Teaching and Learning Strategies
Inquiry-based Learning

What is Inquiry-based learning?

The old adage, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand” describes the core of inquiry-based learning. Inquiry is the process of seeking truth, information, or knowledge by questioning. Questioning! That is the key.

The process of inquiring begins with gathering information and data through applying the human senses: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. Infants make connections to the world by inquiring. They observe faces that come near, they grasp objects, they put things in their mouths, and they turn toward voices. It is natural. Although it is most often associated with science, inquiry-based learning is used to engage students of all ages, to learn by exploration and discovery.

Inquiry-based learning processes vary. Models of inquiry for information literacy include The Big 6, Irvin Information Skills, and Kuhlthau Information Seeking. 

How does inquiry-based learning encourage student learning?

Memorizing facts and information is not the most important skill in today’s world. Facts change, and information is readily available. Inquiry-based learning provides students the opportunity to construct the understanding necessary to produce deeper learning. Such understanding greatly increases the chances that students will be able to apply the concept in new situations. This increases the likelihood that it will be remembered. Inquiry-based learning strategies serve as a stimulus for learning, thinking and questioning. 

What does inquiry-based learning look like in the classroom?

The following example elaborates on the five steps listed above: questioning, planning and predicting, investigating, recording and reporting, and reflecting. 


Questioning – This is the concept development phase. It connects students with what they already know and motivates them to bring their own questions to the phenomenon. For example, a teacher asks “Did you ever wonder why gum gets smaller when you chew it?” The purpose of the prompt is to stimulate student interest in the topic for exploration. To allow the students to have concrete knowledge, the teacher in this example gives each student gum and they experience that phenomenon. In this classroom activity, the students conduct an initial, teacher-led experiment to test the hypothesis. The teacher models the questioning: “I have noticed that the size of a wad of gum decreases considerably in the first 10 or 15 minutes of chewing.” The teacher tells them that this change in volume is due to the loss of sugar. After analyzing the results of the initial experiment, students are then in a position to generate their own questions about gum, many of which can be answered with similar experiments. It is when students ask their own questions that they become empowered learners. 


Planning and Predicting – After students explore ideas through hands-on experiences, they formulate a question and create a plan for investigating their question. They also predict what they think their results will be. It takes time and practice before students learn how to formulate questions. It is important that teachers model this process, asking questions that can be investigated, and eliminating or rewording those that can’t be investigated easily. In this example, the student questions that evolved include: “How will the weight losses compare in sugared gum versus sugarless gum?” and “Does the amount of mass lost depend on how long you chew the gum?” Working in cooperative learning groups, the students make a plan of action to investigate their questions and predict the outcome. 


Investigating – Students become involved in their inquiries. It is vital to give them ample time to complete their investigations. As students in this scenario begin their investigations, they weigh an un-chewed piece of gum. They then chew the gum for 15 minutes, let it dry for 48 hours, and weigh it again.


Recording and Reporting – Students record and communicate their findings in this stage of inquiry learning. They can report their findings in a variety of ways. Whatever means they use, they restate the question and predictions, describe the investigation, and interpret the results. The cooperative groups report their findings. One group documents the results on spreadsheet graphs. Another group chooses presentation software to describe their investigation and to report their results. A third group scans the original gum wrapper (which lists the ingredients and nutritional information) and artistically displays their calculations on their original designed wrapper. They compare the percentages of the sugar content before and after the gum was chewed.


Reflecting – In the reflecting phase, students revisit the phenomenon and plan further investigations. New questions may occur as a result of the inquiry and the process is repeated. As the students share and reflect on their findings of the chewing gum investigation, new questions occur: “Do different flavors of the same brand of gum contain different amounts of sugar?” and “Would gum chewed in saliva lose more mass than gum chewed in water?” For these students, the inquiry process begins once again with these new questions as the basis of their next investigation. 

Additional Information on the Five Steps for Inquiry-based Learning

Questioning, Planning and Predicting, Investigating, Recording and Reporting, and Reflecting. Students, familiar with the traditional "talk and chalk" classroom, may be uncomfortable with inquiry-based learning for some time. Teachers need to be patient. It is up to the teacher to guide them through the process of questioning.

In many instances, the self-directed roles are unfamiliar: tracking down the best evidence related to the essential question, critically identifying foundation questions, coordinating with peers, and reporting back with the best solution to the essential question. If students do not take ownership of the task, they will spend their time trying to figure out and deliver exactly what the teacher wants, which defeats the intention of inquiry-based learning. This section reviews the five steps in more detail.

  1. Questioning
    Inquiry-based learning is about asking questions. Students are encouraged to ask the questions that help them discover how the world works. These questions may be posed by the teacher or formulated by the students. Asking good questions takes practice. At the beginning of inquiry, the teacher needs to model how to formulate questions.

