Inquiry-guided instruction (IGI) has the potential to greatly enhance the learning experience for both educators and students. Although studies show the benefits of IGI, implementation presents its challenges. Issues include the balance of content material and the thought process, teaching strategies, and specific challenges of IGI in the lecture and laboratory formats.
Inquiry has been explored in science education for more than four decades (Rutherford 1964). The term “inquiry” has been used in various contexts—general inquiry, scientific inquiry, and the method of inquiry (Rutherford 1964; Tamir 1983; Kyle 1980; Welch et al. 1981). In general, inquiry refers to attributes such as being inquisitive, curious, and self-taught and is inherently part of both scientific inquiry and the method of inquiry.
Scientific inquiry deals with inquiry as content and involves what is taught and consequently what is learned. Teaching science as inquiry is a pedagogical technique, which translates into how teaching and learning are brought about. We use the term inquiry-guided instruction (IGI) in referring to the method of inquiry.
IGI encompasses an array of classroom strategies that “promotes student learning through guided but increasingly independent investigation of questions and problems” (NCSU 2003). The success of IGI as a pedagogical approach depends on active investigative participation and demands two conditions. First, teachers must have the motivation and enthusiasm to promote questions. And second, there must be a shift in the meaning and responsibility of learning.
The learning process is understood to be a partnership in which students take responsibility for their own learning and instructors assist in building the commitment to learning. The most important idea is that students need to recognize struggle as a vital step in the learning process.
Research supports inquiry in science teaching (Leonard 1983; Germann and Aram 1994; Farrell, Moog, and Spencer 1999; NRC 2000). Although inquiry is intellectually supported, implementation presents its challenges (Hansen and Stephens 2000). Various approaches to implementing inquiry in laboratory courses have been presented (Crandall 1997; Sundberg et al. 2000; Arce and Betancourt 1997).
Inspired by such research, and based on our experiences teaching general chemistry courses mainly to traditional science majors, we have addressed the commonalties and differences involved in implementing inquiry as a teaching method in both the chemistry lecture and laboratory. Our examples may be of assistance to others, and we have developed a streamlined set of guidelines that includes various IGI features, actions that instructors may take to achieve each characteristic, and specific examples that we tested in our chemistry classrooms.
Experience has taught us that there are three crucial steps in implementing IGI successfully. The first step is for the instructor to set the tone for the predicted outcomes and expectations. To do so, we share clear and specific guidelines with students from the first day of lecture and lab and document these guidelines in the course material.
The syllabus is the first document in which we present the process of learning as a partnership. Instead of stating a list of goals and objectives, the instructor can precede these lists with statements such as: “In this course I will help you develop the ability to recognize learning limitations and ways to overcome them”; “I invite you to read the reasons for doing what we do in class. These include increasing your chances of effective studying and self-evaluation.” Tests, for example, are given because “I need material for evaluating your learning. You deserve the assurance of an objective grade.” Students are reminded of these points, in this tone, regularly during the semester.
The second step in successfully implementing IGI is to use consistent teaching strategies. To do so, the instructor must choose one or more teaching strategies to use throughout the semester, start with one or two, and then incorporate others as students become comfortable with them. For example, different practices (such as assigning groups, rotating roles within groups, and designing collaborative activities) play roles in collaborative work. We started by organizing groups and monitoring how they worked for one semester. Then, the following semester we incorporated the lessons learned and expanded our efforts to the design of collaborative activities.
The third step in successfully implementing IGI is to take advantage of reflective teaching practices. We do so by considering feedback from four different sources—students, colleagues, literature, and personal experiences. We anonymously survey students at the very beginning of the class by distributing questions such as: “What was the most useful thing we did these past 2 weeks?” or “What would you change in this class and why?” We give students a maximum of 3 minutes so that, in 5 minutes total, we can distribute and collect papers. Then we discuss in class a list of the most popular answers. Students appreciate this opportunity; even when something will not change, they tend to deal with it much better after the instructor has explained the reasons for doing it.
