What is Inquiry-based Learning?

ALI Staff | Published  August 31, 2023

Sparking student engagement, no matter the subject matter, often means meeting students where they’re already at.

It’s about tapping into their natural curiosity while motivating them to do the work necessary to learn the lesson.

This can be accomplished through projects, group work, games, and inquiry-based instruction.

Each of these strategies shares the idea of hands-on learning in some way, but inquiry education takes a unique approach, giving students an increased level of autonomy to help drive engagement.


Students observing rock with magnifying glass


What is inquiry in education?

Whether it receives a label or not, a significant goal of education is to drive students to ask questions and seek the truth to answer them.

Students need to feel confident and motivated to want to know more. Creating an environment in your own classroom where student inquiry is comfortable isn’t always easy.

Time constraints may make it hard to address all questions or spend time teaching students how to find answers themselves.

One way to meet this need without burdening your curriculum is to incorporate inquiry-based learning.


What is inquiry-based learning?

Inquiry education is a student-centered approach to learning that encourages students to search for truth as it relates to real-world problems.

They’re given autonomy to ask their own questions and/or develop their own methods for finding answers.

This strategy actively engages students in the learning process while allowing them to explore their natural curiosities. The use of real-world issues also ensures they’re making relevant connections to the world around them.


4 Ways to Use Inquiry in Education 

Because inquiry learning has such a high-level definition, how you decide to use it in your classroom can vary. Thankfully, there are four different approaches that make it easier to incorporate inquiry-based learning into your curriculum.

1. Structured/Confirmation inquiry

This sequential approach to questioning and researching makes it ideal for science classes. Any questions that require a process or specific methodology to get to the solution will benefit from this inquiry-based learning method.

2. Open-ended Inquiry

For subjects that can allow students to think in a more creative way to answer questions, the open-ended approach works best. This is helpful in reading, history, the arts — all humanities classes — where students may use a variety of sources and strategies to gather information, formulate answers, and possibly find more questions to ask.

3. Problem-based inquiry

Ideal for problems that address real-world issues in areas like math and engineering, this approach to inquiry-based learning makes it easy for students to use what they’ve already learned to find answers to questions that require strong problem-solving skills.

4. Guided Inquiry

For younger students, who may need more time to be ready to manage inquiry-based learning, this approach is teacher-led. While student inquiry is still occurring in this approach, the teacher helps them ask questions and find solutions, primarily to a real-world problem they can identify with.


Benefits of inquiry-based learning

The biggest benefit of adopting inquiry in the classroom is the power it gives students to direct their own learning.

It triggers curiosity because it allows students to look at a topic or question from their own perspective.

It also provides them with autonomy (to some degree) to search for an answer. When it’s so easy for students to feel like they have no control over what they’re learning, this is quite a bonus.

Other benefits of inquiry-based learning include:

  • Improved critical thinking skills
  • Enhanced problem-solving skills
  • Better communication skills
  • More opportunities to think creatively
  • Practice presenting thoughts and ideas to others in an accessible way
  • Stronger connections to the real world and how what they’re learning is relevant 

Inquiry-based learning allows students to find their own solutions, even if it means thinking outside the box.

They get to decide where to go for answers, how they'll explore solving a problem, and in what way they’ll share their findings.

It’s a little more freedom than they might find otherwise, yet it’s all within the confines of learning the material.


Where and how to implement inquiry learning

Inquiry-based learning is always hands-on in some way.

Whether that’s through a specific activity, with steps to accomplish, or simply observing the world around them to draw conclusions, there are many ways to implement inquiry in the classroom, including:

  • Group work
  • Field trips
  • Projects
  • Lab work
  • Classroom debate

Regardless of the activity that’s framing your inquiry-based instruction, to get those inquiring minds active, start with a question.

This is either something big-picture that comes from you or something students develop on their own.

No matter where the question comes from, it’s then up to the students to find an answer.

As they do this, they’ll naturally access a variety of resources. Make sure to provide a few starting sources for help, and encourage students to bounce ideas off each other if they’re able to collaborate. 

By presenting what they’ve learned and then reflecting on their work, students are actively participating in the learning process.

This not only helps them achieve the goal of the assignment but makes it easier to retain this new information to use again.

The lasting effect of inquiry in education

Asking questions about and finding answers to real-world issues are two abilities students need to develop as they learn.

Often, the focus of skill development is on problem-solving, communication, GRIT, and so many other essential soft skills, but inquiry-based learning covers them all.

It allows students to flex these all-important qualities while learning to ask good questions and seek solid answers.

This learning strategy completes the package of abilities students should take with them out into the real world, becoming stronger professionals no matter their career choice. 



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