Inquiry-based learning

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Inquiry-based learning is an educational approach analogous to the scientific method. The model focuses on educators being 'enablers' of knowledge rather than instructors. It moves away from the classic method known as 'chalk and talk' which emphasizes the role of the educator as giving out as much information on what is known to students. The problem with this method is that it is irrelevant and outdated given the fast transmission of data possible due to technology. Rather, it is necessary for educational approaches being used to teach students to become problem solvers and critical thinkers, skills necessary given readily available facts and information-it is the application and manipulation of facts and data that students must learn, and not memorization.

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The inquiry-based learning approach provides students with critical thinking and problem solving skills by making the classroom an open system through which information can flow from students and educators alike. As its name implies, inquiry lies at the heart of the approach. It is through questioning and analysis of a problem/topic, the gathering of data from sources provided by educators and outside sources, and its analysis that students come to learn. At the heart of this approach lies the idea that students will learn to apply their knowledge to real life situations and gain the 'habit of mind' of seeking answers for problems they are faced with and also have a desire to investigate the world as a result.

For an extensive explanation click here

Examples of Inquiry-Based Learning

  • Teach using the case method. Providing students with a case representative of the lesson's educational objective effectively engages them beyond pure memorization. With case methods, students are forced to truly understand the underlying concept and apply it to the analysis of the case. Click here to see a guide to implementing the case method in the Economics classroom.
  • Using problem sets and including context-rich problems. Problem sets effectively engage the student by asking it to apply knowledge from the lesson. More importantly, using context-rich problems that provide real-life applications of the lesson, and at times excess information, force the student to truly comprehend the material. For a guide on using context-rich problems in the Economics classroom click here. The use of technology in the classroom also enables inquiry-based learning by providing students with multiple resources and representations of the same information.
  • Having a recitation session with students. Recitation sessions allow for close, one-on-one discussion of abstract concepts, of which there are many in the Economics discipline. By having a small group of students meet with a professor to discuss the weeks problem set, one sets the stage for critical discussions--students can discuss their ideas with each other and the professor and therefore gain a multidimensional understanding of concepts.

The implementation of inquiry-based learning curricula has been increasingly popular and successful in recent years. Kent Gardens Elementary school in McLean, VA is a great example with its Partial-Immersion World Language Program. Through this program students learn a foreign language by being taught in a foreign language for half of the day and English the other half. The philosophy behind this approach is that by teaching students in a foreign language, they will learn it because they will need to apply it rather in the traditional "chalk and talk" method of having them learn the language via memorization of vocabulary and verb conjugations. In the Kent Gardens program, students are taught Math, Science and Health in the foreign language of choice because these subjects "use manipulatives and concrete, hand-on activities, both of which help with the natural second language acquisition process." On the other hand, Social Studies and Language Arts are taught in English. The program has been cited by education resources profiling the inquiry-based learning method such as

How to Incorporate Inquiry-Based Learning

The Educational Resource Information Center posts a handbook from the Alberta Ministry of Learning aimed at implementing inquiry-based learning titled "Focus on Inquiry: A Teacher's Guide to Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning." To access it, click here. A similar, shorter document from Penn State can be found here.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Incorporating Inquiry-Based Learning into the classroom implicates changing the environment from one of instruction to one of curiosity and desire for explanations. This shift in thought can be achieved by adopting several practices and attitudes:

  • Become familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy [1] and help your students move up the pyramid.
  • Place an emphasis on the "how" rather than the "what" of knowledge, like in cooperative learning. Students should learn how it is that current knowledge was generated. This is important because it teaches them how to use data/observations to derive knowledge. gives as an example explaining to students what methods were used to conclude what the Earth's different rock layers are rather than just telling them what these layers are called. Again, by placing an emphasis on the knowledge-creation process, students become accustomed to this way of thought and begin applying it.
  • Don't emphasize that there is "one right answer." In the current system an emphasis is placed on there being a correct answer for topics, but this disencourages student involvement during lecture and therefore disencourages critical thinking and a desire to understand things beyond "face value." As part of this technique , whenever students contribute to lecture but clearly misunderstand a concept instead of telling them they are incorrect, one should explain what the generally accepted answer entails and why it is that the answer is accepted.
  • Questions, Questions, Questions. As an educator, one should ask open-ended questions that are reflective in nature. This article on question types by Dennie Palmer Wolf. In it, he explains the differences between Inferences Questions which "fill in the gaps," Interpretation Questions which assess comprehension of the consequences of information/ideas, Transfer Questions which are meant to take knowledge to a new place and Hypothesis Questions which relate to predictive thinking. All together, using these question types fosters an inquiry spirit.



Due to several factors such as technology and global interconnection the rate of information dissemination has dramatically increased. As result, an educational system that places an emphasis on vast memorization is inefficient. Instead, educational systems should be reorganized to emphasize problem-solving and the generation of knowledge. This shift can be achieved by fostering an environment of inquiry. Inquiry-Based Learning is a tool educators can use to craft student minds that seek more than just concrete answers and rather enjoy full comprehension of the mechanisms underlying the what is known. In other words, by employing Inquiry-Based Learning methods educators can help students learn to create knowledge, a currently necessary skill.


"Assessing the Effectiveness of Problem Based Learning in Higher Education: Lessons from the Literature." Manuscript Reviewing Guidelines. Web. 27 June 2011. <>.

Becker, William E., and Michael Watts. "Teaching Methods in U. S. Undergraduate Economics Courses." The Journal of Economic Education 32.3 (2001): 269-79. Web. <>.

"Inquiry-based Learning: Explanation." THIRTEEN - New York Public Media. Web. 03 June 2011. <>.

"Inquiry-based Learning." Printable Worksheets for Teachers and Students. Web. 01 June 2011. <>.

"World Language - Partial Immersion." FCPS Home Page Redirect Page. Web. 10 June 2011. <>.