D. Randy Garrison
September 5, 2017

I would like to continue my consideration of cognition in a community of inquiry with an examination of the foundational literature associated with critical thinking. A recent examination of the Cognitive Presence construct by Jens Breivik (2016) attempted to spark debate about the place of critical thinking in the CoI framework. I very much welcome this constructive critique as it provides an opportunity to clarify and refine the conceptual foundation of the CoI framework.

As Breivik’s title suggests, the paper focuses on the critical thinking (CT) construct and its relationship to cognitive presence (CP). Breivik defines CT as “evaluating the tenability of claims” and argues that if CP essentially operationalizes CT (as he interprets the CoI literature), then the validity of the CP construct is brought into question; at least in terms of the quality of CT in online discussions. Perhaps not surprising, my departure with Breivik’s thesis is with the premise that CP is essentially a derivative of CT – essentially defined as evaluation of an argument. In short, critical thinking does not fully operationalize the CP construct. I view CT as a broader concept in which to understand the genesis of CP in higher education. More specifically, CP is operationalized through Practical Inquiry (PI) which represents both personal reflection (CT?) and shared discourse. CP extends CT through “discourse and a disciplined exchange of ideas that initiate further thought” (Garrison, 2016, p. 13). The true genesis of CP is Dewey’s reflective thinking and the scientific process of inquiry. CP is a process ofcollaborative inquiry and not simply evaluating arguments as Breivik appears to define CT. Notwithstanding, CT is an important thinking and learning ability and invaluable in the inquiry process.

To be clear, cognitive presence is a process of inquiry that includes thinking, listening and expressing thoughts in the process of critical discourse. It is a collaborative process of thinking and learning in deep and meaningful ways. Cognitive Presence goes beyond CT by supporting thinking and learning collaboratively (Garrison, 2016). The Practical Inquiry model, which operationalizes CP, iterates between the private/reflective and shared/discourse experiences of a purposeful educational transaction. Yes, part of the process is to test the “tenability of claims” (confirm or disconfirm) but it does not end there. Educationally CP goes beyond evaluation by exposing participants to new ideas and perspectives. Inquiry is a process of collaborative examination that includes evaluation but its goal is personal meaning and mutual understanding.

Implementing and assessing the quality and sustainability of CP (practical inquiry) bring into play the essential elements of teaching presence and social presence. CP cannot be understood in isolation; it is a purposeful and collaborative process interdependent with teaching and social presence. Teaching Presence is an essential element that ensures intended outcomes are effectively and efficiently achieved. TP collaboratively facilitates and directs inquiry such that the process does not overvalue solutions at the cost of deep and meaningful learning.

In summary, inquiry is more than simply evaluating the tenability of an argument. As Breivik suggests, cognitive presence may “define and measure other important educational rationales” (p. 12). This is exactly the point and I am appreciative of the opportunity to clarify the relationship between CT and CP. I regret if I left the impression in my previous writing that CP operationalized CT. Careful reading of the genesis of CP will show that it is based on Dewey’s reflective thinking and a collaborative practical inquiry process. Most importantly, CP is operationalized in the environment of a community of inquiry, shaped by social and teaching presences.


Breivik, J. (2016). Critical thinking in online educational discussions measured as progress through inquiry phases: A discussion of the cognitive presence construct in the Community of Inquiry framework. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, 31(1), 1-16.

Garrison, D.R. (2016). Thinking Collaboratively: Learning in a Community of Inquiry. London: Routledge/Taylor and Francis.

Jens Breivik · 3 years ago
Is progress through the phases of an inquiry process a construct-valid operationalization of cognitive presence?

First, I would like to thank you for the comments on my article and the opportunity to discuss further the validity of the cognitive presence construct. I agree with D. Randy Garrison that the value of collaborative inquiry lies in contrasting perspectives and that challenging each other’s viewpoints allows us to pursue better understanding. Collaborative inquiry may help us, as Garrison (2016) wonderfully expresses, to “break out of cognitive straightjacket[s] and to consider new ideas; to overcome the human bias to confirm and not question currently held perspectives and ideas” (p. 2).

