Inquiry-based learning

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Inquiry-based learning is an educational approach in which educators enable students to create knowledge, teaching them to become problem solvers and critical thinkers. In contrast to a classic 'chalk and talk' presentation in which an instructor gives information to students, students learn how to gather, apply, analyze, and evaluate information themselves.

Studies show that inquiry-based learning can help encourage women and racial minority groups in fields where they are underrepresented. Though there has not been a large amount of research about inquiry-based teaching methods in economics, multiple studies have looked at the effects of inquiry based learning in the natural sciences, a field in which women and racial minorities are also underrepresented. One study [1] found that inquiry based learning not only improves all student's comprehension of materials, it is particularly beneficial to female, African American, and Latino students. Students of teachers who emphasized interest in science, further study in science, and experimental methods had higher scores and this benefit was significantly greater for underrepresented minority students. According to an overview of past research about the effectiveness of inquiry based learning [2], past projects to increase gender ratios in the sciences have found improved success rates with an inquiry-based teaching compared to traditional lecture formats.

How to Incorporate Inquiry-Based Learning

Bloom's Taxonomy

Incorporating Inquiry-Based Learning into the classroom requires changing the environment from one of passive information reception 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 (see image on right) and help your students move up the pyramid.
  • Place an emphasis on the "how" rather than the "what" of knowledge. As in cooperative learning, students learn how current knowledge was generated by using data and/or 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." An emphasis on there being a correct answer for a question discourages student involvement during lecture and therefore discourages critical thinking and the desire to understand things beyond "face value." When students contribute to classroom discussions, identify the value in their comments. Then, clearly 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. Wolf 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.
  • 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.
  • Use Peer Instruction. Peer Instruction is an instructional strategy that works even in large classes; it engages students through a structured questioning process involving every student. Harvard researchers implemented and evaluated the method and found "increased student mastery of both conceptual reasoning and quantitative problem solving upon implementing PI."
  • Use problem sets with 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.
  • Schedule recitation sessions 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.

Other Examples of Inquiry-Based Learning

See "Focus on Inquiry: A Teacher's Guide to Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning" by the Alberta Ministry of Learning , and a similar, shorter document from Penn State.

Partial-immersion language programs promote language acquisition through active use rather than through memorization of vocabulary and verb conjugations. See



The rate of information dissemination has dramatically increased, due to technological development and global interconnection. 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.

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. <>.

Kinkead, Joyce. 2003. "Learning Through Inquiry: An Overview of Undergraduate Research" NEW DIRECTIONS FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING, 93. 5-17. <>