Inquiry-based activities are inductive and require students to generate their own procedures (DeBoer 1991). Inductive activities are praised for bringing the undergraduate to the frontier of science (Haight 1967) and for illustrating the methods of science to students (Ricci and Ditzler 1991). The methods of instruction we use allow for more than just rote memorization of principles. Students are asked to apply what they learn, think critically, and draw conclusions.
Emphasizing collaborative group work allows us to capitalize on each student’s strengths. We became familiar with the benefits of collaborative work (Felder and Brent 1994) and addressed the following:
- Group heterogeneity. We use various measures to assign groups including gender, scores on pre-testing content materials, and ethnicity. We try to ensure that minority members are never a minority in a group. In groups of three, for instance, we place two women, two minority ethnic constituents, two older students, and so forth, to the extent that the student population permits.
- Size. Small groups promote risk taking. Groups of three are optimal in our experience; groups of four can sometimes foster an environment where one or two members always lead, and others get by without participating fully. In small groups, students feel supported in their design decisions and are more likely to deal constructively with challenges rather than give up.
- Incentive on exam grades. We give students 5 bonus points on exam scores when the group tests average above a certain minimum (we use 75 points for groups of three). We find that the best student goes out of his or her way to help the weakest student to get those extra points. At the same time, the weakest student feels responsible for bringing his or her grade up a few points. This strategy permits weaker students to contribute to the group’s success, and consequently to their own success, in a reachable manner.
- Evaluation process. All students fill out group evaluations at least four times during the semester. These evaluation sheets include a self-evaluation in which each member is given a score and reasons for earning that score. This helps us monitor group dynamics and makes students conscientious of their efforts, knowing that everyone gets evaluated regularly.
- Contracts. Students create a contract dictating the group rules. By signing the contract, students take charge and assume responsibility for their actions.
To effectively emphasize problem solving, instructors must adopt a tested protocol for thinking a problem through. We adopted the GOAL protocol [Gather information, Organize your approach, Analyze the problem, and Learn from your efforts (Serway and Beichner 2000)]. The last step is essential because it forces students to reflect on the problem solving process. Students use the protocol when solving all class problems, including test, quiz, and worksheet problems.
A second important aspect of the GOAL protocol is to test learning the way it is taught. The first semester we used the GOAL protocol for class problems, we did not enforce its use on quizzes and exams. The result was that only a minority of students adopted the protocol, so few benefited from it.
In addition to having a protocol in place, we make the thought process a major focus of problem discussions. We developed a rubric for ourselves that helps us analyze answers and assign scores. We ask ourselves questions such as, “Did the student use sound, scientific reasoning to design the experiment, perform it, and interpret the results?” or “Did the student approach the problem with a legitimate understanding of what the problem asked?” Our rubric addresses all aspects of critical thinking skills for a written, semester-long assignment for an IGI general chemistry course (Oliver-Hoyo 2003).
We discourage students from demanding “right” answers and encourage them to pay more attention to the right approach. To do so, we replace algorithmic problems that can be solved mechanically using a specific formula with verbal problems that require students to discern what information is relevant and how it can be used to solve the problem. We use verbal problems that address real world situations whenever possible.
Topics in class are extended to relate to outside experiences. To do so, we incorporate science-related news, everyday phenomena, and demonstrations. By incorporating pedagogy that is truly engaging, we encourage students to “talk” about chemistry with their classmates outside the classroom, therefore, expanding the classroom experience.
To monitor the degree to which students are engaged by the subject matter, we frequently test them. Student incentives to participate include frequent testing (each worth a small fraction of points) that constitutes a substantial portion of the class grade.
At the beginning of the semester we assign a score to every worksheet, group activity, or problem done in class or lab time. Assigning a score sends students the message that everything counts and is important for their learning. Later on in the semester, students do the work consistently without needing the instructor to grade each paper. “Scores” can be as simple as a “+,” “–,” or “3.”
