Creating a Community of Inquiry in Online Classes

Creating a Community of Inquiry in Online Classes

An educational community of inquiry is a group of people who work together to develop personal meaning and reinforce mutual understanding via critical dialogue and reflection. Creating a community of inquiry in your online courses can lead to highly engaging and meaningful learning experiences. In the sections below, we explore the three interconnected facets of the Community of Inquiry (COI) model – Social, Cognitive, and Teaching Presence – then provide resources and guiding questions to help you utilize COI within your own courses. 


Community of Inquiry Framework

The Community of Inquiry model is a theoretical framework created by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, (2002) that represents the process of creating deep and meaningful learning experiences through the development of three interdependent elements: Social, Cognitive, and Teaching Presence. Multiple studies have shown a link between the three presences and students' perceived learning, course satisfaction, instructor satisfaction, actual learning, and sense of belonging (Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Arbaugh, 2008; Richardson, et. al., 2015). This framework is not a static model, but rather is meant to be explored as a dynamic process. All of the presences are described with several intersecting dimensions. The resulting categories operationalize each of the presences. Design, facilitation, and direct instruction are all facets of Teaching Presence. Affective, interactive, and cohesive expression by learners are all indicators of Social Presence. Cognitive Presence consists of four phases: a triggering event, exploration, integration, and resolution, which mirror the critical thinking process.


Operational Definitions of COI Presences




Teaching Presence

  • Design & organization of the course
  • Facilitating discourse
  • Direct instruction
  • Selecting/structuring content & methods
  • Guiding constructive interactions
  • Focusing learning & troubleshooting

Social Presence

  • Affective responses
  • Interactive responses
  • Cohesive responses
  • Allow room for emotional expression & personal connection
  • Fostering collaboration & opportunity for group identity
  • Setting course tone & creating a safe learning climate

Cognitive Presence

  • Triggering event
  • Exploration
  • Integration
  • Resolution
  • Create curiosity about the subject
  • Allow room for information exchange & building knowledge
  • Guide how ideas are connected
  • Allow opportunities for application of newly acquired material
  • Monitor and regulate learning when needed

(Table adapted from: Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Arbaugh, 2008; Richardson, et. al., 2015)

Venn diamgram of COI model showing cognitive, teachign and social presence intersecting to create the educational experience.

Teaching Presence

Teaching Presence is that unique and personal element that you bring to a course, which helps build a deeper connection with your learners. In face-to-face courses, this tends to occur more naturally through physical presence and teacher immediacy. Teaching Presence can be difficult to curate no matter the modality. After all, it can take years to feel comfortable with the performative aspect of teaching or sharing parts of our true selves with our students. But many of us are less experienced with these challenges in an asynchronous format where we cannot share space with our students. In online education, Teaching Presence is dependent on course design and organization, facilitation of online dialogue, and well-focused direct instruction. Teaching Presence intersects with Social Presence in how you share your passion and personality, and how you convey personal meaning within the course material.

There are many simple ways to create a Teaching Presence that is true to your subject and your authentic self. Below you’ll find guiding questions and useful tools to help you plan for and create Teaching Presence within your own courses. 

A light green circle with the words teaching presence centered.

Simple Steps Toward Achieving Teaching Presence

Be Present & Authentic

  • Make an introduction video to let students know who you are.
    • Videos do not have to be perfect, a few stumbles and ums make you feel more human
  • Model engagement in discussions thoughtfully and with respect.
  • Let your passion for the subject shine through in all your course interactions.

Be Organized

  • Make sure your course is easy to navigate.
  • Be certain that all assignment instructions are clear.
  • Organize modules, readings, and resources in ways that scaffold the learning of complex concepts.

Help Make Connections

  • Locate points of confusion or major concepts that need to be reiterated and address clarifications to the class as a whole.
  • Find places to help learners connect the material to their own lives.
  • Use discussions/assignments to connect students to each other, to the content, and to you.


Teaching Presence in Your Courses - Questions for Consideration

The Human Element

  • Do you introduce yourself to the students?
  • Does your personality come through in your course?
  • How do you exhibit your passion for the course and/or the subject?
  • Do you display how the course content has personal meaning or connections for you?
  • Do you model the skills you expect from your students with both interactions and analysis?

Course Design & Organization

  • Is your course design intuitive and consistent? 
  • Is it easy to navigate?
  • Are all activity instructions clear, explicit, and concise?
  • Is your feedback timely and supportive?
  • Do students know how to contact you with time-sensitive questions?
  • Do you curate your course effectively by selecting and arranging readings, videos, and other resources to scaffold concepts?


