Date of Award

Summer 8-11-2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Middle-Secondary Education and Instructional Technology

First Advisor

Stephen Harmon, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

William Curlette, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Wanjira Kinuthia, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

Karen Oates, Ph.D.


Web-based learning progresses as access to the Internet grows. As learners and educators in virtual learning communities, we strive for ways to measure how well teachers teach and learners learn. While the literature is replete with articles and books discussing online learning from the perspective of social and teaching presence, there are few studies that examine the relationship between cognitive presence and learning effectiveness in an online environment. The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between cognitive presence and learning outcome in an asynchronous discussion forum. Thus, this study examined performance in an online course in relation to student interaction and level of cognitive presence in the course.

The data were collected from students enrolled in 10 sections of an online class taught at a large public university in the Southeastern United States. The study was mixed-method in nature. It consisted both of qualitative content analysis and descriptive statistics with Pearson correlations between the dependent variable (student course module grades) and the independent variables (maximum levels of cognitive presence, number of messages and message lengths).

The study resulted in two key theoretical contributions. The first is that maximum level of cognitive presence is a better indicator of student learning than mean level of cognitive presence. The results of the study indicate that students achieved mastery of the subject matter over time. Typically cognitive presence has been measured as a mean score for a course. This strategy is akin to giving the student a pre-test on a body of content at the beginning of the lesson, and a post test at the end, and then averaging these two to determine the student’s grade. Doing so seems to ignore, or at least diminish the fact that learning occurs over time. Student mastery of a content is a better indicator of learning than student progress. Thus, this study suggests that a more appropriate measure of student learning, in terms of cognitive presence, is the maximum level reached by every student, rather than the mean level of all students. The second theoretical contribution is that in on-line learning, a student displaying the cognitive presence “Resolution” stage in a discussion may inhibit others from displaying that stage. When a student has posted a message at the resolution stage during a discussion other students are more likely to respond with messages like “I agree” than they are to restate the resolution stage message. The “I agree” type message would not be coded at the resolution stage, thus the student who posted that message would not be seen to have reached that stage, when in fact, he or she may well have done so. This leads to a faulty perception of the overall level of cognitive presence. It may be difficult to control for this inhibitory effect but some creative structuring of course content and assignments should make it possible. Future studies addressing cognitive presence in online learning environments should take both of these ideas into consideration.

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