Inquiry Based Learning: The Definitive Guide

The past few decades are full of new advancements in teaching. Over time, researchers have focused primarily on the goal of improving learning outcomes. However, critical to that effort is the need to raise student engagement.

As research into education has progressed, one of the most promising approaches to education has been the educational intervention known as inquiry based learning.

At its broadest, inquiry based learning refers to an active form of learning that centers around asking students questions or presenting them with problems and scenarios that they have to resolve. Inquiry based learning, at its best, does more than simply ask students to solve problems.

Using this approach, teachers try to raise the engagement of students by making them interested in the problem at hand. By raising a student’s curiosity, the teacher also raises the student’s own level of learning engagement.

Inquiry Based Learning vs Traditional Learning

Perhaps the best way of highlighting how inquiry based learning is distinct from other learning styles is by contrasting it against traditional learning approaches. Traditional learning has occurred, in one form or another, for centuries.

Entire societies have organized themselves around teaching young people using schools and lecture centered learning. Asa result, traditional learning is a back-to-basics approach to education.

Traditional learning usually included a variant of a teacher teaching certain information that students were, in turn, expected to memorize and recite. The process of traditional learning includes four stages, beginning with teachers instructing and handing out assignments, students learning the required information, students reciting what they’ve learned, and students finally being tested to see if they have successfully retained all the information they were taught.

Traditional learning, regardless of whether it occurs through a lecturer or book readings, is heavily dependent on rote memorization of new information. Curriculum as traditionally created that was applied in the same manner to all students with no effort to tailor these lessons to the students who were learning. This format was the generally accepted method of teaching students in Europe and, consequently, the United States.

Inquiry based learning quickly distinguishes itself as unique from the traditional approach in its methods and the means by which information is transmitted. Inquiry based learning is student centered. Lecturers become facilitators. Instead of lecturing to students, instructors develop questions and facilitate a student’s ability to solve those problems. As such, inquiry based learning shifts away from rote memorization of information as presented in books or lectures. Instead, the inquiry approach requires students to arrive at new knowledge through their approaches to problem solving for the problems they’ve been presented with.

Characteristics of Inquiry Based Learning

Remembering that inquiry based learning does not teach students information but instead asks students to arrive at new information on their own, research based learning is characterized by a few specific qualities. Instead, this style of learning asks students to create arguments that solve specific problems or situations. These arguments need to be rooted in sound evidence and argumentation that justify the answer.

Students should be able to explain why the evidence they’re presenting help to solve the problem and how each bit of evidence relates to each other. As such, part of the inquiry based approach includes active engagement on the part of the learner. Students are expected to seek out new knowledge on their own, from which they can generate their arguments.

Consequently, this approach to instructing students requires an active classroom in which information is constructed. Students find supporting evidence and construct new information in the process of developing their arguments. This means that the inquiry based method lends itself over to also teaching students several skills that will be useful throughout their lives.

Because inquiry based approaches require independent work on the part of the student, students are asked to learn critical thinking skills. These are skills that continue on through college and into adulthood and can benefit a person not only in their academic studies but also in their daily lives.

During the process of investigating solutions to the problem they’re faced with, students will come across a wealth of information. Part of learning about critical thinking is learning how different bits of information relate to each other. This is an important kill because it helps students learn to critically assess information to understand the substance of that information and how it can be assembled together into a larger answer.

In addition, students also learn important research skills. They learn how to search through different resources, such as online databases or books that are available to them. Students may also learn to think about how to set up experiments that can answer the questions that they encounter.

As students increase their level of learning, their ability to find information becomes more advanced. They begin to learn how to collect data for themselves using different tools and approaches. Students also learn how to analyze that information to create data they can actually use to solve the problems they’ve been presented.

The Four Step Inquiry Process

Although teachers often come up with problems that can be presented to students, there’s also a four step method of inquiry that teachers often use that begin each investigation with the student, rather than the teacher. Using this approach, students are instead asked to develop their own questions, rather than teachers present premade questions to them.

A teacher may present a general topic or subject that students are expected to address. From there, students develop questions about the subject that they want answered. These students develop a problem statement and formalize their research questions that they want answered. With a question developed, the students are prepared to begin their independent inquiry to solve the question.

Within the class, students perform their investigations. Even if an entire classroom’s time isn’t committed to the research, it’s important for at least some time to be set aside for student inquiry.

Teachers act as the head researcher in the room and help guide students in their investigations. Returning to the concept of teachers as facilitators, instructors must facilitate the inquiries that students perform in the class.