    There are two types of questions to formulate when using inquiry-based learning: essential and foundation.

    1. Essential Questions: Essential questions are usually posed and modeled by the teacher. Students may create their own question if they have had previous experience with inquiry-based learning and are comfortable with the process. Students generate questions (foundation) that will help them build answers to the essential question. For example, if the U.S. History class spends a month on the Civil War, the teacher may pose one of the following essential questions:

      1. Why do we fight wars?

      2. How could political issues or ideas ever become more important than family loyalties?

      3. How does our country portray the affects of the slavery experience and the Civil War?

    2. Foundation Questions: Foundation questions are generally the "what is" questions.
      Students create the foundation questions by brainstorming questions. Through investigation and research of factual information, students work toward obtaining the answer to the essential question. Again, these may need to be modeled by the teacher for students to gain a better understanding of this process. The number of foundation questions is typically around six to eight.

      Essential Question:
      How could political issues or ideas ever become more important than family loyalties?

      Foundation Questions:

      1. What were the political parties of the Civil War?

      2. What were similarities of each group?

      3. What were differences of each group?

      4. What are the important values (personal, political, economical, etc.) of that era?

      5. What was the family structure during the Civil War era?

      6. Who had political influences?

      7. What effect on the family did these influences play?

      It is important for students to understand that the essential question generates many small, foundation questions. Therefore, instead of trying to grasp the whole picture, it is best to take little pieces at a time and bring them together at the end.

  2. Planning and Predicting
    Prior to beginning the inquiry-based steps, students are introduced to the topic. During this time, the teacher is helping students to generate questions by modeling questioning: How did you come to that conclusion? What are some other possibilities? After becoming familiar with the material, cooperative teams create an essential question, if not supplied by the teacher. They also brainstorm and formulate six to eight foundation questions. The teacher may still need to model how to formulate these questions by asking open-ended questions: Who were some political powers? How did they influence the people in that era? It is important that students understand that the bigger (essential) question is the compilation of smaller (foundation) questions.

    Prior to gathering their information, students create a list of necessary resources to answer their questions and communicate their findings. These resources may include: computer, Internet, brainstorming software, multimedia tools, CD-ROMs, etc. Other student activities that may help in this step include creating a list of keywords for research, acquiring e-mail addresses of experts, and identifying local personnel who may provide information. During this time the teacher guides the students as they formulate answers to their questions.

  3. Investigating
    During this step, it is important that teachers allow students enough time to investigate. The teacher facilitates the process by gathering resources and asking open-ended questions during team investigations. Students have the opportunity to move around the room to see what other groups are doing. This generates other ideas that can be incorporated in their own investigations. Students keep accurate records or logs to be used when compiling information. This log also provides them with information on what worked during the investigation and what did not; which questions have been answered and which have not.

    Not all knowledge that is needed during investigations can be acquired by inquiry. It is important for a teacher to say "no" to investigations that are costly or have safety concerns, investigations that sway from the goals of the lesson, or investigations that are not relevant to answering the essential question. Students, redirected by the teacher, stay focused on appropriate questions and investigations.

  4. Recording and Reporting
    In this step of inquiry-based learning, students record and report their findings. Students may use a variety of ways to record: lists, spreadsheets, databases, graphic organizers, graphs, memos, notes, webs, and note cards. Likewise, students may use word processing, multimedia presentations, brochures, bulletin boards, graphs, artwork, models, and portfolios for reporting their information.

  5. Reflecting
    In this final step of inquiry-based learning, students reflect by revisiting the essential and foundation questions. If the information gathered does not answer the essential question then more foundation questions may need to be formulated and investigated. For each inquiry-based project, a rubric is created to help students maintain direction.

A portfolio documents learning over time. This long-term perspective accounts for student improvement and teaches students the value of self-assessment, editing, and revision. The process of facilitating successful student portfolios can be broken into four steps:

  1. Collection - The first step is not always easy to facilitate successfully. As it requires students to collect and store examples of their work. The key skill in this step is to get students accustomed to collecting and documenting whenever possible.

  2. Selection - In this step, students examine their collected work and select the materials for their portfolio. The students' portfolios will come to life if they have more diverse materials such as audio/video recordings, artwork, projects, journals, computer work, homework, compositions, etc.

  3. Reflection - The third step is perhaps the most important step in the portfolio process. It is what distinguishes portfolios from mere collections. Reflection is often done in writing but can be done orally as well, particularly with younger students. The students are asked to explain why they chose a particular artifact, how it compares with other artifacts, what particular skills and knowledge were used to produce it, and where he or she can improve as a learner. The importance of this step is having the students take an active role in the assessment process.

  4. Connection - The last step has two related facets.

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