Developed in the 1960s, many teachers see inquiry-based learning as a new pedagogy — meaning they have questions about how to use it and if it’s worthwhile.
Like problem-based learning, proponents state that letting students investigate solutions to open questions has a range of advantages. But the pedagogy must be shaped by research-backed approaches to reap these advantages.
What Is Inquiry-Based Learning?
If you’re familiar with the definition of inquiry-based learning, feel free to skip this section.
For the many educators who aren’t, it is a learning and teaching method that prioritizes student questions, ideas and analyses. To highlight the pedagogy’s nuances, it is important to define inquiry-based learning from both a learner and teacher perspective.
From a student point-of-view, inquiry-based learning focuses on investigating an open question or problem. They must use evidence-based reasoning and creative problem-solving to reach a conclusion, which they must defend or present.
From a teacher point-of-view, inquiry-based teaching focuses on moving students beyond general curiosity into the realms of critical thinking and understanding. You must encourage students to ask questions and support them through the investigation process, understanding when to begin and how to structure an inquiry activity.
Using methods such as guided research, document analysis and question-and-answer sessions, you can run inquiry activities in the form of:
- Case studies
- Group projects
- Research projects
- Field work, especially for science lessons
- Unique exercises tailored to your students
Whichever kind of activity you use, it should allow students to develop unique strategies for solving open questions.
The 4 Types of Inquiry-Based Learning
There are different kinds of inquiry-based learning, which become decreasingly structured and suit different classrooms:
- Confirmation Inquiry — You give students a question, its answer and the method of reaching this answer. Their goal is to build investigation and critical-thinking skills, learning how the specific method works.
- Structured Inquiry — You give students an open question and an investigation method. They must use the method to craft an evidence-backed conclusion.
- Guided Inquiry — You give students an open question. Typically in groups, they design investigation methods to reach a conclusion.
- Open Inquiry — You give students time and support. They pose original questions that they investigate through their own methods, and eventually present their results to discuss and expand.
Regardless of the type, inquiry-based learning aims to develop students’ abilities to analyze, synthesize and evaluate information — indications of high-level thinking according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.
7 Benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning
As well as building skills to help students reach a high level of thinking, inquiry-based learning can deliver other benefits to students and teachers.
1. Reinforces Curriculum Content
Whereas some see inquiry-based learning as a departure from the curriculum, you can use it to reinforce relevant content and improve understanding of core concepts.
This is due to curiosity’s effect on the brain. When a concept sparks curiosity, there is increased activity in the hippocampus — the region of the brain responsible for memory creation.
When students show more curiosity than normal regarding a specific topic, satiate it by using their questions to introduce an inquiry activity in the coming days.
In doing so, they should effectively retain essential information gleaned during the exercise, according to a study from the Association for Psychological Science.
2. “Warms Up” the Brain for Learning
Running a brief inquiry activity to start class can help students absorb information throughout the day, according to the same study.
Specifically, it states that curiosity prepares the brain for learning — allowing students to become more proficient at understanding and remembering skills and concepts.
An easy way to inspire curiosity is by launching an inquiry activity as a surprise. Related to a recent topic students found especially interesting, begin a lesson by playing a video or sharing a primary source document. Then, give students an open question to answer either individually or as a group.
This will help start class in a curiosity-sparking, intellectually-stimulating way.
3. Promotes a Deeper Understanding of Content
By delving into a concept through inquiry, students should see it as more than a simple rule, idea or formula.
Many of them will understand:
- How the idea was developed
- Why the rule or formula works
- When they can properly apply the rule, idea or formula
This is because the process of asking open questions, solving them through original strategies, empowers students to take ownership of their learning. Barring hiccups, they should be able to build understanding of a concept through their own methods and thinking styles. The same principle applies to experiential learning, which puts students at the center of the learning experience.
They won’t have to follow a process they can’t grasp, possibly arriving at a seemingly-unjustified conclusion.
4. Helps Make Learning Rewarding
Inquiry can help students see the intrinsic rewards of learning, says an oft-cited article from the Harvard Educational Review.
The author states that many kids learn in an attempt to earn “the rewards of parental or teacher approval or the avoidance of failure.” As a result, they may not appreciate the inherent benefits of learning.
He hypothesized that inquiry-based learning instills a different mindset.
It shows students how fulfilling the act of discovery is, and that theorizing a new strategy or original conclusion is a reward. Because of this, they grow to enjoy the learning process itself — not parent or teacher approval.
This means that student appreciation for learning can improve with a simple inquiry exercise.
5. Builds Initiative and Self-Direction
Students can improve certain transferable skills through inquiry-based learning, many of which relate to initiative and self-direction.
This is evident when examining the steps of the inquiry process. Students learn how to ask questions, investigate, discuss, collaborate, cooperate and reach their own conclusions. Although they can separately build these skills through other activities, self-guided inquiry and analysis synthesizes this development.
Such skills will not only prove useful as students reach higher grades, but enter post-secondary school and beyond.
6. Works in Almost Any Classroom
Inquiry-based learning can also benefit teachers, as you can repurpose activities for almost any classroom. Even regardless of grade and individual skill levels.