We emphasize concepts and processes rather than just quantitative results when grading. For example, if a problem is worth 10 points, then we do not assign more than 2 points for the final numeric answer.
We have also tried other types of assessments, including narrative writing, group discussions, oral presentations, and other expressive measures that give the instructor insight into students’ thoughts, ideas, and actions. Every other Friday, our students respond to a conceptual question in “reflective journals.” Answers are categorized and discussed in class, where 2 points = sound, well-thought-out responses; 1 point = a legitimate attempt to solve the problem; and 0 points = any other answer.
Any instructor trying all these teaching strategies at once will be overwhelmed, frustrated, and ineffective. These strategies build on each other to deliver the benefits of IGI instruction and should be adopted incrementally.
One of the main issues concerning the implementation of IGI practices is how to balance the time required to address content and the thought process inherent in inquiry-based instruction. The following practices have worked for us to make class time more effective in conveying the inquiry method without sacrificing content coverage.
One effective practice is to hold students accountable for familiarizing themselves with the basic terminology and facts related to the topic. As incentives for students to prepare for class, we assign quizzes, homework, or electronic worksheets that are due before class or lab. Students who do not earn a minimum score on the pre-class assignments do not receive credit for class work that day.
A second effective practice is to make instructional materials compatible with the inquiry method. We constantly use new question sets to avoid the problem of answers being “handed down” from previous classes.
The department must support this effort financially, and lab supervision and contact with students should be increased (sections should be small). In laboratory, 15 students per instructor is ideal, whereas in lecture 25 students is still an intimate group. Instructors are expected to have extensive interaction with students throughout the inquiry process. With larger sections, more instructors are needed.
An increased amount of time must be spent for a successful IGI learning experience. Students must have sufficient time to muddle through problems or to repeat experiments. In an informal survey of students in an inquiry-based lab course, students said they spent an average of 1.3 hours preparing for a lab session and an average of 3.2 hours after the lab analyzing and writing up their results. This is a substantial time commitment for students, especially considering that this is in addition to whatever time they spend on the lecture portion of the class.
The advantages can also be seen in other results from the same survey. When surveyed, 68.4 percent of the students said that the time spent on the lab was reflected in the amount they learned (21.5 percent felt it was not, whereas 10.1 percent of respondents were unsure). Interestingly, students clearly separated their grade in the course from the idea of having learned a lot. Only 46.8 percent of the respondents felt that the time spent on the lab was reflected in the grade they earned. Also, 41.8 percent felt that the time was not accurately reflected in the grade, and 11.4 percent of respondents were unsure.
In IGI courses, students assume responsibility for their own learning. Frequently eliciting feedback monitors student progress, engagement in discussion groups, and commitment to the opportunities offered in the classroom.
IGI laboratory activities improve both student attitudes toward science by allowing them to feel ownership in their experiments and student abilities to use formal operational thought (Domin 1999). There are two common strategies for implementing an inquiry-guided laboratory curriculum. The first is to provide detailed instructions for students on how to conduct the experiment and collect data while leaving the hypothesizing and data analysis open-ended for students to do independently.
The second option is to structure lab experiments so students must design and complete their own procedures (Herman 1998). It is the second of these strategies with which we have had experience and thus can address. Other experiences with this style of IGI curriculum in the chemistry laboratory have also been reported (Arce and Betancourt 1997).
After implementing an IGI lab for 600 students, we found that it is crucial for students to be comfortable with the basic material being studied, enough so that they can make decisions about how to structure an experiment. For this reason, it is beneficial to have the lab content follow that of the lecture; they need not be chronologically exact, but the lab material typically should not precede the introduction of the same material in lecture.
