Thinking collaboratively in communities of inquiry

Thinking collaboratively in communities of inquiry:

Nurturing shared metacognition

R. Garrison

Dr. Garrison has published extensively on teaching and learning in adult, higher and distance education contexts. He has authored, co-authored or edited ten books and over 100 refereed articles/chapters.

Zehra Akyol

Zehra Akyol is an e-learning designer and an independent researcher. She holds a doctoral degree in the field of educational technology and has published on teaching and learning in online and blended learning environments. She recently co-edited a book titled Educational Communities of Inquiry: Theoretical Framework, Research and Practice.


This chapter introduces the shared metacognition construct to deal with thinking and learning in an increasingly connected society. Because metacognition is integral to critical thinking and higher levels of learning, it is essential to understand shared metacognition in collaborative learning environments. In this regard, the interdependent elements of the Community of Inquiry framework and a socially constructed view of metacognition are described and discussed. Recent research findings have confirmed the two dimensional construct of shared metacognition as consisting of self and co-regulation.

Key Words: thinking collaboratively; shared metacognition; community of inquiry; self-regulation; co-regulation


Great geniuses are nurtured in rich environments. Certainly geniuses such as Newton, Darwin and Picasso were intellectually gifted and dedicated, but they did not emerge in a vacuum. Individuals of great accomplishment are immersed in the culture of their times. The idea that great thinkers and artists were solitary geniuses without intellectual influence is simply a myth. This was made evident by Issac Newton when he stated: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Perhaps the greatest scientist of all time recognized the contextual influences on his thinking. It is clear that the gifted are cultivated in complex interactions with their surroundings (Montuori & Purser, 1995). This is no less true for the less gifted and goes to the core of learning from others in communities of inquiry.

We provide this reflection not to explore the historical realities of genius but to emphasize the crucial role intellectual engagement with a stimulating environment has on thinking and meaningful learning. Barnett (2007) argues that the 21st century requires people to cope with “supercomplexity” – a term he used to describe the open-endedness of ideas, perspectives, values, beliefs and interpretations. This “supercomplexity” demands a fundamental change in our approaches to teaching and learning. Barnett suggests that university education should be structured in a way that would help students cope with not only the levels and types of existing complexity but also the additional complexity that comes from questioning the demands of complexity. While technology is adding to the complexity in our lives, communications technology also have the potential to help us cope and contribute to an increasingly connected world. However, from a learning perspective, technologies should be integrated in a way that is qualitatively distinct from what is possible without the use of these technologies.

Though there is an increasing awareness of technology capable of supporting meaningful learning through engagement, too often technology in education has been subservient to dated approaches such as enhancing lectures with visuals or providing optional online discussions where information transmission remains core to the classroom experience. In these situations, technology continued to reinforce the disengagement of students in the classroom. For example, the video created by Wesch (2007) based upon the feedback he received from his 200 students to the question of “what is it like to be a student today?” clearly shows that the students are more engaged with the outside world through technology than with the course. In the video, which has been viewed by millions around the world, students indicated that they only read half of the required readings for their coursework and many of them used the technology for non-course related activities such as checking their email or sites such as Facebook during the class.

That said, institutions of higher education are adopting communications technology while rethinking their approaches to learning. There is increasing emphasis on collaborative learning to achieve meaningful learning experiences. However, meaningful learning through collaboration is rarely achieved by simply connecting students (Kreijns, Kisrchner & Jochems, 2003) due to the excessive focus on the technology rather than the instructional design and associated support and guidance. In order to get the benefits of collaborative learning, Johnson and Johnson (1991) suggest that positive interdependence, which is “the degree to which participants perceive they are interdependent in that they share a mutual fate and their success is mutually caused” (p. 174), should be enhanced. Similarly, Kreijns et al. (2003) suggest that the incentive for collaboration has to be structured through pedagogically sound instructional approaches, each supporting and complementing each other.

In previous research, we found a strong relationship between collaborative constructivism and deep approaches to learning (Akyol & Garrison, 2011). Our research and most other studies indicated the strength of the Community of Inquiry framework to create a collaborative constructivist learning environment in which students can reach deep and meaningful learning experiences. Developing personal understanding is good but not enough to cope with the uncertainty and complexity of an increasingly connected and inter-dependent society. As Barnett (2007) suggests, putting personal meaning into a public arena for critical consideration by others is equally important for confirmation and mutual understanding. This is a strong argument for thinking collaboratively.

