Disciplinary Differences in a Community of Inquiry

Jieun Lim, Purdue University


The Community of Inquiry framework has been used in numerous studies, with over 1800 citations to date (Google Scholar, January 2018). These studies mostly involve the study of a single discipline and rarely examine disciplinary differences as a potential factor in student outcomes. To address the research gap this study examined the differences in students’ social, cognitive, and teaching presence and the effects of those presences on the students’ learning outcomes according to their academic disciplines. This study used an explanatory sequential mixed-method design in two phases. The data were collected from 25 undergraduate online courses at two large public universities. The survey participants (n = 418) were recruited from four different disciplinary dimensions of knowledge and learning objectives: soft-pure (n = 142), soft-applied (n = 63), hard-pure (n = 78), and hard-applied (n = 135). The quantitative data was analyzed with ANOVA and stepwise multiple regression analysis. Thereafter, 23 students from the four disciplines (n = 6 for soft-pure, soft-applied, and hard-pure; n = 5 for hard applied) participated in interviews. The interview data were analyzed via constant comparative methods (Miles, Huberman, & Saldana, 2014). The results of this research indicated that there is no significant difference in the levels of students’ perceived social, cognitive, and teaching presences. For all disciplines, cognitive presence was the highest, which was followed by teaching and social presences. However, this research found some differences in the effects of each presence on students’ perceived learning outcomes and satisfaction according to their disciplines. While cognitive and teaching presences had significant influences on perceived learning outcomes for all disciplines, social presence showed inconsistent results according to the disciplines. In the case of soft-applied disciplines, students demonstrated significant predictive effects of social presence on satisfaction. In addition, most interview participants agreed on the importance of social presence for improved learning experiences and outcomes. Contrary to these trends, the hard-applied discipline students did not report significant predictive effects of social presence in the survey or interview data. Moreover, this research revealed that students from all disciplines tended to perceive that particular learning activities more effectively improved cognitive presence. While social, cognitive, and teaching presences are important to all disciplines, the results of this research imply that disciplinary differences should be considered in order to effectively apply the CoI framework to broader subject areas. This research also suggests that instructors and instructional designers should tailor their instructional strategies and behaviors based on these unique disciplinary differences.




Richardson, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Instructional Design|Educational technology

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