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Education Through Inquiry

Updated article originally published October 3, 2017.

Inquiry-based learning is a reversal of typical teaching and learning models. Instead of the instructor teaching the class, knowledge construction occurs through a set of questions posed by students. Engagement is shaped through this process, which creates heightened interaction between all members of the class.

In essence, inquiry-based learning hinges on student responsibility. Mainly, they are in charge of four interrelated aspects: regarding students’ own learning

  • Finding what they want and need to learn
  • Finding the resources that best support what they are learning
  • Self-reporting on the effectiveness of resources and the management of their own learning
  • Assessing and reflecting on the progress and outcomes of their own learning

Many higher education institutions adopt inquiry-based learning in certain programs and settings. It has typically been employed as a way to engage and prepare undergraduate students for success in the rest of their academic and professional careers. In these specific university contexts, the sandbox-style of inquiry pedagogy—as opposed to the more linear structure found in most courses—begins with a student’s innate curiosity of a topic, and encourages them to follow their own path in comprehending its core concepts.

Inquiry-Based Learning Examples

While each application of the inquiry model may be different, a good example exists with McMaster University, a pioneer in inquiry-based education.The following elements stem from McMaster’s offerings, but most inquiry models share these following beneficial elements:

  • Structured around a specific field of study in which students will explore their own areas of interest (e.g., STEM, social sciences, business, or health)
  • Teaches students about the field’s appropriate research methods and tools
  • Provides students with training in using library resources, recognizing and reviewing appropriate research (i.e., primary, secondary, tertiary)
  • Encourages reflection through regular progress reports

Inquiry-Based Influences

Understandably, not all institutions are able to allocate the resources to develop full inquiry-based courses; however, these same elements may be implemented on a micro level, through in-course assignments and projects. The inquiry model does not have to be implemented in its entirety to be beneficial. Exposing students to self-directed learning and appropriate research methods early in their academic careers—whether through a dedicated course or class project—improves their probability of academic success and retention. There are many ways to adopt inquiry-based methods into more traditional in-person or remote learning scenarios.

One way to integrate inquiry into more traditional course designs is to simply ask students what they wish to learn. When developing a syllabus, consider leaving gaps and collaborating with students to determine what would be best to fill these. While not fully in line with student inquiry, this approach does support certain aspects of the thinking surrounding flexibility.

Along these lines, it may be useful to develop one open-ended assessment. With this type of assessment students freely choose the topic and questions. This assessment type allows students to think about what they are interested in and how to learn about it.

Inquiry-based learning involves reflection, so thinking through possible ways to spark introspection is also another way to consider the practice of inquiry-based education. Self-assessments targeted at metacognition or micro-assessments administered throughout the term both achieve this goal.

Inquiry: Benefits and Challenges

No discussion regarding inquiry-based learning should be without mention of the various drawbacks to this approach. First, the inquiry model is difficult and time intensive in terms of university course management. The model is one that works best when the instructor is experienced or trained in it. Second, assessments can become complicated. Ways of measuring self-learning are more difficult, and since the model situates content as more abstract and self-defined, it is hard to know how to measure learning.

Even with all of this mind, the inquiry model still stands as a prime example of innovative pedagogical practices. While it may not work in every classroom, it might be useful to consider how some inquiry-based strategies can leak into traditional course design. This way, instructors are getting the best of both worlds: the structural security of typically university courses mixed with some innovative approaches to assessment and self-selected content.

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