Inquiry-Based Learning Report
These pages describe the background context, rationale and aims of the research. They also detail the approach of the research and the research methods utilised.
Introduction and Background Context
Rachel Spronken-Smith and Rebecca Walker (University of Otago), Billy O’Steen (University of Canterbury), Julie Batchelor and Helen Matthews (Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology) and Tom Angelo (Victoria University of Wellington)
What is inquiry-based learning?
“Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.”
This well known adage signifies the value of engaging the learner in a task as a more meaningful way to learn. One such teaching approach is learning through inquiry (or inquiry-based learning, IBL). Elements of this approach have their origins in antiquity, and are discernible in the teaching of Confucius and Socrates. Philosophers as early as Spinoza in the 17th century purported that knowledge is created through the manipulation of ideas rather than the transmission of facts. It is the American educator and philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952), however, who was largely responsible for promoting ‘learning by doing’ (Dewey, 1933). Influenced by Dewey, inquiry-based learning was adopted by many school teachers in the 1970s and began to appear about the same time in tertiary institutions. One example of this is Hampshire College in the United States, where an inquiry curriculum has been used since its establishment in 1970 (Weaver, 1989), while McMaster University, Canada, has been teaching using IBL for over twenty years (McMaster University, 2007). Despite a lengthy history, the literature base for IBL is at best patchy and diffuse, and although there are several recent volumes that describe the teaching approach and provide readers with a range of examples (e.g. see Alford, 1998; Bateman, 1990; Lee, 2004; and Weaver, 1989), most literature appears in pockets amidst educational and disciplinary journals, usually due to enthusiasts attempting to encourage others to try the approach.
The nature of inquiry-based learning is contested and even the term itself is not in widespread use throughout the educational literature. A diverse array of terms are in use for learning through inquiry and include enquiry-based learning’, ‘guided-inquiry’, ‘undergraduate research’, ‘research-based teaching’, ‘discovery learning’, and ‘inductive teaching and learning.’ Although the teaching approach is becoming pervasive throughout all levels of education (from primary to tertiary), there is a paucity of research that provides a clear overview and synthesis of IBL. A full literature review is provided in Appendix A that led to the working definition of IBL, provided below. Despite a plethora of definitions for IBL, there is a commonality of opinion about what constitutes IBL. We draw on this commonality to provide a working definition of IBL for our research.
We see IBL as a pedagogy which best enables students to experience the processes of knowledge creation. The core ingredients of an IBL approach that most researchers are in agreement with are:
- learning is stimulated by inquiry, i.e. driven by questions or problems;
- learning is based on a process of constructing knowledge and new understanding;
- it is an 'active' approach to learning, involving learning by doing;
- a student-centred approach to teaching in which the role of the teacher is to act as a facilitator;
- a move to self-directed learning with students taking increasing responsibility for their learning; and
- the development of skills in self-reflection.
Students engaged in IBL should develop valuable research skills and be prepared for life-long learning. As identified by Lee et al., (2004) particular learning outcomes should include critical thinking, the ability to undertake independent inquiry, responsibility for own learning and intellectual growth and maturity.
The inquiry model (Figure 1) developed by a group of McMaster teachers (Justice et al., 2002) shows a cycle in which students become engaged with a topic, develop a question to explore, determine what information needs to be found, gather data, synthesise findings, communicate findings and then evaluate the success. Further the process is seen as circular since the inquiry leads to new interests and more questions. Core to the process is an attitude of self-reflection and evaluation, which are seen as “both a product of the inquiry process and an enabler of success at every stage” (Justice et al, 2002:19).
Several modes of IBL are discussed in the literature. One framing we find useful is that of Staver and Bay (1987) who distinguish between structured, guided and open inquiry. Their definitions were particularly oriented towards problem solving, but we broaden their categories to allow exploration of issues. Thus we distinguish between:
- structured inquiry – where teachers provide an issue or problem and an outline for addressing it
- guided inquiry – where teachers provide questions to stimulate inquiry but students are self-directed in terms of exploring these questions
- open inquiry – where students formulate the questions themselves as well as going through the full inquiry cycle as given in Figure 1.
As one progresses from structured through to open inquiry the level of scaffolding decreases, and the ability of the students to undertake independent research increases. Thus, IBL can go from a rather structured and guided activity, particularly at lower levels (where the teacher may pose the questions and give guidance in how to solve the problem), through to open inquiry or independent research where the students generate the questions and determine how to research them.
Furthermore, IBL can occur at a range of scales within the curriculum from a discrete activity through to the design principle for the whole degree. Spronken-Smith et al. (2008) report a series of cases of IBL from within-class activities through to inquiry courses and then inquiry degree programmes. They argue that while smaller scale inquiry actitivies are useful, particularly to progressively develop research skills, the most benefit in terms of learning outcomes, occurs with inquiry courses or degree programmes.
The relationship between IBL, problem-based learning (PBL), and case-based learning (CBL) is less clear. Problem-based learning has a well developed literature base but like IBL, the definition of the term is contested and again there are a variety of approaches that fall under the umbrella term of PBL. All approaches may begin with a question, although open inquiry often starts with a general theme or issue from which students develop a particular question to be addressed. The timescale for IBL (over weeks or months) is typically much longer than for either PBL (hours to weeks) or CBL (minutes to hours). Whilst open inquiry promotes student choice in terms of the topic of learning, in PBL and CBL, the content and skills to be learned are usually far more prescribed. CBL and PBL are thus akin to structured and guided forms of IBL. In all approaches the teacher’s role is one of a facilitator. Given these relations between the three approaches, the research team decided that PBL was a more prescriptive form of IBL, and CBL a more focussed form of PBL, giving a nested hierarchy within the realm of active learning (Figure 2).