  • Do students know how they are expected to participate?
  • How and when do you contribute to the conversation?
  • Do you utilize students’ names when you respond to them?
  • Do you aggregate student discoveries and ideas: finding and displaying patterns in discussions and other communications?

Interview with UO's David McCormick: Teaching Presence in Online Courses

Video Transcript

Video Transcript: Teaching Presence in Online Classes – with David McCormick and Sasha

Welcome to this video on teaching presence in online courses, where we showcase one instructor's strategies for designing, organizing and facilitating his course, in order to engage students in the learning - by creating a sense of connection and community. Teaching Presence is one facet of the Community of Inquiry Model, a theoretical framework created by Garrison, Anderson and Archer that represents the process of creating deep and meaningful learning experiences, through the development of three interdependent elements: Social, Cognitive, and Teaching Presence. Teaching Presence is that unique and personal element that you bring to the course, which helps build a deeper connection with your learners. In face-to-face courses, this occurs naturally through physical presence and teacher immediacy. In online education, however, this presence is dependent on course design and organization, facilitation of online dialog, well-focused direct instruction, and how you convey your passion and personality.

There are many simple ways to create teaching presence. Today, we are going to give you a peek inside a UO course that has a strong and singular teaching presence. We interviewed David McCormick, the faculty member who created this course, and talk about ways that you can create your own unique teaching presence that is true to your subject and your authentic self. Without further ado, let's meet David and his beloved colleague, Sasha.

My name is David McCormick. I'm the Director of the Institute of Neuroscience here at the University of Oregon. And this is Sasha, my sidekick. She's a Samoyed. She's nine years old. She's been with me for the eight of those nine years. Yeah, we're we're very much a part of the University of Oregon now. I'm also a faculty fellow at the Unthank Hall and we're often over there. So, if you ever see us around, just stop and say hello.

Tell us about your course……

I teach Biology 170, which is a class on happiness. Actually, it's called Happiness: A Neuroscience and Psychology Perspective. It's taught both in-person and online. I created this course to teach students life skills and positive life engagement.

When I was thinking about the material that I was going to present on life skills and happiness, I realized that I needed a kind of a unique teaching style. And I looked around a little bit and I came across one called Head-Heart-Hands. And the Head, Heart, Hands Model is simply intellectual learning, emotional development, and putting things into action/doing. And that's exactly how the course is designed. There's the, you know, facts and figures parts of the material... there is trying to engage the students in an emotional way... and you can do that by getting them to relate to their personal experiences by having them watch videos that draw out the emotional aspects of life engagement and so on. And then the action part is activities where, every week, we have the students do activities to put the lessons into practice.

How does Sasha fit into the course?

Well, you know, the Head, Heart, Hands Model is, as I said, intellectual, emotional, and action. So, I realized that I should develop a style that was conducive to, you know, a sense of life skills, well-being and putting into practice the things I was talking about in class. So, I thought, "well, how can I do that?" And one of those was... dogs. Everybody has... well, not everybody, but a lot of people have dogs. A lot of students have dogs. They miss their dogs. And from my practice of walking around campus with Sasha, I realized that it's kind of an immediate connection to that personal aspects of life, you know? Having a dog... petting a dog... And also an immediate connection to the emotional part. You know, a dog kind of brings out the the softness in us, the connection and the ability to be vulnerable, if you will. And so I thought, well, if I bring Sasha into the course, both in-person and online, that that would really help me make that connection to people.

Why did you choose to teach the course online?

With online teaching, you can reach students that you couldn't reach in person. I have a lot of students that couldn't come to campus - maybe they became ill or someone in their family became ill or they had to take a trip, or maybe they just want to do distance learning. Those students I could reach with the material. It made it very nice to have the course both online and in person, because there's a lot of flexibility there that I never appreciated. So, when students in person all of a sudden had an emergency or became ill - maybe they got COVID - they could just watch the lectures online and do the online version. So, I found it actually very beneficial to have the online version of the course as well as the in-person.

Why did you choose to include your outdoor activities in your lecture videos?

You know, one of the big problems with an online course versus an in-person course is having some type of way to relate to the students because you're just talking to your computer or you talking to a camera. And so, the dog helps, really. But I also wanted to exhibit both positive life skills and get the students to relate to me. So, all I did was just... wherever I went in Oregon: snowshoeing, hiking, biking, visiting a vineyard or the Oregon Raptor Center... I would just pull out my phone and interview someone. "Hey, what makes you happy?" Or I would just talk about the location I was at and film it. I keep it short, you know, to keep it kind of TikTok-video-like, you know, just a couple of minutes to kind of entertain the students for a little bit before we get into the content of the lecture. I really felt that that was a way to make a connection with the students even though they're watching a video. They're used to watching videos like TikTok's, Instagram Snippets, YouTube and so on. So, I tried to make something interesting for them to kind of engage them in the material first.

