Instructor Presence: Discussion forum response strategies

Posted on Jan 21, 2017

Instructor Presence: Discussion forum response strategies

We talk a lot about instructor presence in online teaching and learning and take for granted that it is a good thing. (It is).

Let’s unpack this concept into a set of actions that have the desired effect on our online learners’ experiences.

At the root of the discussion is a simple theory of social presence (Short, J., E. Williams, E and B. Christie, 1976) which suggests that various forms of communication fall along a continuum ranging from high to low social presence; face-to-face being on the highest end, and text on the lowest end.

Right away, you can see that teaching and learning online is at a disadvantage.

What can we do as online instructors so that learners positively sense our presence?

What is “instructor presence”?

In educational research, an often cited model for online course-based learning is the Community of Inquiry model (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). Within this model, importance is placed on how the instructor (and learners) assert their presence in the course, and presence affects learning. Instructor presence is classified into Social, Teaching, and Cognitive presence.

While definitions vary for each, core similarities can be summarized as follows:

Social Presence can be defined as “… establishing personal and purposeful relationships with both peers and the instructor,” (Swan, K., Shih, L. F., 2005), or “the ability of participants to identify with the [course] community, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop interpersonal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (Garrison, 2009). Indicators of social presence include comments that are supportive, build a sense of course cohesion, and are motivating.

Teaching Presence is associated with how you design your course to provide direct instruction, to monitor interaction, and to contribute your knowledge and experience. Cumulatively, these design features enable learners to realize meaningful outcomes (Anderson, T., 2004; Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001).

Cognitive Presence is “the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). Simply put, cognitive presence is expressed through online interaction in ways that cause learners to think more deeply, or to elaborate upon a statement or claim.

Why is presence important?

Measuring the absolute effect of instructor presence is imperfect, but a number of studies have indicated that learners benefit from instructor presence with each learner experiencing it in his or her own way.

One study, though small in scale, indicated that it wasn’t so much the overall quantity of your presence in your course that makes a difference, but the balance of all three forms of presence – Social, Teaching, and Cognitive – that positively affected students’ learning experiences (Swan, K., Shih, L. F., 2005).

What can you do to teach with presence?

Instructor presence is felt in a number of ways, including timely and meaningful feedback, and availability to answer questions. However, the most common area where presence can be felt is in Discussion Forums.

Below is a table that describes some of the ways you can inspire different kinds of interaction in your discussion forums. 

The content is adapted from research conducted by Lane Whitney Clarke and Audrey Bartholomew, and used as a basis of research into identifying the kinds of interactions online instructors used in their online courses.

Their findings suggest that striking an even balance of cognitive, teaching, and social communication in discussion forums results in students feeling that the instructor is highly engaged and supportive of higher level thinking.

