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Inquiry-based learning

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Definitions and characteristics


Inquiry-, or enquiry-, based learning is an approach which assumes that learning happens most readily through discovery guided by mentoring, rather than through transmission of information. It has been fuelled by recent interest in active learning approaches, and by a concern to deepen the research input into teaching.

Note that both spellings, inquiry and enquiry, are used equally. For simplicity’s sake, we shall adopt the "i" spelling, and the abbreviation IBL.

IBL is a complex concept, and like many educational terms its meaning is not precise, but has different connotations in different contexts.

We shall look first at some definitions of the term before considering where and how it is used, including its links with problem-based learning, research, group work and networked learning, and how it can best be supported by the tutor. We shall also give examples along with places where further information can be found.

Definitions and characteristics

A common definition of IBL is that it is a form of learning where self-directed inquiry and research play a strong part. It encourages the formulation of questions as a means of finding out about a particular topic, rather than giving students the knowledge in a conventional form such as a lecture. The questions suggest lines of inquiry, help define learning needs, and stimulate the students’ curiosity so that they construct the knowledge for themselves. It is a form of self-directed learning which will encourage critical thinking.

Good information seeking skills are essential for IBL, which helps build library, web search and indeed information literacy skills generally, as well as those of critical thinking. Particularly at research-based universities, IBL is popular because it creates a bridge between research and teaching: learners are encouraged to become researchers at an early stage of their academic career.

Much IBL, particularly in the earlier years before the student launches into a third-year research project, is done in small groups. These groups may meet in real time, online: there is also a natural affinity between IBL and networked learning.

IBL is seen as a powerful form of active learning, a student-led approach which will encourage critical thinking skills and therefore deep learning. Roy et al. (2003a) define IBL as a question-based form of self-directed learning that follows the basic stages of that model: deciding what needs to be learnt, identifying resources and how best to learn from them, using the resources and reporting learning, and assessing progress. Self-assessment is an important part of IBL: students need to be able to evaluate their skills in all areas of learning from selecting resources to writing.

IBL is often linked with another popular form of learning: problem-based learning (PBL). The similarity is that PBL approaches a particular topic through the formulation of a problem, which is then used to define issues and scope out further research. IBL is however more open ended with a less well-structured approach; the aim of PBL, which is very popular in health-related disciplines, is to solve a problem and learn about a discipline en route, whereas that of IBL is to foster the spirit of inquiry.

IBL thus has many advantages: it encourages active and deep learning, critical thinking skills, and teamworking. All these are key employability skills and it therefore helps prepare students for working in a world where the ability to cope with a massive amount of information will be critical to survival. In a modular university system which can lead to fragmented knowledge, it enables students to make connections, and is particularly good for interdisciplinary work.