Improving Cognitive Presence in Online Discussions in Large Enrolment Courses

By Janet Zydney (University of Cincinnati) and Aimee deNoyelles (University of Central Florida)

How can an instructor possibly facilitate meaningful online discussions in a class of 400 students?  We explored just that question over 3 semesters in an undergraduate business course.  Students facilitated themselves in small groups using structured protocols for discussion.

What are protocols? 

A protocol identifies a clear purpose for the discussion, gives participants instructions on their roles within the discussion, describes how those roles interact with one another and provides specific time frames for those interactions (McDonald et al., 2012). An example protocol is called a Tuning Protocol.  The purpose of this protocol is to provide one another constructive feedback in order to improve a piece of work.  For this protocol, there are two roles: presenter and participants.  In an online space, the presenter posts their work at the start of the first week. At the end of the first week, the participants post their feedback to the presenter by including warm (strengths, appreciation) and cool (considerations, suggestions) comments, guided by sentence starters (e.g., “I wonder if …”, “Have you thought about …”). Then, in the middle of the second online week, the presenter writes a reaction to the feedback received. The second online week wraps up with everyone debriefing the discussion.

What did we learn? 

By iteratively examining student feedback, their perceived cognitive presence, and cognitive presence exhibited in their discussion posts, we found several ways to enhance protocols for use in large enrolment courses.

  • Model exemplary discussion posts. Modelling exemplary posts allows for instruction to be streamlined, helps show students how to take on varying roles within the discussion, establishes norms for how to give effective feedback and illustrates peer questions to enhance connections. However, despite the modelling provided, there were still students who felt the feedback was lacking. One recommendation is for the instructor to explicitly model how to give effective constructive feedback and to provide additional sentence starters for giving feedback.
  • Increase the required number of replies and/or number of roles that students take on in the discussion. Increasing these requirements not only makes the discussion more active but also increases the number of connections made, which helps address the difficulty in fostering active participation in large enrolment classes. Requiring at least two replies also increases the likelihood that students will receive feedback, enhancing their trust in feeling that they will get back what they put into the discussion.
  • Increase the percentage of the grade to provide additional incentive for participation. Students suggested that making the discussion worth more points would prompt more attention as well as improve the quality of the response. 
  • Keep directions concise.  Students tended to skim over directions if they were too long.  When directions were too complex, students became confused and ended up missing posts and due dates.
  • Prompt peer questioning. Peer questioning appeared to increase the number of connections students made and, as a result, the level of shared cognition.

Overall, this study found that a less-is-more approach is effective for large enrolment courses where students are more likely to skim the directions. Offering clear directions in the fewest words possible with examples that illustrate instructor expectations is desirable. These enhanced protocols may provide a mechanism to bridge the research on strategies to improve critical thinking within online discussions to work within large enrolment settings.

To learn more about this study, check out the full article in AJET:


McDonald, J. P., Zydney, J. M., Dichter, A., & McDonald, B. (2012). Going online with protocols: New tools for teaching and learning. Teachers College Press.


Janet Zydney: Instructional Design and Technology, University of Cincinnati

Aimee deNoyelles: Center for Distributed Learning, University of Central Florida



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