Cognitive Interaction: Exploration, construction, resolution, and confirmation of understanding through collaboration and reflection
Technique Purpose Do your comments… Example
Challenging/Probing Challenging or probing students to think deeper about a topic/issue. Use signal words like: I wonder, what do you think, usually followed by a question? “One thing I wonder though is the balance between the texts that we give to kids at their instructional level and the complex texts that we need to use. What have you found to be the right balance?”
Student Elaboration Exploring a topic deeper. Asking students to elaborate on a topic or idea the student mentioned in their post with the intent of having them think deeper on the topic? “I am curious what your colleagues say about building background knowledge and the role it plays in comprehension instruction?”
Questioning Extending thinking around a topic or issue. Asking students a question but the answer does not require an elaboration? “I assume you find this effective?”
Teaching Prompts: Design, facilitation, and direct instruction of learning
Technique Purpose Do your comments… Example
Pulling Together Summarizing or pulling together a student or multiple students’ ideas. Refer directly to one or more student ideas to make a point? “I think what you are trying to say is echoed in (another student’s) post.”
Providing Resources Adding information or details to a discussion. Provide a tangible link or resource to elaborate on a topic? “Here is where you can go for more information….”
Sharing Ideas Directing students to provide more information by sharing with them your thoughts. Provide an idea for the student to do in their own practice? “Maybe you can take photos of what active reading does NOT look like-that might be powerful too!”
Teacher Elaboration Expanding on an idea to make a point. Goes beyond confirmation of the student response and typically uses an example to illustrate the point. Build on students comments but provide illustrative examples or ideas in order to teach a concept? “One thing that caught my attention was what you said about resiliency. I just read a great article on the importance of giving our kids texts that they struggle with. We do so much modeling, and background knowledge building, and vocabulary scaffolding that sometimes we don’t let our students wrestle interdependently with tough texts and perhaps we are doing them a disservice by not helping them build up their resiliency.”
Technical Assistance Helping with technology. Address technology or computer issues? “Have you tried using a different browser?”
Connections Deepening understanding by making connections between new knowledge and established understandings, experiences, or knowledge. Make a connection within the course (e.g., between two posts, a post and the text, a post) and a larger issue in the field)? “As to your question about background knowledge – this is one that has been brewing in the literacy world as a result of the CCSS.”
Social Strategies: Build a learning community by establishing personal and purposeful relationships
Technique Purpose Do your comments… Example
Encouragement Trying to get a student to do something through positive reinforcement. Use a positive tone, celebrate, provide supportive ideas, use emoticons or explanation points? “Maybe you can take photos of what active reading does NOT look like- that might be powerful too!”
Drawing in participants Trying to get others involved in the discussion – really only refers to a statement that specifically asks for more students to offer their response. Words to look for: we, us, you, all. Address others in the class? Ask questions to more than one person? “How do you all ensure that this follow up/reflective part actually happens. Are there any classroom strategies that you all have used?”
Compliment – Social Providing a compliment with the goal of praising, inspiring intimacy, validating, naming the student, and/or drawing student into the learning community. Address others in the class? Ask questions to more than one person? “How do you all ensure that this follow up/reflective part actually happens. Are there any classroom strategies that you all have used?”
Compliment – Teaching Providing a compliment to set up for a more instructive statement with a teaching point and/or bringing some content from the course. Start with I, is positive in tone, celebrates a specific point or idea but then launch into a topic or idea connected to the content? “You raise a great point about how difficult it is to find those comfortable texts as oral reading and silent comprehension do develop at different rates.”
Social Information Giving personal and/or social information in effort to be part of a learning community. Use I, share something from your life that may or may not be attached to the course content? “This winter is killing me too. I just can’t seem to get warm. I think we are all in the same boat!”
Personal Experience Using an example from your life – more specific level elaboration. Use I, share something from your life that is attached to the content? “There are so many times that I have run out of time and then don’t get to debrief too!”
Adapted from: Clarke, L., & Bartholomew, A. (2014). Digging Beneath the Surface: Analyzing the Complexity of Instructors’ Participation in Asynchronous Discussion. Online Learning: Official Journal Of The Online Learning Consortium, 18(3). Retrieved from



Anderson, T. (2004). Teaching in an online learning context. In Anderson, T. and Elloumi, F. (Eds.) Theory and practice of online learning (pp. 273–294). Athabasca, AB, Canada: Athabasca University.

Clarke, L., & Bartholomew, A. (2014). Digging Beneath the Surface: Analyzing the Complexity of Instructors’ Participation in Asynchronous Discussion. Online Learning: Official Journal Of The Online Learning Consortium, 18(3). Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Gunawardena, C. and F. Zittle. (1997). Social presence as a predictor of satisfaction within a computer
mediated conferencing environment. American Journal of Distance Education 11(3): 8–26.

Picciano, A. G. (2002). Beyond student perceptions: Issues of interaction, presence and performance in an
online course. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 6(1): 24, 2002.

Rourke, L., T. Anderson, D. R. Garrison, and W. Archer. (2001). Assessing social presence in
asynchronous text-based computer conferencing. Journal of Distance Education 14(2): 50.

Short, J., E. Williams, E and B. Christie. The Social Psychology of Telecommunications, 65. Toronto: Wiley, 1976.

Swan, K., Shih, L. F. (2005). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9, 115-136.

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