They can help students approach particularly difficult topics, connect data, and develop the kinds of robust answers to questions that the inquiry methods are supposed to encourage. Class time is therefore essential, since for many students, there will be difficulties at some point along the process, whether that means trouble identifying relevant information or performing the appropriate kinds of data analysis.

The third step of this four step process is to have students make a presentation of what they’ve learned and demonstrate to the class how they’ve answered their research question. To help guide these presentations, teachers should come up with rubrics that help instruct students in what they’re expected to present and how to present it.

Essentially, students need to be teachers of their own when they present their findings. The content that students present should be easily understood by other students, requiring students to learn some teaching and presentation skills. There are many ways that these students can present their findings.

They can use an interactive presentation on a website or present something more simple, such as a PowerPoint presentation. The emphasis here is that students should become so familiar with their data and findings that they can communicate the answer easily to their peers.

Finally, the fourth step of the process includes a reflection period. This reflection period is a time when students are asked to talk about what they feel worked during their research and what did not. Essentially, this is a period when students can look back on their work and refine their research process.

Consider this perspective. When a student is first asked to perform independent research, they may feel overwhelmed by the wealth of information at their disposal. Or, they may feel as if there’s little information to be found on their topic. They may waste plenty of time going through different resources, finding it difficult to identify places where they can find relevant data.

Over time, research becomes a more effective process. Students become better adjusted to the resources at their disposal and which resources are best suited for different types of research.

Students get better at the process of performing research itself. The reflection period is meant to help this process along and make students better at research. Reflection asks students to consider what they did, what they would do again, and what they would avoid in future research. Reflection is a period when students think about not only what they’ve learned but how they learned it.

Teacher Approaches in Inquiry Based Learning

It may help teachers to better understand inquiry based learning if they understand specific examples of how it unfolds. For example, within the first step of the process when students are developing research questions, there is a great emphasis on interactions.

By engaging with materials and with one another, students can identify potential research questions. Students typically get introduced to a topic by engaging first with formal materials, such as school books or research materials. Teachers may occasionally need to provide additional materials from which students can learn more about a topic and generate research questions.

During this period, students also need to be engaged with one another. They can discuss what they’re learning and ask about the perspectives of others to see if anyone else is interested in a similar research direction. Peers may also provide valuable insights that help students develop their research questions.

During this entire process, teachers should be an expert consultant who answers any questions that a student might have that can’t be answered from the materials or by consulting with peers.

Various kinds of media can also help during this process, such as video. Teachers should make significant efforts to provide a robust amount of resources and facilitate interactions between all students in order to help encourage the development of questions. It should be noted that these same approaches should be taken when students are attempting to answer their research questions as well.

Speaking of the actual process of answering the questions students develop, this should be a period when students focus on more clearly understanding the data in front of them. This is a phase of the inquiry based approach known as clarification. It’s not an independent stage itself but occurs during the creation of research questions and looking into answers. Recalling that teachers are expected to provide a large body of materials and media from which students can draw, it is expected that students will eventually arrive at a wide body of relevant material.

However, simply having a large body of information available to them isn’t sufficient for answering the research question. Instead, students need to be able to clarify which information is most helpful. During research, they may find information that is more opinion than fact.

Teachers should work closely with students to help them identify what sort of materials can be applied toward answering research questions they develop. Feedback they provide should be frequent. Teachers can also help categorize and sort their information by providing graphic organizers.

These organizers can be used by students to assign different information to different categories. Later, they can go through their organizer and more quickly reference related information. The goal of the teacher should be to facilitate ways for the students to clarify what’s useful, what’s not, and what information is related. Graphic organizers can also help students identify information they’re missing that would be needed to answer their research questions.

One point of emphasis is that before students can begin research, they need to develop appropriate research questions. Teachers should review questions with students and ask them whether the question is worth answering. How does it contribute to the larger body of knowledge on the topic? How can answering the question fill in a student’s own knowledge gaps? What sort of research questions are answerable? Refining a student’s research questions can help set the stage for a successful research project.


Inquiry based research contrasts against traditional learning in that it places a greater emphasis on the student and asks them to do the work of researching questions.

Questions can be presented by an instructor, but it’s even more helpful when students can develop their research questions on their own, since developing the research questions sets the stage for students to continue on to answering those questions.

Teachers should consider themselves as expert facilitators throughout this process, helping to guide students without directly answering their questions for them. The focus is instead on helping students answer their own questions and independently develop a body of knowledge.

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