Contemporary approaches to learning call for the need to explore metacognitive skills (both personal and shared), in order to overcome the challenging demands of the future. Metacognition is a higher level intellectual process that precedes critical thinking and directly impacts effective collaboration (Garrison & Akyol, 2013). Students need to improve their metacognitive awareness and skills to maximize their potential to construct meaning and confirm understanding collaboratively. In this chapter, we will discuss the value of metacognition for learning and collaboration, present recent research findings supporting a two dimensional metacognition construct (self and co-regulation), and explain how a community of inquiry approach can support and sustain metacognitive development.  The expectation of this perspective is that shared metacognition theory can encourage students to become the agents of their own thinking through the shared support of a community of learners.

Metacognition in a Community of Inquiry

Metacognition has been a challenging construct to study due to its complexity, multifaceted nature, and a lack of clear definition (Tarricone, 2011). Tarricone argues, however, that this conceptual fuzziness provides an opportunity to explore derivative ideas. While there are many research studies providing evidence on the close relationship between metacognition and learning, there is not a consensus on the construct of metacognition. Early studies examined metacognition as a set of knowledge and skills used to control one’s cognition. However, with the growing emphasis on collaborative learning environments, we are witnessing a transition from merely an individualistic view of metacognition to a shared or social view. As much as metacognition is important for effective collaborative learning, it is also facilitated through collaboration (Larkin, 2009). Kennedy and Kennedy (2013) state that the overarching goal of a community of inquiry “may be described as constructing another level of awareness—the metacognitive” (p. 18). They argue that this is a social and psychological goal which implies a “collective identity.” Similarly, Lipman (2003) states that reflective inquiry “involves thinking about its procedures at the same time as it involves thinking about its subject matter” (p. 26). Thinking about procedures goes to the core of metacognitive awareness.

Kim, Park, Moore and Varma (2013) conceptualized metacognition on multiple levels in a collaborative problem solving context. According to those authors, when the individuals are interacting with others in a learning environment, metacognition cannot be explained by individualistic conceptions. Iiskala, Vauras, Lehtinen and Salonen (2011) consider metacognition in terms of a product of interaction between an individual or individuals and a surrounding context. The ability to understand and respond to others’ mental states is as important as understanding one’s own mental states and these two aspects have direct impact on each other (Son, Kornell, Finn & Cantlon, 2012).

The premise here is, if learning is taking place in a collaborative environment, metacognition cannot be conceptualized entirely from an individual perspective. For this reason, we have approached this examination of metacognition in collaborative learning environments through the lens of the Community of Inquiry framework. A community of inquiry is more than interaction; it is the purposeful dedication to shared inquiry and deep approaches to learning. It is focused on collaboratively exploring new ideas, constructing personal meaning, and validating shared understanding. A community of inquiry is the fusion of discourse and reflection with the goal of a deep and meaningful learning experience.

At the core of a community of inquiry is the philosophy of John Dewey (Garrison, 2013). Dewey did not use the term community of inquiry specifically (C. S. Peirce likely coined the phrase). In more recent times it was adopted by Lipman (2003) to describe the conditions for reflective thinking consistent with the views of Dewey.  Dewey rejected any form of dualism such as the separation of personal reflection and shared discourse. Personal meaning was dependent upon the shared experiences and understanding of the learning community. Moreover, Dewey believed practical inquiry, broadly paralleling the scientific process, was central to an educational experience. For Dewey, reflective inquiry was very much embedded and dependent upon collaboration and community. Inquiry is the relationship between thought and action. It is these foundational ideas that are the core of the Community of Inquiry theoretical framework that grounds our discussion of thinking collaboratively and exploring the metacognitive regulatory process of learning in an educational environment.

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework is a coherent and conceptually rich description of purposeful collaborative learning. The framework consists of three interdependent elements – social, cognitive and teaching presence. The CoI framework emerged at the beginning of the 21st Century as a result of concerns with social and cognitive presence in online learning environments. At the time, the challenge was to take a comprehensive but coherent perspective on the complexities of designing and delivering a worthwhile educational experience in a largely text-based online learning environment (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2010). The original research collaboration agreed that there were three core elements (multi-dimensional presences) that reflected the core educational experience, while still recognizing larger contextual or exogenous influences such as communication technologies, disciplinary differences, and participant characteristics. The result was a parsimonious conceptual framework that provided order, heuristic understanding of the dynamics of a learning community, and a methodology for studying the potential and effective use of an online learning community. Finally, it is important to note that while it was developed to study online learning (subsequently blended learning), it was grounded in the theories of teaching and learning in higher education. Therefore, although it has been extremely useful in studying online and blended learning, it is a generic framework not limited to a theory of online learning.

