engagement does influence persistence and predicts a greater chance of success when attention is paid to a complementary balance among the presences. For example, too much emphasis on SP can distract from inquiry; similarly, too much teaching presence can attenuate collaboration. In this regard, the advantage of focusing on a balanced process places the emphasis on the learning transaction and deep approaches to learning. The added advantage is that undue emphasis is not placed on outcomes.


Boston, W., Diaz, S. R., Gibson, A. M., Ice, P., Richardson, K, & Swan, K. (2019). An Exploration of the Relationship Between Indicators of the Community of Inquiry Framework and Retention in Online Programs. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 14(1), 3-19. Available from:

d’Alessio, M. A., Lundquist, L. L., Schwartz, J. J., Pedone, V., Pavia, J., & Fleck, J. (latest articles). Social presence enhances student performance in an online geology course but depends on instructor facilitation. Journal of Geoscience Education. doi: 10.1080/10899995.2019.1580179

Garrison, D. R. (1985). Predicting dropout in adult basic education using interaction efforts among school and nonschool variables.  Adult Education Quarterly, 36(1), 25-38.

Garrison, D. R. (1990).  Factor structure of variables associated with dropout:  A confirmatory study.  The Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 4(1), 1-15.

Lawa, K. M. Y., Gengb, S., & Lic, T. (2019). Student enrollment, motivation and learning performance in a blended learning environment: The mediating effects of social, teaching, and cognitive presence. Computers & Education, 136, 1-12.

Sofer, T., & Cohen, A. (2019). Students' engagement characteristics predict success and completion of online courses. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 35(3), 378-389.



D. Randy Garrison
Professor Emeritus, University of Calgary
D. Randy Garrison is professor emeritus at the University of Calgary.Dr. Garrison has published extensively on teaching and learning in adult, higher and distance education contexts. He has authored, co-authored or edited twelve books and well over 100 refereed articles/chapters.His recent books are Thinking Collaboratively: Learning in a Community of Inquiry (2016) and E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Community of Inquiry Framework for Research and Practice (3rd Edition) (2017); for which he won second place for the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Division of Distance Learning Book Award, 2017.



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The Community of Inquiry is a project of the Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University, researchers of the Community of Inquiry framework, and members of the CoI community.