Inquiry-Based Learning: What is it, Why use it, and How?

What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

Jim, Clark, my colleague at TSBVI, often presents his students with activities which he terms, "Inquiry Labs".  I was challenged to consider the value of providing this type of instruction more often to my students, and have found that more deliberately incorporating it into instruction has provided numerous benefits including raising students' interest in the activities and encouraging questioning and critical thinking.  

Inquiry-based learning is based on constructivity learning theory:  generating information and making meaning of it based on personal or societal experience is referred to as constructivism.  

Two basic approaches to inquiry-based instruction are described in Eugene L. Chiappetta's article, " Inquiry Based Science".  These two approaches are specific and general inquiry.  Specific inquiry-based learning is specific to content which is generally introduced by the instructor.  Examples will be given in the "How" section.  General inquiry-based learning challenges students to think like scientists incorporating questioning, research, processing and analyzing data, representing results, and presenting the data.  General inquiry can be most commonly related to science projects. Though many students participate in student-led science projects, incorporating specific inquiry into the content we teach can also be a motivating and beneficial experience for our students. 

Why Inquiry-Based Learning?

Sadly, studies have shown that the interest of students with visual impairment in science tends to wane as they move through upper elementary into middle school and high school.  This is likely due to accessibility issues.  However, an opportunity to participate in inquiry-based learning has been shown to increase both the interest and performance of students with visual impairment, sometimes even above the performance of their sighted peers!

The benefits of inquiry-based learning are numerous.  It has been show to increase both test scores and self-confidence.   Because inquiry-based learning is interesting and motivating, discipline problems in the classroom and lab settings are decreased. 

How to Incorporate Inquiry-Based Learning

When incorporating inquiry-based learning into instruction, consider both the specific and the general.

Specific Inquiry-Based Learning

Specific inquiry-based learning can be incorporated in several ways.  The students are presented with a specific question to test. The instructor guides the content of the instruction, but the amount of support depends both on the students and the content.  Students may be given an outline of the procedure, if deemed necessary, or required to design the entire procedure.  It can seem like a cart-before-the-horse approach at first, but it truly works! 

For students with visual impairment, presenting the concrete first and then proceeding to more abstract information leads to greater understanding.  A good example of this is a lab that Jim Clark presented to his students recently on electrical circuits.  Prior to instruction on electricity, the students were each given the elements of a simple circuit, including a buzzer, and instructed to try to put it together so that the buzzer would ring.  Only after this activity, were the terms related to circuits introduced. This "experience before vocabulary" approach allows the students to make definite mental connections with real-life objects that had been part of a fun activity and was much more interesting than presenting the terms and content first.

Students ordering scientific stepsAnother example of this approach is an inquiry lab that I recently had my students complete.  After introducing phototropism, (the bending of plants toward the light), I presented my students with the challenge to create a procedure to test this. The students were all engaged as they designed a procedure and debated the best way to test phototropism.  When challenges in experimental design were evident, the students incorporated the suggestions of others to better accomplish the task. Another recent activity I used to introduce the scientific method is Scientific Method Intro:  Inquiry Lab:

I have included several valuable resources at the end of the blog, including a related webinar on the Perkins eLearning website.  

General Inquiry-Based Instruction

Science projects are the manner in which most students participate in general inquiry-based instruction.  Students choose the topic of study themselves and, I have found, are almost always more motivated for this reason.  Please see the excellent blog post written by Kate Fraser., which includes information on preparing your students to complete a science project.  There are also many examples of science fair projects on this website.

Inquiry-based learning engages students in a more active manner than traditional instructional methods because it is experiential "learning through doing".   Learning to ask questions is more important in science than having all the "right" answers and memorizing facts.  By leading our students through inquiry and problem-solving activities, we can encourage both critical thinking and questioning.  


Collage for inquiry-based learning

Read more about: Science, STEM