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Inquiry: Defined and Explored

Inquiry: Defined and Explored

Learning by questioning, exploration and discovery as opposed to memorization and drill.

Inquiry learning is driven by student questions

Inquiry learning encompasses a range of instructional practices that focus on students learning through generating questions and exploring material within the framework of course curriculum with guidance from instructors (Lee, Greene, Odom, Schechter, & Slatta, 2004). This is an approach to learning that is applicable across academic departments, from education to science majors (Wyatt, 2005) and can prepare students to become life-long learners. Justice et al. (2007) described the process of inquiry as a cycle, illustrated as follows:

Cyclical Model

Teaching for inquiry is immersion learning

Abrami et al. (2008) distinguished between courses that infuse critical thinking skills into content-focused instruction, as opposed to immersing students in critical thinking by making the course itself about critical thinking. Inquiry classes fall into the immersion category, which Abrami et al. found to be more effective at teaching critical thinking skills.

Inquiry learning leverages students personal interests and prior knowledge by allowing them to choose their own question to ask or problem to solve, thereby motivating them to take responsibility for learning what is necessary to pursue their topic. To ensure that the students choose topics worthy of pursuit, some teachers have students complete learning contracts and give students  practice assessing the quality of inquiry questions.

Class time is then devoted to giving students experience with activities like problem-based learning, discussing how to find and evaluate information they might need to pursue their own inquiry.  Overall, an inquiry course provides students with structured learning experiences to help them: (a) determine what they need to learn, (b) where to find the information they need, (c) how to analyze that information, and (d) report what they have learned. These reports can include a culminating class presentation and inquiry very frequently use portfolio assessment to evaluate a student’s overall experience. These portfolios usually include some form of reflection on the inquiry process, which many feel is critical to get the most out of inquiry.

As described by Brew (2003) teaching inquiry re-aligns the teacher-student relationship so that participants become much more similar to collaborators in the creation of knowledge. This leads to a deeper level of learning by students (Donnon et al., 2008) and is well-suited to address students varying styles of learning (Magnussen, Ishida, and Itano, 2002). Inquiry-based methods of teaching can also help students connect course content in meaningful ways to broader applications in their lives (Inglis et al., 2004).


Abrami, P.C., Bernard, R.M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M.A., Tamim, R., & Zhaing, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4) pp. 1102-1134

Brew, A. (2003). Teaching and research: New relationships and their implications for inquiry-based teaching and learning in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 22(1), 3-18.

Donnon, T., & Hecker, K. (2008). A model of approaches to learning and academic achievement of students from an inquiry-based bachelor of health sciences program. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 38(1), 1-19.

Inglis, S., Sammon, S., Justice, C., Cuneo, C., Miller, S., Rice, J., et al. (2004). Cross-cultural simulation to advance student inquiry. Simulation and Gaming, 35(4), 476-487.

Justice, C., Rice, J., Warry, W., Inglis, S. Miller, S. and Shannon, S. (2007), Inquiry in higher education: Reflections and directions on course design and teaching methods. Innovative Higher Education, 31(4). 201-214.

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Lee, V., Greene, D., Odom, J., Schechter, E., & Slatta, R. (2004). What is inquiry-guided learning? In V. Lee (Ed.), Teaching and learning through inquiry: A guidebook for institutions and instructors (pp. 3-16). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Magnussen, L., Ishida, D., & Itano, J. (2000). The impact of the use of inquiry-based learning as a teaching methodology on the development of critical thinking. Journal of Nursing Education, 39(8), 360-364.

Palmer, S. (2002). Enquiry-based learning can maximise a student's potential. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 2(2), 82-86.

Wyatt, S. (2005). Extending inquiry-based learning to include original experimentation. The Journal of General Education, 54(2), 83-89.