Inquiry-Based Learning

Students engaged in problem-based learning Students engaged in problem-based learning


At a Glance

In inquiry-based learning, students learn as they define and solve real-world problems. In doing so, they ask questions, gather resources, analyze data, and present results. As such, this approach is a viable option for instructors seeking to shift the focus from the end product to the process of learning and foreground connections between course content and its application in the real world.

Research Team

This investigation was led by Aaron Royer (Sr. Instructional Designer) and Jessica Gonzalez (Instructional Designer), members of Learning Innovation and Faculty Engagement.

What is it?

In inquiry-based learning (IBL), content learning occurs naturally as students actively explore and attempt to solve open-ended, real-world problems - a significant departure from more traditional lesson sequences which  begin with delivery of content through, for example, a lecture and then move to applications. IBL emphasizes the importance of students’ questions, ideas, and observations and thus encourages active participation from students and provides ample opportunity for collaboration and sharing of ideas. Students, in their role of problem solvers, ask questions, gather resources, analyze and interpret data, and present their findings, while instructors structure and scaffold problems  and guide students through the problem-solving process, providing support and resources when necessary.

How does it work?

There are four main approaches to inquiry-based learning (Banchi & Bell, 2008). Each differs in the level of scaffolding provided to students, but all require students to go through the inquiry cycle of formulating questions, gathering resources, synthesizing information, and presenting findings.

Methods and Example Activities

Students confirm their understanding of a concept by demonstrating their ability to apply it as they solve a real problem. At this level, the most scaffolded of the four, instructors generate both the questions and procedures,  and the outcomes are generally predetermined.  

An example is  a pre-designed experiment that proves a known theory or principle. The teacher provides guidance and support, but the students are responsible for following the procedures, collecting data, analyzing the results and presenting their findings.

Instructors provide  an initial question and outline a process for students to follow. Importantly, and different from the confirmation level, the outcomes of the inquiry are generally unknown. 

Case-Based Learning: Students are given a case study, or detailed scenario in a real-world context. They are provided guiding questions which they work together to answer. Students synthesize their answers to come to a unique conclusion.

Here students are responsible for designing and following the procedure to answer the question that the instructor poses. Because learners now have more freedom in developing the procedure and finding useful content, it is important for the instructor to provide guidance and feedback where necessary. 

Problem Based Learning: Students are given a complex, authentic, ill-structured problem in the form of a scenario. They  work in groups to analyze the scenario, decide what they know and what they need to know to resolve the problem. They also decide HOW they will collect and synthesize the information. Instructor's guide students by asking questions and providing feedback at different points of the process.  Ultimately, they use this information to develop a final product (e.g. a paper or presentation). 

Additional example: Project Based Learning

Within general guidelines, students take ownership of the inquiry and their results. They are given the freedom to select a subject or concept that interests them, formulate their own research questions, and devise a plan to carry out their research. Once completed, they may present a report or presentation outlining their findings. The instructor provides minimal guidance, serving more as a facilitator and resource.

Independent Research: Students choose a topic on a current global issue, create their own investigation method, and produce a presentation on possible solutions based on their findings. 

Harkness Discussion: Students are given new information (a text, math problem, etc.) After reviewing it, students lead their own discussion, making meaning of the new information by formulating questions and navigating their own disagreements, conclusions and discoveries. They structure and monitor their progress and work collectively to incorporate their new knowledge.

The methods and activities mentioned above are not exhaustive and can transform into another inquiry-based model by adjusting the level of scaffolding. For example, project based learning where students choose their project topic and their method of inquiry would be considered Open inquiry. However, project based learning where students are assigned their topics and given a step-by-step method of inquiry would be considered structured inquiry.

Instructors may also combine different inquiry models in a single activity. For instance, presenting an engineering simulation with guiding questions but then allowing students to develop solutions using open inquiry.

Who's doing it?

Inquiry-based learning is becoming increasingly popular in higher ed, and the following examples from the University of Miami and other institutions illustrate some of the most common usage scenarios. 

Usage Scenario from University of Miami

Ines Basalo, Assistant Professor in Practice, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Dr. Basalo, a participant in the 2022 Faculty Learning Community on Problem-Based Learning, uses inquiry-based learning in MAE 301: Materials ScienceStudents are tasked with designing a beverage container.  To make it more real and engaging, she builds a narrative around the problem in which students assume the role of industrial designers contracted by the beverage company, FancyBev, to design a container for their new beverage. This narrative, and the tasks embedded within,  unfolds in a series of emails between Dr. Basalo, a representative of the company, and the students, an approach which adds a touch of authenticity. In solving this problem, students need to collaborate with peers to ask effective  questions, identify and synthesize resources, and present their findings in a persuasive way.


