11 Richardson and Newby, “The role of students’ cognitive engagement in online learning”


Richardson, J., & Newby, T. (2006). The role of students’ cognitive engagement in online learning. American Journal of Distance Education, 20(1), 23–37. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15389286ajde2001_3.


Cognitive engagement is defined as “the integration and utilization of students’ motivations and strategies in the course of their learning” (Richardon and Newby, 2006). Cognitive engagement helps instructors understand how students work and if their prior experiences help them with new learning. The authors of this article also discuss the change in the different types of learning that can occur, whether it be face-to-face or online. There are different aspects of cognitive engagement that are addressed in this article. The study showed that once students had been enrolled in online courses their strategies and motivations would change over time. As for the future, there still needs to be more exploring and research around learning designs and different scaffolding strategies to help learners.

Key Points

  • Researchers are looking into how learners learn online to understand needs that the learners may have.
  • It is useful for instructors and designers of online courses to have a better understanding of how learning strategies, prior experiences and motivation work together within online courses.
  • Cognitive engagement includes the amount of effort that a student puts into their work and their level of motivation.
  • Use of John Biggs’s Study Process Questionnaire (SPQ)
    • Student Learning Motive and Strategy Approaches
      • Surface—doing the minimum work to meet requirements and not cognitively engaged
      • Deep—intrinsically motivated to learn and complete work with high engagement
      • Achieving—working to achieve the highest grades in order to help with self-confidence and doesn’t necessarily find the content interesting


An idea presented in this article is the idea of motivation and the different forms of motivation. This article discusses a study done on a group of participants who volunteered. The participants needed to provide their background information and they had to complete the SPQ. Tables 2 and 3 further discuss the participants motivation by age, employment, prior experience, program focus and their gender. At the end of the study and after analyzing the data, researchers found that the more online courses that participants took, their strategies began changing as well. More data led to findings about younger students using more of a Surface Motive, while full-time students were more likely to use Achieving Motive. As students begin to gain more experience with online courses they move on to using Deep Strategy by making more connections with other courses and content areas. Finally, students who were full-time, were likely to use Achieving Motive, which would mean that they are looking to achieve the highest grades, whether the material was interesting or not (Richardson and Newby, 2006).

Discussion questions

  1. Of the three different approaches, which one do you feel best fits you? Why?
  2. Thinking about your educational background, would you say that the courses you’ve taken were cognitively engaging? How were or weren’t they?
  3. At the end of the article, it discusses how additional factors should be researched in the future, such as learning designs and scaffolding strategies. What other factors do you think should be included in future research, if any?

Additional resource

  • Shukor, N. A., Tasir, Z., Meijden, H. V. D., & Harun, J. (2014). A Predictive Model to Evaluate Students’ Cognitive Engagement in Online Learning. Procedia—Social and Behavioral Sciences, 116, 4844–4853. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.01.1036.


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