This can be challenging in a multiple-section lab course, but students find it very helpful. This increases students’ confidence in their lab abilities and gives them more confidence, allowing them to take more risks in their experimental design. Once students internalize the idea that lecture and lab are absolutely linked, they feel more comfortable asking the professor experimental questions.
Another good scheduling strategy is to conduct experiments in multiple-week sequences—a 2-week sequence works quite well. In the first week of such a sequence, the lab experiment is less about inquiry and more about answering a specific question with both guidance on how to proceed and specific instruction on proper equipment use. Then, at the end of that lab, students can be presented with the challenge or question that will be their experiment the following week.
Ideally, students should be able to use remaining time in the first lab session to begin planning and designing their experiment. Having been trained on the necessary equipment, they are then free to focus on how to approach a problem scientifically. This helps to eliminate many safety concerns because students have been properly trained and have had an opportunity to become familiar with any safety hazards present in an experiment similar to the one they will design.
Once students begin to design their experiments, it is necessary to manage materials and equipment use. To do so, we provide them with a list of available materials (we limit the chemicals) from which they can choose. In a common qualitative analysis lab, for instance, we give students a list of reagents they may use in identifying their unknown. The list includes more reagents than students will necessarily require, but not an unlimited supply of chemicals. For example, if a reaction with a sulfate anion would be helpful in identifying a compound, students choose between sulfuric acid and sodium sulfate. This prevents a rush on chemicals and limits safety concerns.
It is important to plan on students using more amounts of chemicals than they would in a traditional setting (for reproducing data, redoing failed experiments, making changes in procedures, and so forth). For a lab course of 600 students, we prepare between 1.5 and 2 times more per student group than the amount we would require for the same experiment.
We also require student groups to come to lab having already prepared a procedure for solving the lab question or challenge. An effective method of emphasizing safety while still allowing students to drive their own experiment is to require them to present their procedural plan before beginning their lab work. We review the procedure and initial it if the procedure is safe; we do not base approval on whether or not the experiment will work. We explain in advance that the initials do not mean that an experimental plan is right.
IGI in Practice
Research has shown that when instructors are skilled at inquiry teaching methods and students have adjusted to the expectations placed on them, inquiry-based laboratory instruction does a better job of teaching scientific inquiry than lecturing with demonstrations or traditional verification lab experiments (Herron and Nurrenbern 1999). So, if one of the goals of a science course is to teach students how to inquire (that is, how to solve their own problems and answer their own questions), then properly preparing instructors and TAs is integral to the program’s success.
Teaching in an inquiry setting is very different from teaching in a traditional environment. Sundberg et al. consider important issues involving instructor training (2000), which should exemplify the IGI philosophy. During training we include a practice teaching component with ample time for suggestions and critique. We conduct training sessions a week before the start of classes, when we run through the labs in an inquiry fashion (as students will) before receiving the instructor’s manual.
It is necessary to minimize the turnover of TAs teaching these labs, because experience and exposure to the same labs are invaluable assets. The administrative staff in charge of TA assignments works with us to ensure that available TAs familiar with IGI practices are assigned to IGI sections. We allow students to fail at their various approaches, provide substantial encouragement to ensure that their motivation is not hampered, and spend more time in the lab with students. We get useful feedback about TAs and the lab by simply visiting the labs and casually asking students about the lab experience.
One of the greatest rewards of instituting IGI practices is students’ attitudinal change toward chemistry class. Reluctant and even antagonistic students express positive reviews by the semester’s end. The words “challenging” and “hard” are always accompanied by “interesting,” “stimulating,” and “worth it.” Students in the lab courses, for the most part, believed that their hard work paid off. Although they expressed frustration with the time required for the lab and with having to really work to figure out answers for themselves, they also acknowledged that this was part of why they learned more in this format. We felt we could ask more difficult and insightful questions to students in IGI courses than we could to students in the traditional sections.