I definitively support the idea that collaborative inquiry is more than evaluating the tenability of claims. Even though there is no consensus on how the concept of critical thinking should be interpreted, there is reasonable agreement that the evaluation of claims is a core component. Other cardinal virtues of critical thinking may include using relevant criteria appropriately, applying relevant knowledge, suggesting new perspectives and solutions, correcting one’s beliefs, and articulating precisely and in a trustworthy manner.

I also agree that deep learning is a rationale for (higher) education and that such learning can be enhanced by non-individual learning activities, like online discussions and collaborative problem-solving. Dewey’s account of inquiry as a social enterprise inspires a view of both critical thinking and learning as genuinely colloquial.

My article claims that the cognitive presence construct, operationalized as progress through the phases of inquiry, has weak construct validity. Validity refers to the quality of research tools, such as models and schemes, which enables empirical research to move beyond just gathering data. To assess or measure features that are not directly observable (e.g., critical thinking or cognitive presence), researchers need coding schemes, survey instruments, and other tools that operationalize theoretical constructs into observable features. Construct validity describes whether a coding scheme (or other research tools) actually measures what it is intended to measure.

The community of inquiry model is widely accepted as the dominant model in the research field, and the model stimulates empirical research. If weak construct validity is a tenable objection, this concerns both the cognitive presence construct as it is articulated and operationalized in the community of inquiry model and empirical research that is built on this construct.

Garrison makes two claims about my article: (1) that I have misread the cognitive presence construct as an operationalization of critical thinking and (2) that cognitive presence, instead of measuring critical thinking, measures other important educational rationales.

I will only address the first claim briefly—that cognitive presence is not intended to account for critical thinking. An option is to re-read Garrison and his colleagues’ seminal writings introducing the community of inquiry model, the cognitive presence construct, and the practical inquiry model (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001), and check whether they associate critical thinking with their models and constructs. Another option is to read closely some of the research that these models and constructs have inspired, and check whether these authors associate the cognitive presence construct with critical thinking. If so, that may be an indication that interpreting cognitive presence as an operationalization of critical thinking is not that far-fetched.

In the rest of this comment, I will focus on Garrison’s second objection to my article—namely, that cognitive presence and practical inquiry differ from, and perhaps are as worthwhile as, critical thinking. In the blog post where he comments my article, Garrison states the following:

"Cognitive presence is a process of inquiry that includes thinking, listening and expressing thoughts in the process of critical discourse ... CP, iterates between the private/reflective and shared/discourse experiences of a purposeful educational transaction… Inquiry is a process of collaborative examination that includes evaluation but its goal is personal meaning and mutual understanding."

What does this really mean? Moreover, how is it operationalized in empirical research? The community of inquiry survey instrument (Arbaugh et al., 2008) and the community of inquiry coding scheme (Garrison, 2011; Garrison et al., 2001) operationalize cognitive presence as progress through the phases of an inquiry process. The basic idea seems to be that an inquiry process that proceeds toward the solution phase represents a higher level of cognitive presence than an inquiry process that hovers around the triggering or exploration phase. My questions are as follows: May it be the case that an inquiry process that reaches a solution still lacks important dialogical qualities and qualities regarding critical thinking, deep understanding, etc.? Alternatively, may an inquiry process that does not progress toward exploration phase, without reaching a solution still contain fruitful collaborative thinking, challenging “currently held perspectives and ideas” or other virtues related to dialogue and/or critical inquiry? If so, this indicates that the operationalization (progress through phases) has weak construct validity as a measure of important qualities in the collaborative inquiry process.

