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The What and the Why of Inquiry-Based Learning

Dr. Prathik Cherian. Senior Research Associate, Dept. of Physics, Prayoga


If you are an educator or an education researcher or even someone with a cursory interest in the field of education, chances are that you would have come across inquiry-based learning (IBL). Even though the concept is by no means new, it has increasingly gained in prominence in the past few decades and especially since the turn of the millennium. It has become a buzzword in various international curricula, education research as well as teaching. It has found acceptance not just in STEM teaching, but even in the teaching of humanities subjects such as languages, history etc. In this article, we will look at IBL from the perspective of science teaching and try to answer the following questions:

● What exactly does inquiry mean?

● What is inquiry-based learning?

● What are the benefits of IBL?

Inquiry and Inquiry-Based Learning

The philosophy of inquiry based learning finds its roots in the works of several stalwarts of constructivist theory of learning, namely, Dewey, Vygotsky, et al [1-3]. Inquiry is at the heart of several instructional strategies and there is a spectrum of them developed such as IBL, project-based learning, problem-based learning, experiential learning etc.

The trouble one encounters when trying to understand inquiry is that there is no single monolithic definition from literature. It takes on different forms depending on who is giving the definition. Needless to say, this has a detrimental effect on the perception and for the classroom adoption of inquiry. This lack of clarity forces the teachers to craft their own definitions of inquiry in the classroom and leads to muddled efforts [4].

Here, we will offer a definition of inquiry as it pertains to science education. Inquiry in the context of STEM becomes almost synonymous with the scientific inquiry i.e. the diverse processes scientists engage in when trying to study the working of the universe and unravel principles behind it. What distinguishes scientific inquiry is that it leads to knowledge and understanding of the world through direct interaction, generation and collection of data for use as evidence in supporting explanations.

‘National Science Education Standards’ published by the US National Research Council (NRC) describes scientific inquiry as: “a multifaceted activity that involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions and communicating the results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations” [5].

However, in light of the aforementioned confusion with regard to the term ‘inquiry’, in the more recent ‘Framework for K-12 Science Education’, the NRC uses it sparingly. Instead, the activity of engaging in scientific investigation is described in terms of ‘practices’, so as to “stress that engaging in scientific inquiry requires coordination both of knowledge and skills simultaneously” [6].

Apart from minor modifications, this is the core idea of IBL present in a range of curricula across the world (US, UK, Hongkong, Singapore etc) and it attempts to define ‘science’ as ‘practised by professional scientists’ through a series of procedures which taken together, are often abbreviated as ‘inquiry’ or ‘the scientific method’.

To summarize, inquiry in the scientific context refers to the scientific inquiry and inquiry-based learning is a pedagogical strategy in which the students utilize inquiry to construct knowledge. One of the most commonly stated objectives of IBL is for students to be able to understand how inquiry happens authentically (i.e. how scientists work) - to recognize it as an investigative process with multiple crucial stages/aspects. Another objective of IBL is for the students to know how to do inquiry - to act like a scientist. Students learn by observing, through questioning, building hypotheses, designing experiments, collecting and interpreting data etc.

Perhaps nothing encapsulates the core essence of IBL more than the following quote.

“The important thing is to not stop questioning.” - Albert Einstein

Levels of Inquiry-Based Learning

The IBL pedagogy is student-centric and the role of the teacher is that of a facilitator meaning that they are not simply doling out factoids as they would during traditional instruction, instead they encourage the students to ask more questions, think without fear and engage in the process of inquiry. In almost every way, the task of the facilitator in IBL is more challenging and difficult than that of a traditional teacher.

A typical IBL session kicks off with a compelling question - introduced by the facilitator or student(s). Inquiry is initiated by the need to answer this question and this can involve steps such as hypothesizing, design of experiments/activities, collection and analysis of data, and drawing conclusions.

In IBL, the students are by no means expected to design the scientific investigations from scratch. Especially in the lower grades, students cannot realistically achieve this. In fact, it takes a lot of practice before any student is able to develop their inquiry skills and conceptual understandings before they can engage in inquiry completely by themselves.

Based on the amount of information and guidance provided by the facilitators, we can define four levels of IBL. These are (a) confirmation inquiry, (b) structured inquiry, (c) guided inquiry, and (d) open/true inquiry [7]. The IBL classification is graphically summarized in Fig. 1 below.

