Inquiry-Based Learning: Lessons Learned

Have you ever seen this happening when students are working in groups? “We observed two types of group conversations: either unrelated to lab or focused on clarifying procedural-based concerns. Groups spent little time discussing the science behind what they were doing.” (p. 45) The lab referenced here was one attached to a biology course.

The problem started with that cookbook approach to lab work widely used in entry-level, nonmajor courses. “When scientists conduct experiments, they test ideas by collecting and evaluating data to answer a question. This is very different from the cookbook-style activities we were using, which asked students to follow step-by-step directions to get predetermined results.” The faculty involved here wanted students to experience what it was like to make their own discoveries, and so they revised their lab curriculum and moved to an inquiry-based approach.

Inquiry-based instruction begins with the instructor posing a problem that students figure out how they will study. Students select variables and decide on procedures guided by faculty questions. “Guided inquiry provides more direction to students who are unprepared to tackle inquiry problems without support because they lack experience and knowledge or have not reached the level of cognitive development required for abstract thought.” (p. 46) The method has been used mostly in the sciences, but the basic approach is adaptable to many different kinds of problems and is an especially effective way to get students talking about content in more substantive ways.

This article is useful to anyone interested in the method, because it honestly reports the experiences (not all of them positive) of this faculty team in implementing inquiry-based labs across multiple sections with TAs as lab instructors. Team members write about issues with students and those experienced by the lab instructors.

“Students often expressed frustration about the amount of work involved, as well as the process of struggling to design and conduct experiments. From previous science experiences, they were accustomed to following detailed directions to reach predetermined results. Grappling with failure and confusion, which are sometimes involved in doing science, was at times overwhelming for them.” (p. 48) But as time went on, students started seeing the value of what they were being asked to do. In classroom discussions they more regularly made comments indicating that they understood why they were doing certain things and what their results meant. Despite seeing the value of what they were being asked to do and reporting in focus group interviews much higher levels of engagement and interest in the labs, students still rated their inquiry-based lab experiences lower on the course evaluations. Possibly they didn’t “like” the process of doing science as it is actually done as well as completing a kind of prescriptive, pseudoscience activity.

The inquiry-based labs presented the TA instructors with sizable challenges as well. “Using guiding questions is a learned skill that can take a good deal of practice to master.” (p. 49) Instructors must find a balance between giving students too much information, which essentially reverts back to telling them what to do, and not giving enough information, so that students flounder and experience high levels of frustration. Whenever students are trying to find solutions and doing so in groups that are going in different directions, there is a feeling of chaos in the classroom. Things appear to be happening in a haphazard fashion, which can make the teacher feel as though things are totally out of control.

The faculty team provided the TAs with training before they started teaching the inquiry labs and support during them as well. They found that the TAs themselves engaged in a significant amount of informal peer mentoring.

A lab curriculum transformation like this is not easily implemented. “We cannot overemphasize that developing our curriculum was a long-term process and that it proved essential to incorporate student and TA feedback to fine-tune activities and classroom assessments that were central to creating a successful curriculum.” (p. 50) However, implementing some inquiry-based approaches in one course is not nearly as daunting, and if it gets students engaged in meaningful exchanges about the content, it is definitely worth the effort.


Gormally, C., Brickman, P., Hallar, B., and Armstrong, N. (2011). Lessons learned about implementing an inquiry-based curriculum in a college biology laboratory classroom. Journal of College Science Teaching, 40 (3), 45-51. 

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