How do you film your videos?

Well, when we did the videos around different parts of Oregon, sometimes I did it by myself just with my phone and propped it up somewhere and held it. But often my wife was helping me out. And, you know, just using basic photography methods, keep the phone very steady, move it very slowly, keep everything centered well and maybe do a couple of different takes so that if one didn't work, the other one did. Yeah. And then when I'm making a lecture video, I was usually by myself, with Sasha by my side sometimes... usually, or in the background, like, for example, on my picnic table in my backyard was done by using my MacBook Pro. It has a very good high-resolution camera on it, and I used a podcast microphone, a Yeti, and I might use an Astro Pad, which allows your iPad to be a drawing device. I set those up on my picnic table... it would take, you know once you're used to it, only a few minutes to set it up.

What feedback have you received from students about the course?

I.. ah [laugh].. yeah, they love it..the course... and they say more, more, more. You know, "why don't we have more courses like this?" The course started out about 80 students, then it went to one hundred and thirty students in the next term, the next year. It's gone to two hundred and seventy students. The next year I am opening up to five hundred students. It's gotten.. and it's got 100 percent approval rating.

There's almost no student that says they don't highly recommend this course to another student. And I asked them, "Why do they like this course so much?" A) They like the content. They said that, you know, this is something I can actually use. I can use these life skills throughout my life.  B) They like the design of the course. They like that it's engaging. It's at an open level that they can easily participate in. They love Sasha being in the videos. It helps them relate. They love the level at which I converse with them. I'm not talking down to them. I'm talking even with them, like person to person. And they love that. They love that their input is appreciated and desired. They have a chance to influence the course of the course. You know, I ask a lot of questions like "What things do we not cover that you would like to cover?" And I've learned that a conversation with them, even in a larger class where they feel like they have the opportunity to be individually heard and appreciated, which they do in my course, because we give a lot of individual attention when they want, it really helps them absorb the material and appreciate it.

Can you walk us through the structure of the course and how you designed it?

So basically, the course is designed in modules, there's 17 modules, and each module has multiple components. One of the components is the lectures. So, the [in-person] lectures are an hour and 20 minutes long because they're based on real life lecture classes. So, you can't watch an hour and 20 minute video, it's just too, too long, need breaks. So, I broke those into three or four segments of like 20 minutes each. And when I when I put in a real life element like…you could go to this place for a hike or you can go here for a bike ride... I did that only at the beginning of the set of lectures, so at the beginning of the module, and that was because I didn't want it to be... I wanted it to be a special treat to watch something outside the classroom as opposed to something that was happening all the time. It was just... 'Hey, let's.. we're getting started today on this topic... but first, here's an interesting place you could visit in Oregon or interesting thing you could do that's relevant in some way to the material.'

What advice would you give to other instructors about developing Teaching Presence in an online course?

Well, you know...I learned it actually in courses in-person, but I tried to extend it to online learning, which is that the students pick up on your vibe. They pick up on your enthusiasm for the material and how clearly you relate and present the material. So, students are drawn to an engaged, enthusiastic, interesting story, right? It's all about storytelling. So, if you can make your lecture, your 20-minute lecture or something, a tell them where you're gonna go, tell them the material, tell them where you've been in this storyline that you're clearly very interested in and engaged about, I think it makes the the whole experience a lot better for the students.

Do you have any advice for instructors new to recording videos?

Yeah. I think that, you know, being present yourself, being enthusiastic, as I just said, be enthusiastic about the material, being engaged with the material both intellectually and emotionally, being invested in the material and conveying that, is the top thing you should do. You know, throwing in something about your personal life, how you relate to the material. You know, showing the students...let them see some of your your situation, maybe your yard or where you sit and read for classes or for your research or whatever, or your home office. You know, mix it up a little bit. I think interjecting some kind of relatedness of yourself to to the students can really help the coursework and the lectures to be interesting. Yeah. The best way to do that, I think, is to be really comfortable with the online presence. And so, I would say that... make a surrounding that's comfortable to you. I use my outdoor patio or my office at home because I'm very comfortable in those locations. Maybe do some deep breathing or some relaxation before you make the video. Maybe you could practice the video. You could do it a couple of times and then watch yourself and then realize it's not so scary. And another idea is to have someone on the other side of the computer that you're talking to. Like, it could be a student that's helping you out make the videos until you get really practiced at it, or it could be your spouse or significant other. So, make it a human element as opposed to just you talking to a machine. I think that bringing in that human element, that kind of vulnerability, that availability, really can help the students relate to you as a person and you as a teacher.