To fully appreciate the CoI framework we must define each interconnected presence (see Garrison, 2011). Social presence is the ability of participants to identify with the group and course of study (i.e., cohesion), communicate purposefully and in a trusting environment (i.e., open communication), and develop personal and affective relationships progressively (i.e., socio-emotional connections). Cognitive presence is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse and is operationalized through recursive phases of inquiry. This process is initiated by a triggering event and proceeding through the phases of exploration, integration and resolution. The element that brings social and teaching presence together in an effective and efficient educational environment is teaching presence. Teaching presence reflects the design, facilitation, and direction of collaborative inquiry. It is essential to appreciate that all participants assume responsibility to provide teaching presence; thus, rejecting dualism perspectives so abhorrent to Dewey. In a community of inquiry, all participants are both teacher and learner and why this element is not labeled teacher presence.

To understand collaboration in a community of inquiry we need to explore the intersections of the presences (see Figure 1). It is at these intersections that we see the theoretical dynamic of a community of inquiry emerge and the experience of thinking collaboratively unfold. The intersection of social and teaching presence is the important function of setting and maintaining the appropriate climate for inquiry. This requires the concurrent consideration of social and teaching presence functions such as designing and facilitating open communication where participants feel comfortable to express themselves and challenge ideas. This climate of trust is essential for critical discourse and reflection. At the intersection of social and cognitive presence our attention shifts to academic goals and discourse. Here it is important to identify with the academic goals and the collaborative nature of the inquiry process. Participants must feel comfortable to share their thoughts while reflecting on and trying to understand the academic content from differing perspectives. This is the essence of critical reflection and discourse. The third area of intersection is that of cognitive and teaching presence. This is the process of regulating learning and where the participants in a community of inquiry assume the responsibility to reflectively monitor and strategically manage learning collaboratively.

Figure 1: Community of Inquiry Theoretical Framework

The CoI theoretical framework reveals the intersection of metacognition and collaboration. The elements of the framework provide the means to operationalize and assess metacognition in online communities of inquiry. While teaching and cognitive presence are essential to understand the structure and dynamics, social presence creates the affective environment for the emergence of shared metacognition. As we have argued (Akyol, 2013), regulation in a collaborative learning environment must go beyond interaction with content and include interaction with others. This clearly reflects teaching and cognitive presence responsibilities such as knowledge of cognition/inquiry and the need to monitor and manage the inquiry process. Metacognition is intimately associated with consciously engaging in inquiry and collaboratively exploring and resolving the task or problem at hand.  Communication and discourse play an essential role in shared metacognitive awareness and the co-regulation of inquiry in a learning community.

Self and Co-Regulation: Understanding the role of shared metacognition raises serious challenges in terms of collaborative approaches to learning. In this regard, Chan (2012) argued we must articulate the “relationship between regulation and metacognition” (p.  71). It is to this end that we turn our attention to describing self and co-regulation inherent to thinking collaboratively in a community of inquiry.

In a community of inquiry, participants are provided the opportunity to assume appropriate responsibility and control to monitor and manage learning while receiving support from the group. Each participant not only has the responsibility to construct personal meaning but also to confirm understanding collaboratively. A recent multi-phased research project developed a metacognition construct and a corresponding questionnaire that reflected concurrent self and co-regulation responsibilities. The most recent results have confirmed a shared metacognition construct that reflects self and co-regulation in a collaborative learning community (Garrison & Akyol, unpublished manuscript). The shared metacognition construct consists of two interdependent dimensions: self and co-regulation of cognition. Each dimension exhibits both a monitoring (awareness) and a managing (action) responsibility. Self-regulation reflects metacognitive monitoring and managing skills when the individual is engaged in constructing personal meaning. Co-regulation reflects metacognitive monitoring and managing skills when engaged in collaboratively confirming understanding as a member of a purposeful learning community. A full discussion of the development of this construct in terms of the metacognition and self-regulation literature can be found in Akyol and Garrison (2011) and Garrison and Akyol (2013, unpublished manuscript).