In the first level (confirmation inquiry), facilitators provide students with the question and procedure (method), and the results are already known. This is useful when the goal is to reinforce a previously introduced idea, or to introduce students to the experience of conducting investigations or or to have students practice a specific skill, such as collecting and recording data. For example, you can have students demonstrate that an object will sink in a fluid if it is more denser than the fluid by providing them with appropriate materials and the procedure. The students will collect necessary data (mass, volume etc) and observe whether materials float or sink.

At the next level which is structured inquiry, the question and procedure are still provided by the facilitator but the students do not know the outcome beforehand. So the students are expected to generate the explanation after carrying out the activity as per instruction. Going back to the same example as before, students would be doing the activity without knowing what will happen. Namely, their task will be to discover the principle that density determines whether an object floats or sinks in a given fluid using the data they collect (mass, volume etc).

The third level is known as guided inquiry. Here, the facilitator provides the students with just the question. The students then design the procedure to answer the question and also generate the necessary explanations. Guided inquiry is much more complex than the previous two levels and is therefore, most appropriate to be used only once the students have had a lot of practice with planning and executing experiments and collecting data. It is crucial to note that the role of the facilitator is not rendered passive once the question is given. On the contrary, the facilitator should ensure that the plans devised by the students make scientific sense while being mindful to not directly tell them outrightly what to do. An example of guided inquiry session is described in Chapter 11 of [8].

The final and highest level of inquiry is called open or true inquiry. As you could probably guess, here the facilitator leaves the entire process to the students. This is the chance for students to imitate real scientists - they derive their own question(s), plan inquiry accordingly, collect data and finally, generate their own conclusions and communicate them. Open inquiry is the most demanding level for students and is only appropriate once they have demonstrated they can design and conduct experiments/investigations by themselves. A more in-depth analysis can be found in [9]

Fig. 1 : Levels of inquiry-based learning based on the information provided by the facilitator.

Benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning

Students learning through IBL enjoy a variety of benefits. They derive enjoyment and satisfaction in finding out for themselves something that they want to know. They get to see for themselves what works rather than just being told. Their curiosity about the world around them is simultaneously sated and further stimulated. IBL also aids in developing progressively more powerful and complex ideas about the world and also helps students develop the skills needed in scientific inquiry through participation in it. Collaborative skills are also developed through the realization that learning science involves discussion and working with and learning from others, directly or through written sources. Students also understand science as the result of human endeavour based on rigorous validation through evidence gathering rather than immutable facts being laid down arbitrarily.

There has been extensive research conducted with IBL as its focus and its effectiveness has been supported by a wide range of work. For instance, there are empirical works which report positive learning outcomes for students in terms of achievement, enthusiasm, ownership and scientific skills development [9-10]. There are also several meta-analyses [11-12] which report the effectiveness of IBL. Hence, at present, it is believed that inquiry is the best way for students to learn science by leveraging their existing knowledge and their investigative skills to find, and internalise, new knowledge and solutions to questions they themselves formulated [13].

Ideally, inquiry-based learning can contribute to society by nurturing the scientific acumen in students and encouraging them to develop scientific temperament. It can help students grow into rational and inquisitive citizens, and to be problem solving stakeholders in the betterment of society.


  1. J. Dewey, How We Think, Dover Publications (1997)

  2. L. S. Vygotsky, Thoughts and Language, MIT Press (1962)

  3. J. J. Schwab, The School Review, 68, 2, 176-195 (1960)

  4. E. Abrams, S. Southerland, P. Silva, Inquiry in the Classroom: Realities and Opportunities, Information Age Publishing (2008).

  5. National Research Council, National Science Education Standards, The National Academies Press (1996).

  6. National Research Council, Framework for K-12 Science Education, The National Academies Press (2012).

  7. H. Banchi, and R. Bell, Science and Children, 46(2), 26-29 (2008).

  8. National Research Council, How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom, The National Academies Press (2005).

  9. M. Zion, amd R. Mendelovici, Science Education International, 23(4), 383–399 (2012).

  10. D. D. Minner, A. J. Levy, and J. Century, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(4), 474–496 (2010).

  11. J. Minstrell, & E.H. van Zee (Eds.), Inquiry into inquiry learning and teaching in science, American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2000).

  12. E. M. Furtak, T. Seidel, H. Iverson, and D. C. Briggs, Review of Educational Research, 82, 300–329 (2012)

  13. L. Alfieri, P. J. Brooks, N. J. Aldrich, and H. R. Tenenbaum. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 1–18 (2011).

  14. S. Bevins, and G. Price, International Journal of Science Education, 38, 17-29 (2016)

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