Thank you, David and Sasha.

We hope you enjoyed this video on teaching presence in online courses. For more information on the other two facets of the Community of Inquiry Model - Social and Cognitive Presence - Visit

Blooper Reel:

[jaunty music]

I'm trying to get some of this.... [removes dog hair from sweater] Can you give me a kiss? Thank you. Okay, yeah [laughs] [grunts] Okay, there you go. Where you gonna settle, huh? [Sasha barks] You gotta be quiet, okay? I know...that's the thing... [removes dog hair from sweater] You holding my hand? [Sasha puts paw up on David’s arm] Thank you. Can you say 'thank you,' Sasha? Yeah? Okay? [Sasha licks David] Good [laughing]


Social Presence

    Simply put, Social Presence is how students connect and interact with each other in a course. “Social presence is the basis of collaborative learning and the foundation for meaningful, constructivist learning online. In the context of online learning, social presence is described as the ability of learners to project themselves socially and emotionally as well as their ability to perceive other learners as ‘real people’.” (Boston et al., 2010). This idea can be particularly challenging in online courses, as we miss out on the immediacy and social cues that we get in-person. However, there are many ways to encourage and grow Social Presence in asynchronous courses.

    Garrison and his colleagues (Garrison et al, 2000, 2007, 2010) developed three categories of Social Presence and continued to refine these categories over time. We will utilize these categories to provide suggestions and guidance below. The categories of Social Presence are:

    • Affective responses (originally emotional expression);
    • Interactive responses (originally open communication);
    • Cohesive responses (originally group cohesion).
    A yellow circle with the words Social Presence centered.


    Simple Steps Toward Achieving Social Presence

    Affective Responses 

    “Affective expression is the ability of online learners to project themselves through such text-based verbal behaviors as the use of para-language, self-disclosure, humor, and other expressions of emotion and values” (Boston et al., 2010).

    • Encourage introductions and connection from the start
      • Consider using an icebreaker
      • Encourage students to update their Canvas profiles with a bio, photo and/or representative image or avatar
      • Encourage the use of video, audio or other media formats
      • Try including a small course/material-related prompt with introductions
        • Ex: "Tell us about why this course interests you," or "share which of the course objectives do you find most intriguing and why."
      • Make opportunities for different social connections, and bridge them into content if feasible
        • Have a "Weekend Plans," "Pets of CLASS123" or "Fun Things" discussion board
        • Provide a place where students can chat about their struggles in the course or greater program
      • Build motivation and engagement
        • Share your own passion and enthusiasm for the course
        • Tell them how this course will be useful in their lives or within the program
        • Make content relevant and provide students choice in how they apply material
        • Have students reflect on their own participation

      Interactive Responses 

      Help to create a "risk-free learning climate in which participants trust one another enough to reveal themselves” (Boston et al., 2010).

      • Consider starting the first discussion with "netiquette" expectations
      • Provide a Q&A discussion board where students can help each other with course-related questions
      • Invite learners to share their unique experiences and thoughts, and connect them to course materials
      • Utilize the many feedback functions of SpeedGrader and ask students to respond back to your comments
      • Identify commonalities and make connections
      • Give the class choice when possible (voting on topics or assignment format)

      Cohesive Responses

      “Group cohesion refers to the development of a group identity and the ability of participants in the learning community to collaborate meaningfully” (Boston et al., 2010).

      • Utilize peer-review tools, and provide structure and expectations for those review
      • Consider using group-projects or collaborative creation or social annotation (Perusall or Hypothesis)
      • In larger classes, create smaller stable groups to encourage connections
      • Rotate group roles (leader, devil's advocate, current events connector, synthesizer)


      Social Presence in Your Courses - Questions for Consideration

      Defining Expectations

      • Do you provide expectations for how students will interact, or allow students to help create their own 'rules of engagement' or group charters?
        • Be sure to voice how you will handle any issues and follow through
      • Do your discussion prompts and questions clearly define how you want students to respond and interact?
        • Consider adding a minimum word count or length for audio/video posts
        • Consider using rubrics or providing key items that students will be graded on
        • Consider encouraging learners to interact on a deeper level with each other's content

      Directing Conversations

      • If discussions start getting heated or passionate, how do you direct learner energy?
      • Do you model and reward positive social engagement?
      • Do you use student names in your posts?
      • Do you connect learners with one another to further the conversation?
      • How do you structure the timing, and other requirements for responding to peers?