From: Fizzgerald, Beverly <> Sent: Tuesday. February 1, 2022 9:06 AM To: Basalo, Ines <i.basalo@miami edu> Subject: Help Dear MAE 301 Students, My company desperately needs your engineering expertise. FancyBev has a new fabulous sparkling water, but we have no idea how to bottle it. The team has been discussing the type of beverage container we should use. The CFO wants something "very cheap"; the PR director wants something fancy that shows "the beautiful bubbles in the water", and our distribution manager says it needs to be something "light and strong' We do not know where to start. As you can see, we are a mess. And we need your help. We have decided to hire your MA301 engineering consulting firms to advise us. Kindly reply to this email and indicate: (1) your knowledge about beverage containers, and (2) the information you will need to research to help us select the best choice for our product. Looking forward to your response. Sincerely, Beverly Fizzgerald, CEO 


Yui Matsuda, Assistant Professor, Nursing and Health Studies

Dr. Matsuda, a participant in the 2021 Faculty Learning Community on Problem-Based Learning, uses this method in BPH 206: Introduction to Public Health.  In her problem narrative, students assume the role of advisors to the mayor of Miami tasked with investigating and ultimately proposing a solution to the issues surrounding the gentrification of Wynwood. Students, working in groups,  leverage local resources like the Miami Herald and even engage with community organizations to answer their questions and define the problem with sufficient detail. In doing so, they learn about important public health concepts and how they manifest themselves in local communities. At the conclusion of this process, students present their solutions accompanied by a written executive summary. 

Additional Usage Scenarios

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  • Boston University

    Rick Reibstein, Environmental Law and Policy, Boston University

    Rick Reibstein, professor of Environmental Law and Policy, tasks his students with creating professional quality projects for local environmental or public health agencies. He uses Project Based Learning, an example of open inquiry, deciding on 6 projects and asking that students pitch their own project ideas before the semester begins. Students use what they learn in class to complete these projects throughout the semester. This approach challenges students to apply their skills and create knowledge to impact real-world projects. To encourage engagement and ensure accountability, Reibstein’s students present their work individually as they progress while peers ask questions and offer meaningful feedback. Professor Reibstein holds one-on-one consultations with each student and uses email communication to guide students through each project. Final products are published on a public website and are often incorporated in real time by clients in the community. These highly engaging projects not only require that students use critical thinking and communication skills to solve authentic problems, but they contribute to each student’s professional experience and portfolio of work for future employment. Some projects include a guidebook on Carbon Credits for Forest Preservation, a paper discussing Pesticide Impacts on Bees, and building legislative support for a Lead Litigation Bill which students presented at the statehouse. 

    Megina Baker, Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, Boston University

    Dr. Baker is a faculty member in the early education department. Inspired by Harvard’s Project Zero research on Pedagogy of Play, she uses structured  inquiry methods through project-based, team, and experiential learning to teach her remote course: Learning to Teach Science to Young Children. Her students engage in a semester-long project using Science Notebooks where they chronicle various hands-on investigations. One example includes heating different materials on the stove at home and documenting hypotheses and observations in the notebooks. She also uses a resource (“Every Day Nature Tasks”) from the Arnold Arboretum in which students participate in daily open-ended  tasks in nature. One example asks participants to go outside and collect objects with different textures. Students tape these objects into their Science Notebooks and add their observations. Although the course was remote, the experiential nature of the projects prompted students to discuss the ownership, curiosity and enjoyment of their own learning process. Ultimately, these projects culminated in virtual presentations and reflections on how students may incorporate similar approaches into their own teaching practice.

  • University of Georgia

    Puliyur MohanKumar, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia

    Dr. Puliyur MohanKumar is a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Georgia. As a response to increased class sizes, more remote students, and reduced access to dissection labs, Dr. MohanKumar worked with his department to incorporate BodyViz. This software  virtually reconstructs 3D animals based on genuine clinical cases that used computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging. Dr. MohanKumar presents these models to his students and guides them through their own investigation; questioning, collaborating and eventually virtually dissecting the 3D model in order to gain a better insight into the case. This form of open inquiry requires students to apply key knowledge of anatomy while engaging with the sample case. Students generate and discuss questions like: “Why am I dissecting this? Why am I learning this thing? Why do I have to memorize this specific fact?”. Dr. MohanKumar found that this practice helped engage his students and improved their understanding of anatomy.

