Four Habits That Support Inquiry-Based Learning

Credit: iStock.com/JohnnyGreig
Credit: iStock.com/JohnnyGreig
Wanted: Faculty excited to partner with other faculty to learn with and from students. Humility, a collaborative spirit, and the ability to handle chaos and dozens of projects simultaneously is essential. Previous experience cheerleading is preferred. Anyone that uses inquiry-based learning will chuckle at the truth of this mock job ad. They’ll also recognize the incredible value of this high-impact practice. That value isn’t just about deeper student learning; it is also about the learning that faculty do when students get a chance to be experts. As the job ad indicates, however, the skills that make you successful at supporting students as they engage their curiosity and pursue independent learning extend well beyond content expertise and the creation of active learning opportunities. We don’t often talk about these other skills explicitly, so I’m going to highlight them below.

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Wanted: Faculty excited to partner with other faculty to learn with and from students. Humility, a collaborative spirit, and the ability to handle chaos and dozens of projects simultaneously is essential. Previous experience cheerleading is preferred.

Anyone that uses inquiry-based learning will chuckle at the truth of this mock job ad. They’ll also recognize the incredible value of this high-impact practice. That value isn’t just about deeper student learning; it is also about the learning that faculty do when students get a chance to be experts.

As the job ad indicates, however, the skills that make you successful at supporting students as they engage their curiosity and pursue independent learning extend well beyond content expertise and the creation of active learning opportunities. We don’t often talk about these other skills explicitly, so I’m going to highlight them below.

Humility

Here’s the reality few of us are ready for when we start inquiry-based instruction: you are not always going to be the expert in the room. Letting go of this expectation can be difficult. It was for me. Admitting to a student that I didn’t know something, and we’d have to work it out together felt like yielding my authority. Thankfully, a senior colleague eventually convinced me that my authority could come from modeling problem solving, helping students strive for a high standard, and embracing the challenge of applying my learning to something new rather than just knowing a lot.

I also had to overwrite many of those automatic responses that border on I-an-expert arrogance. When students took too long to learn something, I had to replace frustration with patience and encouragement. When a student wanted to pursue a topic I knew little about, I had to convert the instinct to give a flat no into an invitation for them to consider the challenges they may face on their own. When a student told me something I was pretty sure wasn’t true, I had to learn to respond with genuine curiosity.

Tolerance for chaos

Oh yes, when you are doing inquiry-based instruction, there are always wrinkles in the plan. In any given semester, a piece of equipment or access to a collection or collaboration with an essential partner suddenly comes undone. You scramble to adjust and make do. But inquiry-based learning means there are multiple distinct projects underway. Multiple things go wrong. There is almost always some sort of mini crisis brewing.

The chaos also manifests in that there are just way more moving parts. This project needs that; that project needs this. Students forget to do something that jeopardizes the rest of their project. Everything just takes longer than expected.

Developing strategies to manage projects and reduce stress is critical. My suggestions: Give up any tendency toward perfectionism. Leave yourself wiggle room in the syllabus. Emphasize process, not product. Above all, have your students develop their own project management plan and share that with you.

Willingness to team up with others

Another way to manage the chaos is to have a team that you can rely on and share the load with. Librarians, writing centers, academic coaches who can help students with project management, teaching assistants, and other partners are essential in managing the demands on your energy and time. Warning: if you are the faculty member who tends to think it’s best when you do it all, you and your students will suffer.

You are also going to need other faculty. This can be as simple as asking them to share their expertise by demonstrating a technique or giving a mini lecture. Ideally, you have a team, every member of which is teaching an inquiry-based course. This allows you to collaborate on rubrics, draw on each other for a judging panel, ask for assistance when you can’t be in two places at once, get advice when you are at a loss, and more.

In my own case, a small group of faculty rotated teaching two of our core biology courses, both of which had multiple inquiry-based projects. Thus, there was always a backup person to call on for assistance (e.g., showing students a protocol, stepping in to help with grading, or meeting with a group that needed help understanding an article) when the workload became overwhelming for the person teaching that semester.

Willingness to cheerlead

You may not think of yourself as the pom-pom waving type, but you are going to have to develop excellent rah-rah skills. I think of cheerleading as both celebrating little successes and providing motivation when the going is tough. It can keep energy and focus high, as well as create the sense that we’re all in this together. If you are going to be successful at inquiry-based learning, you must be willing to do some cheering from the sidelines.

Why? Because as fraught as inquiry-based learning may be for us, it is even more so for students who are new to this method of learning. Selecting an appropriate topic necessarily has dead ends. So does identifying relevant resources. Then there are the missteps that are inevitable simply because something is new. The impact of mistakes on grades looms large. Regular positive feedback and motivational interventions are especially critical.

Also, as I suggested above, inquiry-based learning is as much about process as content. This means feedback and motivation need to be about the process (not the product). “That was a good strategy for narrowing the topic.” “Those criteria are very good; let’s consider one or two more I’ve found to be helpful.” “That’s a common challenge when starting out, what will you do differently in the next round?” “Wow, that’s an interesting detail; I didn’t know that.” “That’s a great insight; I hadn’t considered that.”

The qualities I’ve highlighted here are not ones we often associate with being a faculty member. At the same time, those devoted to teaching and learning will recognize that intellectual humility, tolerating chaos, collaborating with other faculty and staff, and stepping into cheerleader mode are part of what makes a teacher outstanding.

One last thought: if you are just starting out with inquiry-based instruction you must be patient with yourself. Maturing into these qualities takes time, experience, and reflection. I’ve been at this for more than three decades, and I’m still growing. The great news is that your patience will pay off every time a student teaches you something you didn’t already know.


Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, currently is the interim associate secretary in the national Phi Beta Kappa office. Prior to that, she served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.