There are numerous issues to consider when implementing an IGI program, and the practical issues may be overwhelming to prospective instructors interested in implementing these practices. Addressing a few issues at a time may be a feasible option for those uncertain that IGI practices can be pursued at their institutions. The vast evidence of the positive effects of such practices should encourage educators to examine the possibilities of adopting them in their own classrooms.
Maria Oliver-Hoyo (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant chemistry professor at North Carolina State University, Department of Chemistry, Box 8204, Raleigh, NC 27695; DeeDee Allen (e-mail: email@example.com) is an assistant professor at Shaw University, 118 East South Street, Raleigh, NC 27601; and Misti Anderson (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is a principle evaluator at Edstar, Inc., 1405 Maryland Avenue, Durham, NC 27705.
Arce, J., and R. Betancourt. 1997. Student-designed experiments in scientific lab instruction. Journal of College Science Teaching 27(2):114–118.
Crandall, G.D. 1997. Old wine into new bottles: How traditional lab exercises can be converted into investigative ones. Journal of College Science Teaching 26(6):413–418.
DeBoer, G.E. 1991. A History of Ideas in Science Education: Implications for Practice. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.
Domin, D.S. 1999. A review of laboratory instruction styles. Journal of Chemical Education 76(4):543–547.
Farrell, J.J., R.S. Moog, and J.N. Spencer. 1999. A guided-inquiry general chemistry course. Journal of Chemical Education 76(4):570–574.
Felder, R.M., and R. Brent. 1994. Cooperative Learning in Technical Courses: Procedures, Pitfalls, and Payoffs. ERIC Document No. ED 377038.
Germann, P.J., and R.J. Aram. 1994. Testing a model of science process skills acquisition—An interaction with parents education, preferred language, gender, science attitude, cognitive-development, academic ability, and biology knowledge. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 31(7):749–783.
Haight, G.P. 1967. Bringing undergraduates to the chemical frontier. Journal of Chemical Education 44(12):766–767.
Hansen, E.J., and J.A. Stephens. 2000. The ethics of learner-centered education: Dynamics that impede the process. Change 33(5):42–47.
Herman, C. 1998. Inserting an investigative dimension into introductory laboratory courses. Journal of Chemical Education 75(1):70–72.
Herron, J.D., and S.C. Nurrenbern. 1999. Chemical education research: Improving chemistry learning. Journal of Chemical Education 76(10):1353–1361.
Kyle Jr., W.C. 1980. The distinction between inquiry and scientific inquiry and why high school students should be cognizant of the distinction. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 17(2):123–130.
Leonard, W.H. 1983. An experimental study of a BSCS-style laboratory approach for university general biology. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 20(9):807–813.
National Research Council (NRC) Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education. 2000. Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
North Carolina State University (NCSU). 2003. Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. Available online at www.ncsu.edu/fctl/Initiatives/Inquiry-Guided_Learning.
Oliver-Hoyo, M.T. 2003. Designing a written assignment to promote the use of critical thinking skills in an introductory chemistry course. Journal of Chemical Education 80(8):899–903.
Ricci, R.W., and M.A. Ditzler. 1991. Discovery chemistry: A laboratory-centered approach to teaching general chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education 68(3):228–231.
Rutherford, J.F. 1964. The role of inquiry in science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 2(2):80–84.
Serway, R. A., and R.J. Beichner. 2000. Physics for Scientists and Engineers, with Modern Physics. Fort Worth, Tex.: Saunders College Publishing.
Sundberg, M.D., J.E. Armstrong, M.L. Dini, and E.W. Wischusen. 2000. Some practical tips for instituting investigative biology laboratories: The nuts and bolts of successful laboratory instruction. Journal of College Science Teaching 29(5):353–359.
Tamir, P. 1983. Inquiry and the science teacher. Science Education 67(5):657–672.
Welch, W.W., L.E. Klopfer, G.S. Aikenhead, and J. Robinson. 1981. The role of inquiry in science education: Analysis and recommendations. Science Education 65(1):33–50.