Inquiry-Based Approaches: What Do Students Think?

“Inquiry-based learning is an umbrella term, encompassing a range of teaching approaches which involve stimulating learning with a question or issue and thereby engaging learners in constructing new knowledge and understandings.” (p. 57) Teachers who use these approaches act as facilitators of learning. Students start becoming more self-directed learners. A hodgepodge of approaches gets put under this umbrella, including case-based learning; problem-based learning; and discovery-oriented learning, which involves undertaking original research.

In an effort to help categorize teaching methods in this area, the authors of this article propose several ways of organizing these various approaches, including one that differentiates between three modes of inquiry: structured inquiry, where teachers provide the issue or problem and some direction on how it should be addressed; guided inquiry, where teachers stimulate the inquiry with questions but students decide how to explore the questions; and open inquiry, where students formulate the questions, identify what needs to be known, collect and analyze the data, offer findings, communicate the results, and evaluate the research.

A second scheme categorizes inquiry-based approaches by how they are framed and whether they are discovery oriented or information oriented. “In discovery framing, students understand and experience research through personal questioning, exploration and discovery in relation to new questions or lines of investigation. In an information framing, students experience research through already existing answers, with the purpose of acquiring a previously established body of knowledge.” (p. 58)

In this particular analysis (part of a larger body of research), the team was interested in how students perceived these various kinds of inquiry approaches. Students (940 of them) in 15 different inquiry-based courses at four different institutions were surveyed. The instrument asked how the course had encouraged them to engage in activities such as memorizing, explaining, analyzing, applying, evaluation, creating, and reflecting. It also asked the students about learning processes, including whether they were intellectually challenged and encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning.

The results contained a lot of good news. Students reported that all these various types of inquiry-based courses encouraged those types of learning high on the Bloom taxonomy; the highest-ranked learning types were analyzing (72 percent), applying (70 percent), and understanding (65 percent). Memorizing was ranked lowest at 44 percent. In all these courses, 91 percent of students reported that they were encouraged to take responsibility for their learning. Just over 60 percent of the students rated the course highly for being intellectually challenging.

As for the different modes, open inquiry was the most highly rated in terms of the type of learning it promoted, followed by guided and then structured inquiry. As far as the framing approaches, discovery-oriented rated highest for the type of learning it encouraged. “In particular, discovery-oriented IBL [inquiry-based learning] performed much better than information-oriented IBL for creating, applying and analyzing (differences of 19%, 17% and 14% respectively).” (p. 64)

“The analysis of the 15 cases [courses] showed that IBL was indeed promoting learning processes and outcomes expected with this type of teaching approach.” (p. 66) The researchers do note that this data was collected only from students participating in inquiry-based courses. How these student assessments might compare with those of students not taking inquiry-based approaches was not explored in this research. Nonetheless, much related research does indicate that student experiences in more traditional courses are not the same as the learning experiences described by students in this cohort.

Reference: Spronken-Smith, R., Walker, R., Batchelor, J., O’Steen, B. and Angelo, T. (2012). “Evaluating student perceptions of learning processes and intended learning outcomes under inquiry approaches.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37 (1), 57–72.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.6 (2012): 2-3.