What are the benefits?

Regardless of which inquiry-based activity students engage in, they will follow the inquiry cycle during which students will typically leverage their curiosity, communicate ideas with a group, find and synthesize information and more. This cycle is iterative and helps to refine various skills for students that can have long-lasting impacts.

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  • Benefits to the students

    For students, inquiry-based learning can increase motivation and engagement by inviting students to take ownership of the investigation process and apply concepts and skills they’ve acquired. The authentic, complex nature of these tasks develop students’ critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills (Wahyudiati, 2022). Students also practice collaborating and finding and evaluating research. With the proper support, the inquiry cycle helps students navigate failures, dead-ends, and risk-taking in their own learning; building confidence and good practice. It encourages them to become life-long learners in their professional and personal lives (Duch et al., 2001).

  • Benefits to the university

    University-wide initiatives can lean on inquiry-based learning as a vehicle to innovate teaching and maximize the student experience. For example, as part of UM’s Roadmap to Our New Century, the Quality Enhancement Program (QEP) focuses on Learning through Dialogue and Discussion. Years of research shows student-to-student dialogue and class discussion as a form of active learning helps students retain new material, construct knowledge, and build social and critical thinking skills (Becker et al., 2017). UM’s QEP focuses on making these practices  an integral part of the undergraduate learning experience, provides development, resources, and support to participating faculty, and looks to transform learning spaces to foster dialogic learning.

  • Benefits for society

    More broadly, inquiry-based learning strategies in the classroom help create the next generation of community members who are more prepared to expand knowledge, tackle complex issues, and innovate. It helps students become better researchers by teaching them how to ask effective questions and giving them the tools to synthesize information critically to produce relevant conclusions. With the future workforce in constant flux due to technological advancements and changing needs, IBL teaches students to be flexible and open-minded, making them better-equipped to not only evolve alongside a changing economy, but to help innovate the workforce as they join it (Becker et al., 2017).

What are the challenges?

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  • Time Consuming

     While inquiry-based learning activities ask more of students, it can also ask much of faculty. Designing complex, real-world scenarios for problem based learning, finding authentic content for case based learning, or developing project ideas can be time consuming. Creating clear rubrics, and scheduling activities efficiently are major tasks for instructors as well. Incorporating these activities incrementally is a great way to slowly enhance your course with the time that is available and combat overwhelm. Small changes can make powerful impacts. Instructors might also find it useful to collaborate with their departments and build a resource bank as a team. The University of Delaware’s PBL Database has plenty of resources including problem based learning lessons  for different disciplines.  Students can help by pitching ideas or contributing their own content via research (Chu et al., 2017). 

  • Designing Challenging Yet Effective Tasks

    Instructors might find it difficult to find the balance between providing enough scaffolding and guidance and sufficiently challenging their students

    Possible Solutions:

    • Provide an overall structure to the task with a clear timeline
    • Review and discuss rubrics and examples where it makes sense before having students start their own work
    • Offer different types of support, for example, checking in with individuals and groups in person, via e-mail, during virtual office hours, etc.
    • You can also collaborate with students when deciding any and all of these through the use of community agreements and/or discussion to fuel their sense of ownership and tailor activities to their learning needs.

  • Content Coverage

    IBL activities may require students to dig deep into a few topics instead of broadly surveying several topics. This may not leave you with enough time to cover all of your course content. While it may be true that some topics may have to be sacrificed, it’s also important to consider the cognitive benefits of in-depth study like increased retention and decreased need for remediation (Vera, 2016). You can prioritize key concepts and provide access to remaining content for students to explore on their own via a flipped classroom model or through independent research. The skills and strategies students will gain through inquiry-based learning activities can support their independent learning down the road (Walkington, 2015).

What are the implications for teaching and learning?

Inquiry-based learning is shifting roles and perspectives in higher education.

