The Phases of Inquiry-Based Teaching

A central goal of education is teaching critical-thinking skills. Inquiry-based teaching is an excellent path to this goal. Based partly on the philosophy that “humans are born inquirers,” the method focuses on student discovery over pushing information from the instructor. Along the way, the students explore multiple sources and contexts, ask questions and pursue hypotheses, and work to apply their theories to new and diverse situations. In doing this, they actively discover the interrelatedness among concepts, topics, and theories.

In general, all inquiry-based teaching follows three phases.

Phase 1: Formulating Questions and Initial Understandings

First, students are oriented to a problem, phenomena, or goal. Here, they learn about the topic in general ways by becoming oriented to it and then formulating their own questions and/or understandings. From these initial explorations students begin to formulate questions and hypotheses, and to reflect on their own current knowledge. 

For instance, I teach an inquiry-based online world religions course in which we begin by exploring the core question “what is religion, spirituality, or faith?” My students are expected to choose one of the three terms—religion, spirituality, or faith—and define what it means for them personally based on their past experiences. Starting with their own reflections, combined with research, they become oriented to the topic of religion in general ways. This leads them to a preliminary definition of their chosen term on which they will build as they explore different religious traditions in the coming modules.

As another example, in the WorldWatcher Project students explore various maps of climate and environmental data and begin to better understand the nature of climate change in general, and global warming more specifically. Students look at the maps, and from the data, they develop hypotheses and questions about the world’s changing climate that will then become the focus of their inquiring processes.

Phase 2: Exploration & Analysis

In the next phase, students might conduct research, design experiments, and collect data from multiple perspectives and sources. Students in my world religions class learn about the religious traditions by reading about them, visiting local communities that showcase each tradition, engaging in spiritual practices with these communities, watching documentaries, and researching special topics (such as each tradition’s views on politics, environmental issues, and women’s leadership). As students engage in these different kinds of activities, they are expected to continually return to their understanding of religion, spirituality, or faith and to modify or expand upon it. To help them with this, I have them work on an outline throughout the course in which they add references and record their personal reflections as they relate to the core question. This second phase of the inquiry-based approach therefore focuses on having students critically analyze data, test hypotheses, and refine their answers to the core inquiry questions.

In another example, a computer-based program known as the Genetics Construction Kit allows students to use genetics data to develop and test models to explain the inheritance traits that are being simulated by the program. Using the program, students are able to make predictions based on their models and then test them by crossing different genetic traits to see if the simulated outcomes match the predictions made by their models. This program is an example of how students can progress in the inquiry process by testing their self-generated theories from
Phase 1.

In this phase, students might also begin looking for patterns and trends in the sources and data they are using, as well as noting commonalities and inconsistencies among them. These tasks help nurture their critical-thinking skills. 

For instance, in a similar inquiry-based genetics education program known as the Biology Guided Inquiry Learning Environment, students are presented with a problem, such as why there was a decrease in the number of finches during a drought in the Galapagos Islands. Students are able to access data that has been collected by scientists in the field, and are expected to critically use this data to formulate their own theories to explain why some finches died and others did not. By doing this, students are engaging in the kinds of hypothesis testing and theory-building that are characteristic of this phase of the inquiry-based approach.

Phase 3: Drawing Conclusions

In the final phase of critical inquiry, arguments are made and conclusions are drawn as students work to synthesize their explorations and locate their own positions amongst the larger landscape of possible explanations, theories, and opinions. The outline that students develop in my world religions class serves this purpose. As they come to the end of the semester, students refine and revise this outline, present it to their peers and receive feedback, and finally write it up in the form of a final course paper. In this final paper, students present their answer to the core question by supporting their position based upon their explorations in Phase 2. In this final phase of inquiry, then, students are expected to support their assertions based upon their prior analyses and work.

There are also a number of aids that can help in the synthesizing process. UC-Berkeley’s Web-based Inquiry Science Environment, for instance, provides a range of technologies to help students and teachers engage in inquiry-based approaches to learning. This environment helps scaffold students’ inquiring journeys through such tools as concept maps, reflection tools, and argument construction software. These tools are intended to help students synthesize their explorations of the previous phases and support their conclusions with the information they have gathered and/or created. 

Overall, inquiry-based approaches are intended to foster critical thinking. By supporting students in their initial explorations, more in-depth analyses, and synthesizing processes, these pedagogies deepen learning.

Eric Kyle is Professor of Religion at the College of Saint Mary.

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