      Role Modeling

      • Do you make announcements on a regular basis?
        • Do your course announcements include current observations or course-wide feedback?
        • Do your announcements grow in complexity as the course move forward? This can mirror the complex growth of content and understanding.
      • How do you show show yourself as a unique, multifaceted human? In what ways can you model  to learners a healthy blend of personal and professional?

      UO Faculty Examples for Creating Social Presence

      Watch an edited version of our Spring 2022 Faculty Panel Event on Social Presence to see what your colleagues are doing to promote social presence in their online courses. Please note, one of our wonderful panelists was working from home during the panel and you may hear some ambient noise.



      Cognitive Presence

      In essence, the Cognitive Presence in a course is how the students are engaging with the course material itself. Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2001), define Cognitive Presence as “the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse in a critical community of inquiry.” This tends to be the first thing instructors think about when it comes to teaching; what will students learn and how will they learn it? The overlap between Cognitive Presence and teaching presence, labeled "Selecting Content” in the Community of Inquiry model, focuses on what materials and learning activities an instructor chooses for the course.

      To elicit a high level of critical thinking within a course, instructors must give deep consideration to the selection of course materials and learning activities. For learners to engage deeply, course materials must be both appropriate to the level and relevant to the learning context. Within a course, Cognitive Presence is developed not only in the student’s interaction with the course material but also within the student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction. Therefore, providing learning activities that involve critical thinking, collaborative problem-solving, and the construction of meaning will inherently help to build a strong Cognitive Presence.

      Garrison (2017) identifies four steps that should be employed in the classroom to foster Cognitive Presence. These steps mirror the steps of critical thinking and include:

      1. Triggering Event: A problem or dilemma is presented to the students, specifically one that would pique their interest.
      2. Exploration: Students attempt to figure out the nature of the problem.
      3. Integration: The information obtained during the exploration phase is given order and meaning.
      4. Resolution: Based on the work completed during the integration phase, a solution is selected.

      Students may need guidance to move toward the resolution phase, as they may tend to get entangled in the exploration and/or integration phases. Instructors can go one step further by monitoring and regulating students’ learning when needed. Paz and Pereira (2015) noted several areas where instructors can help regulate learning:

      • Confirming understanding of tasks
      • Assessing learning strategies and work processes and/or proposing corrections to those processes
      • Reminding others of tasks and encouraging them to focus on or contribute to tasks, resources, and activities
      • Helping with tasks, processes, or products of learning
      • Managing the movement through learning phases or tasks
      A dark green circle with the words Cognitive Presence centered.

      Simple Steps Toward Achieving Cognitive Presence

      Garrison (2017) provides a number of recommendations that can enhance Cognitive Presence.

      High-Impact Practices

      • Use Problem or Project-Based Learning strategies. Avoid overwhelming students with information and/or assignments.
        • Target content and activities to provide concise background, direction, and structure for students to free up more time for the thinking process.
      • Allow time for reflection individually and within the group.
        • Shared metacognition, a term from Garrison (2017), requires students to monitor and manage their understanding while also assisting others in their learning.
      • Provide opportunities for students to replicate and reflect on the inquiry process.

      Discussion Support

      • Create smaller groups for online discussions. This helps manage the amount of information students are focused on and helps students connect more easily.
      • Within discussion boards use the following strategies:
        • Provide stimulating prompts or questions.
        • Identify challenging issues that arise in the discussions and guide students to focus on those.
        • Encourage learners to delve deeper into their thought processes by respectfully challenging their ideas.
        • Have students test their ideas by putting them into practice. Consider using an if/then approach:
          •  “If you believe this/then this is what is looks like in practice”

      Cognitive Presence in Your Courses - Questions for Consideration


      • Do course learning objectives encourage higher-order thinking?
        • How do you select content to support your objectives?
      • Are course assignment and discussion prompts thoughtful and intentional?
        • How do you focus student efforts in your courses?
      • Do your learning materials and activities reflect the diversity of your learners?
        • Do you utilize inclusive images and a variety of voices/perspectives?
        • Are your learning activities culturally responsive?


      • Where in the course are there opportunities for students to collaborate and problem solve? Is there a focus on process or outcome? Is there room for students to test concepts and make errors?
        • Is learning scaffolded?
        • Are there places where formative feedback is available?
        • Is there room for iteration and growth?
      • Do students interact together through any peer-review?
        • If so, is there a rubric to help guide the review and feedback process?
      • Is feedback constructive, motivating, and actionable?


      UO Faculty Example of Creating Cognitive Presence

      Coming Soon