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  • Real-world Connections

    It is important that instructors are intentional about demonstrating the relevance of content, as this has important implications for student motivation and participation (Frymier & Shulman, 1995). Inquiry-based learning helps to facilitate these connections by incorporating real-life situations and problems into the learning process, allowing students to apply their knowledge and skills and understand how what they are learning is relevant to their lives. By exploring real-world problems and generating their own questions, students are able to engage with the material in a meaningful way and develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

  • Shifting Roles of Instructor and Student

    In inquiry-based learning, the role of the instructor shifts from being the sole source of information to more of a facilitator. He provides guidance and support as students work together to ask questions, find resources, and develop their own understanding and solutions to real-world problems. This approach puts the responsibility for learning more on the students, who become active participants in their own education. The instructor's role is to guide, assess, and provide feedback to support student learning and development. In this way, the traditional teacher-student power dynamic is disrupted, creating a more collaborative and democratic learning environment.

  • Depth over Breadth of Content

    In more traditional methods, the focus is often on covering a broad range of content, rather than delving deeply into a smaller number of topics. Inquiry-based learning, on the other hand, shifts the focus from breadth to depth of content by allowing students to explore a single topic or problem in-depth. By focusing on depth rather than breadth, students are able to delve into the complexities of a topic, explore different perspectives, and develop a more nuanced, longer-lasting  understanding (Schwartz et al., 2008). In addition, by focusing on depth, IBL helps students to build stronger connections between different concepts and skills, as they are able to see how they are interrelated and apply what they have learned in different contexts.

  • From Product to Process

    In traditional learning models, the focus is often on the end product, such as a test score or completed assignment. Inquiry-based learning, by contrast, shifts the focus from the product to the process of learning itself. This approach recognizes that the process of searching for answers, asking questions, and making connections is just as important, if not more so, than the final product. In IBL, students are encouraged to explore, experiment, and make mistakes as part of the learning process and are given the opportunity to think critically, collaborate with peers, and engage in hands-on, active learning. The instructor’s role is to support and guide students as they engage in this process, rather than simply providing answers.

Where is it going?

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  • Interdisciplinary Coursework and New Content Areas

    While inquiry-based learning has been used in nursing and engineering, content areas like education, business, communications and psychology are seeing benefits (Becker et al., 2017). As inquiry-based learning expands to new content areas, it also facilitates the move across departments through interdisciplinary projects like FIU’s Science and Fiction Lab, which marries scientific concepts with analogous fiction pieces. Interdisciplinary degree programs like those found in UM’s Interdisciplinary and Professional Studies are also on the rise. This is because IBL’s focus on competencies translates beyond any one subject area.

  • New Inquiry-based Methods and Modes

    Instructors are always looking for ways to simulate real world conditions so students can problem-solve and collaborate in meaningful ways. Similarly, more and more instructors are  using new tools to enhance inquiry-based learning. This can include using virtual worlds like Second Life or  augmented reality capabilities such as Magic Leap located in UM’s own Richter Library. VR and AR allows students to act out scenarios that will require them to apply their skills and knowledge real time in a safe and accessible environment. Other new approaches include gamification (Li et al., 2022) and the use of social media (Manca, 2020), email, and even Whatsapp (Baguma, 2019) as vehicles for simulating real world communication, collaboration, and problem solving. Demands for blended learning models and more customizable learning management systems are also fueled by growing interest in inquiry-based learning models (Becker et al., 2017).

    Beyond experimenting with different technology, new inquiry-based learning methods are emerging. This includes  Hackathons, an example of open inquiry, where students are asked to transfer their theoretical knowledge into practice in a one-day challenge (Kienzler & Fontanesi, 2017). In a Hackathon, students must collaborate with their team to analyze a challenge, complete research, collaborate with their team and develop a final product that serves as a solution to the problem. During the Hackathon, community experts are often available for students to interview as part of their research phase. Similarly, Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience or CURE are courses that are structured around original research opportunities where students can implement the inquiry cycle and generate new information in their discipline. Activities like these may be the next iteration of inquiry-based learning as the demand for industry-ready graduates increases.

  • Innovative Classroom Designs

    Use of inquiry-based learning strategies has sparked a need for  flexible classroom designs that facilitate collaboration and center the students in the learning process (Becker et al., 2017). Many universities are creating more Active Learning Classrooms with smaller work stations, flexible seating, and more dry erase boards for student use. Technology Enhanced Active Learning Classrooms are also on the rise with hybrid-teaching capabilities, additional monitors and microphones, charging outlets at each table, and a reduced focus on the “front” of the classroom. Even auditorium style classrooms are seeing the installation of rotating seats to foster discussion. These classroom designs put the onus on the students to drive their inquiry process and connect with each other while simultaneously  reinforcing the role of the instructor as a facilitator.


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