Inquiry based learning places an emphasis on finding answers through discovery. It is contrasted to educational approaches that privilege repetition and memorization.
An inquiry-based approach will ask students to investigate concepts using research and analysis. Its greatest benefit is that it requires the use of higher-order thinking skills such as problem solving to reach conclusions.
There are five phases to an inquiry based learning approach. The 5 phases are:
- Orientation – discovering the problem.
- Conceptualization – finding a research question.
- Investigation – collecting evidence and information.
- Conclusion – analyzing the evidence and making up your mind.
- Discussion – exploring the implications of your new knowledge.
Use these five phases in lesson plans and college papers to demonstrate your depth of knowledge of how inquiry-based learning works.
The 5 Phases of Inquiry-Based Learning
In the orientation phase, teachers present the students with a topic. The teacher will provide the foundations that are required to understand the topic. The teacher may also define a problem that needs to be solved.
Teachers start an inquiry based learning session by presenting a topic in an engaging or inspiring way.
In this stage, the teacher is the ‘provocateur’. Their job is to build engagement, excitement and curiosity.
An orientation may be a video, presentation from a guest speaker, or a book. Sometimes, I’ll present my students with a cartoon, article from a local newspaper, or provocative YouTube video.
The key here is to simultaneously motivate the students to learn and give the foundations for follow-up inquiry.
Grade 3 teacher Joanne has a curriculum outcome about “arachnids” that she needs to achieve. Joanne presents her students with a range of photos of mites, ticks, spiders and scorpions. She asks the students: what do all these creatures have in common? Answers could include: they all have eight legs, they’re all insects (she will need to correct this misconception during the inquiry phase), and they are all probably poisonous. The class has a discussion about how they feel about arachnids: they’re gross, interesting, and maybe a little scary.
Go Deeper: 18 Examples of Inquiry-Based Learning
In the conceptualization stage, students come up with a plan for how they might learn more about their topic. Teachers might ask students to come up with a research question and develop an action plan for investigating the question.
During the conceptualization stage, the teacher works on releasing some control over the lesson’s direction to the students. The teacher uses the students’ questions and comments from Phase 1 to stimulate a round of question-posing discussion. The teacher might ask the students to present their own questions. Or, if a stringent curriculum outcome needs to be met, the teacher may present a question of her own.
Central to this phase is the development of a question or problem. Without a question, there would be no subsequent inquiry.
Once an inquiry question is in place (either posed by the students or teacher), the teacher should require the students to come up with an action plan to address the question. One common way to do this is to get students to break-up into groups and come up with an action plan: How will we answer this question? What resources will we need? What are the steps that we need to take?
Grade 3 teacher Joanne asks her students what questions they have about arachnids. Examples of questions might be: Do they all have eight legs? Are they all poisonous? Which arachnids are found in our local area? How many eyes do they have? As the students present their questions, Joanne writes them on the whiteboard at the front of the class.
Joanne then asks her students to break up into groups of 6 and come up with a plan-of-action for answering these questions. Group 1 decides they want to create a poster answering the questions presented. They request iPads for internet research. Group 2 decides they want to create a blog about arachnids. They request an expert from the local zoo comes to show them real-life arachnids in the classroom.
In the investigation phase, students will actively explore the topic through research, experimentation, exploration, observation and data collection. They should also record their data for follow-up reflection.
The investigation phases should be a student-centered phase in which the students actively seek out answers. Students use the procedures they put together in Phase 2 to conduct their inquiry. The role of the teacher is to facilitate this exploration, gather the required resources, and facilitate group discussion.
Some subject-specific examples may be:
- In chemistry class, this phase often involves conducting controlled experiments.
- In history class, it may involve going to a local historical site and examining landmarks or buildings of interest.
- In physics class, it may involve engineering an experiment to observe gravity.
Upon suggestion from her students, Joanne invites a local zoologist to bring in samples of arachnids for students to investigate. The zoologist places them in glass cages in a row on a table. The students bring their questions like “Do all arachnids have 8 legs?” and “How many eyes do they have?” and see if they can answer them through observation. For smaller arachnids, students get the chance to look at them through the classroom’s microscopes. Following observation, further questions are asked of the expert, such as questions about arachnids from the local area.
