Inquiry-based learning


Inquiry-based learning experiences involve situations in which learners use inductive reasoning processes to discover patterns, solutions, ideas, and underlying principles and generalizations. Inquiry-based education includes guided inquiry, problem-based learning, project-based learning, case-based learning, discovery and “just-in-time”[51] in all of these methods teachers’ planning begins by specifying the few generalizations and key concepts that are the focus of the activity or unit. The learning usually invovles interpreting some kind of evidence (photographs, data, etc.).

Some educators consider this approach too time-consuming as students usually need more time to “think, reason, compare and gain insight into important concepts and generalizations.”[52] In the last few decades, research has shown academic achievement, reasoning skills[53], and intrinsic motivation[54] are greater with inquiry-based learning than traditional methods. In fact, VanTassel-Baska and Brown[55] concluded the “use of inquiry as a central strategy to promote gifted student learning in multiple modalities” is a powerful, research-based best practice for these students.

Inquiry-based learning is consistent with constructivist theories of development which emphasize the need for students to construct “their own versions of reality rather than simply absorbing versions presented by their teachers”[56] Student engagement and interest increase as inquiries invoke their extraordinary curiosity, their desire to figure things out, and their desire to organize and bring structure to apparently chaotic data and events.

Students take greater responsibility for their learning than in traditional, deductive approaches. The teacher’s role is to facilitate, not lecture. The teacher finds or prepares captivating cases and scenarios to initiate student research and growth.


Here is an example of a labeling activity that has been differentiated to become inquiry-based:

Regular: Label the parts of the leaf diagram you have been given. Based on the information provided in your textbook, provide a brief explanation of the function of each part you have labeled.

Inquiry-based: Examine a selection of at least 4 leaves you find outside the classroom. Inspect them closely. In what ways are they similar and different? What purpose do you think is served by each part that is common to all of these leaves?

Inquiry Chart: view example
An “I-Chart” is a matrix in which students record their prior knowledge and new learning related to the focus questions guiding their inquiry. Once their knowledge-gathering is complete, they critically summarize the new information they’ve collected. In the process, they integrate what is already known or thought about the topic with additional information found in several sources.

Problem-based learning (PBL)

Each problem-based unit or activity begins with a scenario designed to stimulate curiosity, prior knowledge, and need-to-know questions. All participants in a problem-based learning experience are given a role with a particular set of responsibilities during the inquiry and solution-finding stages. PBL assignments can last days or weeks. Here are brief descriptions of a few from the PBL Network sponsored by the Illinois Math Science Academy.[57]

Kindergarten language arts: Students and their teacher overhear another teacher remark that their classroom does not have many books. With their teacher, students analyze the problem and offer solutions for book collection, organization and care. (Students explore classifying, graphing, alphabetizing, and using library and group skills.)
4th grade science: A judge in Northern California issued a halt to all land sales and logging activity because of the endangered spotted owl population. The judge asks the class to develop a workable plan that will satisfy the various stakeholders: the owls, trees, land developers, environmentalists and loggers.
6th grade mathematics: The principal asks the students, who are sharing lockers, to calculate how much storage space a typical student needs, because the school is going to purchase new lockers. How many and what kind of lockers should the school purchase, given its budget. (Students study geometric concepts of volume and surface area, costs, aesthetics and alternative storage approaches.)
12th grade fine arts: The Art League has asked fine arts students to design a logo and a brand for the upcoming community art show. (Students incorporate the principles of good design with the basics of marketing strategies as they consider the medium and costs of the promotion.)

Problem-based learning materials in print from for Science (K-8) have been developed by the Centre for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary. Descriptions are provided at


“A Webquest is an inquiry-oriented lesson format in which most or all the information that learners work with comes from the web.”[58] In the “QuestGarden” you will find an extensive collection of webquests addressing all grades and most subjects. Search the collection to find Webquests in a particular subject and grade.

Click here to download descriptions of a few WebQuests involving Problem-based learning.