Date of Award

August 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Jing Lei

Subject Categories



This study, in the context of peer-facilitated asynchronous online discussion, explored the characteristics and patterns of students’ cognitive presence, and examined the practices that aim to enhance cognitive presence development. Participants were 53 students from a graduate-level online course that focused on the integration of educational technologies. Data were collected from discussion transcripts, student survey, student artifacts, and researcher’s observations.

Results demonstrated four phases of students’ cognitive presence: Triggering event, Exploration, Integration, and Resolution. Among the four phases, students’ cognitive presence tended to aggregate at the middle phases: Integration and Exploration. Percentage of the Resolution was very low. The distribution of students’ discussion behaviors further revealed: a) the hierarchical relationship between the four phases: Integration and Resolution involved a higher-level of cognitive engagement, and Triggering event and Exploration involved a lower-level of cognitive engagement; b) the phase of Resolution heavily relied on experiment, while the other three phases heavily relied on making use of personal experience; c) creating of cognitive presence occurred in both the private space of individual activities and the shared space of having dialogues. The conversation analysis of threads and episodes explored the temporal evolvement of cognitive presence. The results showed that, in an ongoing discussion, students’ cognitive presence evolved in a non-linear way, rather than strictly phase by phase as suggested by the PI model.

Experiments were designed and conducted to determine the effects of two pedagogical interventions – 1) providing guidance on peer facilitation techniques; 2) asking students to label their posts. The results showed that the Intervention 1 and the combination of two interventions credibly improved students’ cognitive presence. They were especially effective in improving Integration, a higher level of cognitive presence. After having added Intervention 2, cognitive presence increased from the first-half to the second-half semester, although the improvement was not found to be statistically credible.

This study confirmed the close association between and among cognitive presence, social interaction, and peer facilitation. The results clearly showed that Intervention 1 – providing guidance on peer facilitation credibly improved students’ social interaction and peer facilitation. However, Mixed findings were obtained for Intervention 2 – asking students to label their posts. It was found that Intervention 2 positively increased students’ social interaction. However, it did not show any impact on students’ peer facilitation behaviors. It is also worth noting that the effect of the combination of two interventions was much larger than any single one of them.

Conversation analysis was conducted to zoom in on the dynamic process of discussion. The cases revealed that when students were provided with the guidance on peer facilitation techniques, they tended to use a variety of facilitation techniques in a strategic way to help peers to achieve a sustained and deeper-level conversation. Compared to the control group, the students in the treatment group showed more peer facilitation behaviors, which led to more conversations and more higher-level cognitive presence.

This study has unpacked the complexity of students’ cognitive presence in a peer-facilitated discussion environment, especially when students are coached in performing teaching presence. The results shed light on the pedagogical practices and strategies of creating an online learning community that incubates rich cognitive presence. Finally, implications are discussed for the research and practices in online instruction and discussion analytics.


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