During the conclusion phase, students should look at the data they collected and see what new answers they have. Students should look at the research question they devised in Phase 2 and see if they can now answer it.
The conclusion phase is an opportunity to reflect on the data collected and analyze it. Students should get together and compare their findings to the research question. Have they answered the questions they set before starting the inquiry? How can they present this information in new ways? What new questions do they have?
This phase may end with presenting a new hypothesis, statement of belief, or a model for explaining a phenomenon.
With older students, you could use phrases like: ‘data organization’, ‘synthesizing’, ‘generating a hypothesis’, and ‘data interpretation’.
After the expert leaves, the students get together in groups and compare notes. Together, they check to make sure there are no discrepancies in their findings (and discuss those discrepancies to see if solutions can be found). Then, they create posters presenting their findings.
In the discussion phase, students should explore the implications of their new knowledge. Questions should include: What does this mean? How does this impact my beliefs and understanding? How can I use this knowledge in the future?
Discussions at the end of an inquiry should have students thinking forward. The teacher facilitates this discussion and asks prying questions that stimulate higher-order thinking.
Students should be asked how their thinking, beliefs or conceptions about the topic have changed. A good question might be: “How does this new knowledge change your feelings about this topic?” or “What is something that surprised you during this investigation?”
Students should also talk about the implications of their new knowledge for the world beyond the classroom. If it’s a study of gravity, consider getting students to talk about how this knowledge is important for building stable bridges. If it’s a study of precipitation, you could talk about how your new knowledge is valuable for farmers who want to drought-proof their business.
Finally, ensure students leave with more questions. There are always new questions that emerge when we push our horizons of knowledge. Have students leave the class inspired to learn more.
Joanne gets her class together after they have presented their posters to discuss what they now know about arachnids. She presents forward-thinking questions like: Have your opinions of arachnids changed now? Have you seen any arachnids around the local area since we started this investigation? Do you think you can now tell the difference between an arachnid and an insect when looking at them now?
Here are some great, high-quality definitions of Inquiry Based Learning from scholarly sources. Use these in your essay!
- “Inquiry-based learning is an approach to teaching and learning that places students’ questions, ideas and observations at the center of the learning experience” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013, p. 2).
- “Inquiry-based learning is an educational strategy in which students follow methods and practices similar to those of professional scientists in order to construct knowledge. It can be defined as a process of discovering new causal relations, with the learner formulating hypotheses and testing them by conducting experiments and/or making observations” (Pedaste et al., 2015, p. 47).
Inquiry based learning is based on the constructivist learning theory.
Constructivists believe that we learn through actively ‘mulling over’ information in our minds. We use our logic and reason to come to conclusions about topics.
This is in contrast to theories like behaviorism which believe we should be told information from a teacher rather than learning it ourselves through our experiences.
Central to a constructivist approach is the idea of learning through ‘doing’ in a student-centered environment (as opposed to passive learning in a teacher-centered environment).
Inquiry learning is one of the most popular approaches to education in the 21st Century. It promotes student-centered learning, problem-solving and creative thinking. It’s a strategy that not only teaches content but also thinking skills.
Unfortunately many of my college students write essays about inquiry based learning in really vague terms.
Often, students don’t write about any clear, actionable ways to apply the idea in classrooms. Instead, we need clear and actionable steps to ensure inquiry occur in the classroom. That’s why I encourage my college students to employ the five phases of inquiry when applying IBL in the classroom.
Beyrow, M., Godau, M., Heidmann, F., Langer, C., Wettach, R., & Mieg, H. (2019). Inquiry-Based Learning in Design. Inquiry-Based Learning – Undergraduate Research (pp. 239-247).
Ernst, Dana & Hodge, Angie & Yoshinobu, Stan. (2017). What Is Inquiry-Based Learning? Notices of the American Mathematical Society, 64. 570-574. https://doi.org/10.1090/noti1536
Ontario Department of Education. (2013). Inquiry-Based Learning. Retrieved from: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/CBS_InquiryBased.pdf
Pedaste, M., Mäeots, M., Siiman, L. A., De Jong, T., Van Riesen, S. A., Kamp, E. T., … & Tsourlidaki, E. (2015). Phases of inquiry-based learning: Definitions and the inquiry cycle. Educational research review, 14, 47-61. (access here)
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.