This is because you can:
- Adapt the pace and content to suit the needs of students
- Appeal to students who struggle to grasp content through traditional lessons
- Deliver exercises that greatly differ, using distinct content and investigation methods
- Use an inquiry exercise as either a “minds-on” activity, review, full lesson or standalone project
- Reinforce and expand upon any relevant concept, as long as students have shown curiosity towards it
In these ways, you’ll have the flexibility to provide inquiry exercises to the majority of your classes year after year.
7. Offers Differentiated Instruction
Running an inquiry-based learning activity will give you a chance to use differentiated instruction strategies, appealing to the diverse learning styles of your students.
Students can work by themselves, or as part of a small or large group. Inquiry itself typically involves methods such as discussion and guided research. You can also provide content in form of text, audio, video and virtual or physical manipulatives such as building blocks.
Delivering a range of content and ways to process it, inquiry activities can allow you to meet your students’ distinct learning needs and preferences.
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7 Inquiry-Based Learning Strategies and Activities for Teachers
Like any teaching method, there are strategies to help you successfully run an inquiry activity. These strategies will also allow you and your students to enjoy the full extent of inquiry-based learning’s benefits.
1. Keep Guiding Principles in Mind
To run an inquiry activity, there are broad principles you should follow:
- Learners are at the centre of the inquiry process. You, along with the resources and technology you provide are there to support them.
- Inquiry activities themselves should concentrate on building information-processing and critical thinking abilities.
- You should monitor how students develop these skills as they build conceptual understanding of the topic in question.
- As well as facilitating the exercise, try to learn more about your students’ learning habits and inquiry-based learning in general.
Keeping these principles in mind should keep you and your students focused on the overarching purposes of inquiry-based learning.
2. Demonstrate How to Participate
Because students may not be familiar with inquiry-based learning, consider demonstrating how to participate in an inquiry activity.
Specifically, they must learn how to:
- Contribute ideas
- Develop those ideas
- Question themselves and group members in a constructive manner
- Investigate, to the fullest extent possible, their ideas and hypotheses
Launching a mock-exercise for the class to tackle as a group, actively participate to give students a first-hand look at how to complete these steps. For example, after presenting an open question, facilitate and contribute to a brainstorming session. This will exemplify pitching and developing ideas.
Demonstrating how to participate in this way should prepare students for future exercises.
3. Surprise Students
To spark curiosity and enjoy its aforementioned benefits, run a surprise inquiry activity.
With little to no context, start class by:
- Playing a video
- Handing out a mathematical formula or list of math word problems
- Distributing a primary source document
The content piece must relate to a topic that interests students, effectively engaging them. After they’ve examined the content, split them into small groups and give them an open question to answer.
For example, you may ask them to determine applications for the mathematical formula or word problems.
As research about curiosity indicates, their findings and conclusions should stick with them beyond the activity.
4. Use Inquiry when Traditional Methods Won’t Work
Structured or guided inquiry activities can lend themselves to topics that students typically struggle to grasp, allowing them to process content in different ways.
Investigating a question you present, they should be able to use their own techniques to analyze information that may normally be too challenging otherwise. As a result, they’ll likely form conclusions that make sense to them.
You can then discuss these conclusions and fill knowledge gaps to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Furthermore, monitoring students throughout the activity can teach you about their learning styles, informing how to approach other difficult lessons. If you are writing report card comments, you may use the opportunity to observe student behavior.
5. Understand When Inquiry Won’t Work
Inquiry-based learning delivers its share of benefits, but you must recognize which lessons don’t call for inquiry.
Take this scenario as an example: You want to run a guided inquiry activity for math class, which (a) introduces negative integers and (b) requires students to determine the concept’s application in real-life scenarios.
Asking students to read an introductory text about negative integers will likely drain time and cause confusion. On the other hand, a brief overview will allow them to spend more time on the latter part of the activity, which focuses on analysis and discovery.
As this example shows, there are cases when a simple explanation will suffice over an elongated activity.
6. Don’t Wait for the Perfect Question
A student can ask a question that stimulates classmates’ curiosity, signaling you to prepare or launch an inquiry activity. But this is rarely the case. And you shouldn’t wait for it.
Rather, you can initiate an inquiry activity when you feel it is appropriate. But it must use a guiding question that:
- Reflects a core curriculum concept
- Has engaged students from past or other classes
- Interests students, as indicated in previous lessons and discussions
The question’s source, whether from you or your students, is secondary.
7. Run a Check-In Afterwards
Allotting time for class-wide reflection lets students discuss challenges and discoveries, filling knowledge gaps and supplementing findings.
This prepares them for future lessons and inquiry activities. They’ll learn about an array of ideas to consider throughout their study of the specific topic, and strategies to try during the next exercise.
It can be especially helpful for learners who struggle in small groups, giving them a different way to process the activity’s outcomes.
Wrapping Up this Guide to Inquiry-Based Learning
Armed with a thorough understanding of inquiry-based learning and the strategies you need to run activities, your students should see benefits.
These not only include an improved understanding of curriculum concepts and the development of transferable skills, but — according to research and proponents — a greater appreciation for learning’s inherent rewards.
This, in itself, should create a more engaged classroom.
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