Garrison’s reply in the blog post is that another construct from the community of inquiry model, the teaching presence construct, ensures that progress toward a solution is not overvalued:

"Teaching Presence is an essential element that ensures intended outcomes are effectively and efficiently achieved. TP collaboratively facilitates and directs inquiry such that the process does not overvalue solutions at the cost of deep and meaningful learning."

My concern at this moment is not that progress toward a solution is overvalued in educational practice. What I draw attention to is how we, for research purposes, assess and evaluate qualities of the collaborative inquiry process. In research on educational practices, we grapple with questions like, “Do discussions promote deep learning?” and “Does a specific strategy for facilitating and moderating online educational discussions stimulate or hamper learning and understanding?” To address such questions, we need valid operationalizations of concepts that we cannot observe directly.

My question to Garrison and other researchers building on the community of inquiry model and the cognitive presence construct is as follows: Is this construct, operationalized as progress through the phases of an inquiry process, a valid measure of deep and meaningful learning, critical thinking, or other important educational rationales that are enhanced by collaborative inquiry?

Arbaugh, J. B., Cleveland-Innes, M., Diaz, S. R., Garrison, D. R., Ice, P., Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. P. (2008). Developing a community of inquiry instrument: Testing a measure of the Community of Inquiry framework using a multi-institutional sample. The Internet and Higher Education, 11(3–4), 133-136. doi:
Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-learning in the 21st century. New York: Routledge.
Garrison, D. R. (2016). Thinking collaboratively : learning in a community of inquiry.
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.

Link to my article Breivik, J. (2016). Critical Thinking in Online Educational Discussions Measured as Progress through Inquiry Phases: A Discussion of the Cognitive Presence Construct in the Community of Inquiry Framework. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education,
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D. Randy Garrison · 3 years ago
Thanks to Jens Breivik for taking the time to respond to my editorial about the cognitive presence construct and critical thinking. Such critical analysis gives me the opportunity to clarify important features of the CoI framework. Jens basic point is that the cognitive presence (CP) construct has weak validity. However, to address construct validity one must attend to the intent of the construct (what is it intended to do) and the context in which it operates. First, the intent of the CP construct is to address in a coherent manner personal reflection and critical discourse in a community of inquiry. This is the process of practical inquiry and the core of the Community of Inquiry framework. Secondly, it must be appreciated that this and the other constructs cannot be taken in isolation. The CP construct (practical inquiry) functions effectively in the context of social and teaching presence. Purpose and quality must be addressed in the context of the learning community and specifically with the facilitation and direction of teaching presence.

That said Jens raises legitimate questions with regard to validity of the CP construct. The central question for me is how do we assess the quality of collaborative inquiry that is operationalized through the CP construct? How can we ensure that collaborative inquiry will achieve intended learning outcomes? More specifically, as Jens asks, how do we ensure “important dialogical qualities” regardless of whether the intended resolution is achieved? To reiterate, this is best assured in the environment of a community of inquiry where fallacious thinking stands the best chance of being revealed through critical discourse (argument) and evidence (facts) along with shared metacognition to monitor and manage the process. I argue that this dynamic is the best proxy to ensure quality learning outcomes (deep and meaningful).

Now much work remains to strengthen the validity of all the constructs and the concerted dynamic of a community of inquiry. To be clear, validation is a moving target and we must continually test the constructs and framework in a variety of contexts through research and empirical evidence. Again, this must be done by recognizing the interdependence of the constructs. While I would not agree the validity of the CP construct is weak, much research is needed to fully appreciate the inquiry process (cognitive presence) that occurs in a shared learning environment. In this regard, more emphasis and attention needs to be directed to shared cognition. I believe this is a largely neglected area in educational research. One exception is the work on shared metacognition.

In conclusion, I must be clear that the need for validation of the CoI constructs remain. The challenge going forward is to identify specific areas of weakness and offer explanation that could precipitate and guide further research. However, with regard to this particular critique it must be done recognizing the interdependence of the constructs.
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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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