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When you decided to enter the world of education, you more than likely did so because you sincerely enjoyed providing students with learning experiences. You no doubt put a great deal of time and effort into planning, preparing, and delivering your lessons, though you may have been disappointed in your class’s response. You might have noticed your students appeared to be unfocused or disconnected and you wondered in frustration what more you could have done.
Your class’s response is more than likely not a result of something you did, but rather came from some of the built-in difficulties associated with traditional teaching techniques. Many times, this approach requires a teacher to talk at their students, rather than with their students. This method can stifle curiosity and deaden the desire to learn.
There is another approach, however, that can reverse this effect. Inquiry-based learning encourages active interest and inspires creativity. It provides your class with the opportunity to explore subjects, concepts, and ideas in a way that uniquely sparks learning in each individual student.
Inquiry-based learning's real purpose can be found in what makes it effective. Here are just some of the reasons why it works so well with our modern learners.
1. It provides students with more than just auditory learning experiences.
Studies have shown that students learn better—and remember the information longer—when they engage with the material through touch or sight. Hearing alone does not make the brain connections needed to truly retain and understand material. This suggests the brain stores visual and tactile information differently than it stores auditory information.
Providing students with opportunities to engage with the material in ways that don’t only include sitting and listening will enhance their learning experiences and help them retain the information longer. It will also boost their desire to learn as they look forward to hands-on projects.
2. It allows students to learn in a way that works for them.
One of the difficulties of traditional teaching techniques is that they often require students in a classroom to learn the same material the same way. While this method may work for some students, many don’t fully process information administered in the traditional fashion.
Inquiry-based learning allows each student to individually engage with the material so they can learn from it in their own unique way. This helps to reduce the lack of focus, apathy, or frustration that students feel when they’re struggling to learn via traditional methods.
Studies have shown that students learn better—and remember the information longer—when they engage with the material through touch or sight.
3. It involves asking questions rather than making statements.
Inquiry-based learning uses questions as its foundation rather than the statements that usually come with traditional techniques. Asking a question causes the brain to switch into a different path than the one required for only listening.
When a question is asked, the listener begins the process of thinking through the information in order to draw a conclusion. This helps students use the power of their own thought processes to work through the questions, observations, or problems before them. It also makes the topic personally significant as they try to answer the question for themselves.
4. It strengthens problem-solving skills.
Problem-solving takes place in a series of steps. In truth, these steps are simply those of the scientific method: observation, question, hypothesis, prediction, experiment, and analysis. As humans, we follow these steps countless times throughout the average day.
Even a seemingly simple situation, such as a dead battery in a remote control, requires us to run through these steps in our minds in order to come up with a possible solution. The process happens so quickly though, and we do it so often, that we don’t even realize it’s happening.
Teaching students the scientific method and then allowing them to consciously go through the steps when solving a problem will help them learn the skills required to face challenges that happen outside the classroom as well.
5. It creates good habits.
Inquiry-based learning is excellent at teaching those positive habits that will apply both inside and outside the classroom. Following the steps of the scientific method in a conscious way requires organization and thought. In other words, it teaches the habit of thinking before acting.
It also encourages cleanliness and responsibility as students learn to take care of their learning materials and clean up after themselves. Finally, inquiry-based learning teaches attention to detail as students must carefully follow instructions and record observations so they can use them again later.
Inquiry-based learning allows each student to individually engage with the material so they can learn from it in their own unique way.
6. It instills the love of learning.
As teachers, we can often trace our love of learning back to certain experiences in our formative years. These experiences may have prompted us to move into the education field in order to provide others with similar opportunities.
Inquiry-based learning gives students the ability to question and interact with their educational material. The process they go through as they discover facts and details through their own efforts helps to instill a love of learning and an excitement for new opportunities.
7. It teaches how to apply the knowledge gained from inquiry.
One of the best ways for a student to remember the information they learned is through practical application. Many times following a lesson or lecture, students will walk away with a page full of notes and not much else. Inquiry-based learning changes these lessons into opportunities for students to find their own answers through their own application.
For example, instead of simply teaching the facts about global warming, students would be asked how global warming affects them. This creates the need for them to think through the information they already have and apply it to themselves and their lives.
This type of application makes the greatest impact as it becomes something they incorporate into their daily thought processes and, sometimes, even into their belief systems.
8. It provides opportunities to develop talents.
Providing a student with greater independence as they explore the world around them also provides them with opportunities to discover talents. For example, a student learning about how vibrations from a guitar cord produce sound may also discover they have an ear for music.
A student sketching an object they are observing might find they have a knack for art. Inquiry-based learning also gives students exposure to subjects and approaches they might not otherwise have had. This gives them a broader knowledge base and provides them with unique experiences that will help them connect with the people and the world around them as they leave the classroom.
Inquiry-based learning is excellent at teaching those positive habits that will apply both inside and outside the classroom.
9. It inspires students to set and achieve their own goals.
Traditional teaching methods usually come with a set of benchmarks that students are expected to reach before moving on to the next grade. These benchmarks often mean nothing to students except stress and frustration as they try to meet requirements they had no part in making.
On the other hand, inquiry-based learning is designed to help students set their own goals and plan their own steps to achieve those goals. It inspires a sense of ownership as students engage in a task they have selected as well as confidence as they accomplish their objectives. When students set standards and design the steps to achieve them, they are far more engaged in the learning process and achieve much more personal growth.
Why Inquiry-Based Learning Matters
Inquiry-based learning will benefit each student in different ways. Those that struggle with certain concepts can experience less stress and frustration as they gain the ability to explore material in a way that increases their confidence and abilities. Students who are above-average in other areas will be given the chance to branch into new territory as they take their current knowledge even farther.
Parents will see the positive effects of inquiry-based knowledge at home as well. They’ll find their students are more willing to complete homework assignments and engage in learning at home. In addition, parents of inquiry-based learners often see an improvement in their student’s grades and an increase in their child’s motivation when it comes to reaching academic milestones.
Though it may take time to switch to an inquiry-based learning system, there are small, short-term ways to implement it throughout the week. It can start by simply removing a worksheet assignment and replacing it with one that requires inquiry and observation. Teachers will often find that behavior issues decline when more inquiry-based activities are provided in the classroom. Such opportunities reduce behavior problems due to boredom, fatigue, and frustration.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Apr 25, 2019, updated Dec 19, 2021