This shared metacognition construct conceptualizes regulation “on a continuum from ‘individual regulation within group’ to ‘co-regulation as a group’” (Volet, Summers, Thurman, 2009, p. 130). This is consistent with high-level cognitive and metacognitive reflection and negotiation of meaning consistent with a community of inquiry. It is important to note that self and co-regulation reflect the individual and social dimensions of learning and are interdependent constructs. Consistent with Dewey, they are not independent constructs. For example, it is hard to imagine how an individual could co-regulate learning unless s/he was also a self-regulated learner. Therefore, we separate them in this construct only for conceptual simplicity while recognizing their inseparability in practice. In a true community of inquiry, self and co-regulation support each other. In such an environment, deep and meaningful learning not only depends on prior knowledge, the nature of task/problem or instructional strategies, but also the quality of interaction among others (Lee & Smargorinsky, 2000).

To date, the authors are not aware of an instrument that addresses the measurement of shared metacognition. Development of an instrument reflecting the shared metacognition construct was initiated with a pilot study. Psychometric properties of the hypothesized items based on this evolved metacognition construct were used to refine the scale to create the version used for a larger sample confirmation. Items were reworded to create the final 26 item questionnaire (Akyol, Nordstokke & Garrison, 2013). The shared metacognition questionnaire is shown in Table 1. Self and co-regulation of cognition are individual responsibilities and distributed group responsibilities. It should be noted that while the elements of self and co-regulation that constitute the shared metacognition construct, factor separation of the monitoring and managing functions were not clearly distinguishable.

Table 1: Shared Metacognition Questionnaire

When I am engaged in the learning process as an INDIVIDUAL: When I am engaged in the learning process as a member of a GROUP:
I am aware of my effort I pay attention to the ideas of others
I am aware of my thinking I listen to the comments of others
I know my level of motivation I consider the feedback of others
I question my thoughts I reflect upon the comments of others
I make judgments about the difficulty of a problem I observe the strategies of others
I am aware of my existing knowledge I observe how others are doing
I am aware of my level of learning I look for confirmation of my understanding from others
I assess my understanding I request information from others
I change my strategy when I need to I respond to the contributions that others make
I search for new strategies when needed I challenge the strategies of others
I apply strategies I challenge the perspectives of others
I assess how I approach the problem I help the learning of others
I assess my strategies I monitor the learning of others

Educational Implications

The recognition of shared metacognition and regulation in collaborative educational environments is crucial for preparing learners to cope with the uncertainty and complexity of an increasingly connected knowledge society. Shared metacognition is an innovative construct that is essential if educators are to understand and design learning environments that provide opportunities for collaborative inquiry. Self and co-regulation dimensions of metacognition are ideas essential to the development of meaningful collaborative educational contexts. Kim et al. (2013) suggest that students are limited in their ability to self-regulate, while a socially conceptualized metacognitive view highlights the potential of overcoming individual limitations through feedback and criticism from others. Both the study of Kim et al. and our earlier findings (Akyol & Garrison, 2011) provide evidence for higher levels of cognitive activity when students are engaged in discourse or collaborative problem solving activities.

Conceptualizing thinking and learning from an interdependent self and co-regulatory perspective is an enormous challenge as it is a clear break from traditional educational approaches and practices. While collaborative thinking and learning innovations are taking root, the future success of these approaches are predicated on understanding learning from a shared metacognitive perspective that include both self and co-regulated perspectives. Much work is required to understand its practical implications; however, the shared metacognition instrument items described previously, provides a theoretical and practical means for large scale studies of shared metacognition. From a practical perspective, this paper could raise awareness of shared cognition among educators and learners. The instrument could be used to assess the extent of shared motivation occurring in an educational context.


With the increasing focus on interaction and advances in technologies enabling interaction, there has been a shift from individual approaches to more collaborative approaches to learning. Thinking collaboratively and the co-construction of knowledge have flourished as educators and researchers have emphasized the sharing of cognitive experiences. The premise here is that metacognition and associated regulation of learning is a cognitive ability that must be viewed from both an individual and social perspective. The transition from the early individualistic learning approaches to an acknowledgement of metacognition as socially situated has precipitated the study of self and co-regulated learning in collaborative learning environments.

In this chapter, we discussed the potential of the Community of Inquiry framework to support and sustain both self and co-regulation dimensions of shared metacognition. It is anticipated that this research will provide the means to further study shared metacognition in communities of inquiry and reveal important practical implications in designing collaborative thinking and learning experiences.  The innovative aspect of this work is the development of a metacognition construct and questionnaire that reflects self and co-regulation awareness and action in collaborative learning environments. This is a crucial step to enhance our understanding of the dynamics and structure of metacognition that will lead to the development of practical applications for shared metacognition and thinking collaboratively in online and blended communities of inquiry.


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