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Innov High Educ (2011) 36:149160

DOI 10.1007/s10755-010-9166-4

The Power of Inquiry as a Way of Learning


Virginia S. Lee

Published online: 18 November 2010


# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Abstract Since the publication of The Boyer Commission Report (1998), inquiry-guided
learning, has acquired a certain cachet and is often suggested as a universal answer for
various teaching and learning ills, particularly in research universities. However, while the
report focused on inquiry-guided learning, it defined the term only generally or chiefly by
anecdote. Twelve years later confusion still exists about what inquiry-guided learning really
is and how to do it, whether in a single course or across the curriculum. This article offers a
review of representative literature on inquiry-guided learning as well as guidelines for
classroom and curriculum practice to address this confusion and to offer clarity.
Key words Inquiry-guided learning . Undergraduate education . Reform
With the publication of the 1998 Boyer Commission report, Reinventing undergraduate
education: A blueprint for Americas research universities (The Boyer Commission on
Educating Undergraduate Students in the Research University), there was heightened
interest in inquiry-guided learning. Specifically, the report developed an argument for using
it in research universities, sometimes referring to inquiry-guided learning as research-based
learning and at other times as a teaching method offering an alternative to the lecture. Using
inquiry as a mode of learning capitalizes on the strength of the faculty in research, the
report argued: inquiry is a part of the distinctive ecology of the research university in which
faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students should all participate.
Since the publication of the report bearing the Boyer imprimatur, inquiry-guided
learning has acquired a certain cachet. It remains very much in the air in higher education
circles and is often suggested as a universal answer for various teaching and learning ills,
whether in research universities or other types of institutions of higher education. The
Virginia S. Lee is principal and senior consultant of Virginia S. Lee & Associates, a consulting firm
specializing in teaching, learning and assessment in higher education. She received her B.A. from Smith
College, her M.B.A. from New York University, and her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill. Special interests include institution-wide curriculum reform efforts, course and curriculum
design, inquiry-guided learning, and educational development. Email: vslee@virginiaslee.com
V. S. Lee (*)
Virginia S. Lee & Associates, LLC, P.O. Box 51746, Durham, NC 27717-1746, USA
e-mail: vslee@virginiaslee.com

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report has provided inspiration for institutions outside the United States as well: the idea of
the teaching and research nexusthat is, forging explicit connections between teaching and
researchhas caught hold in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. In
fact, in some of these countries federal mandates exist to strengthen the links between
teaching and research in institutions with a strong research component; and significant
resources exist to understand and strengthen the link. Centralized support has also
stimulated an active research agenda on the teaching and research nexus among a group
of senior scholars in these countries (for example, Brew 2003; Jenkins et al. 2007;
Spronken-Smith et al. 2008).
In the United States, however, research and publication in inquiry-guided learning have
lagged behind our international counterparts. Like the term scholarship of teaching
advanced in Scholarship Reconsidered (Boyer 1990), the 1998 report used the terms
inquiry-guided learning and research-based learning but defined them only very
generally. As a result, both of these reports have generated much conversation and debate
over the years. The 1998 report provided brief case studies of practice as inserts to the
major narrative, but these case studies are anecdotal and do not provide a systematic
approach to the implementation of inquiry-guided learning. Consequently, many institutions
adopt inquiry-guided learning, whether in first year seminars, capstone courses, or points in
between, even as they are struggling to understand what it is.
Twelve years later confusion still exists about what inquiry-guided learning really is and
how to do it, whether in a single course or across the curriculum. In this article I offer a
review of representative literature on inquiry-guided learning as well as guidelines for
classroom and curriculum practice to address this confusion and to offer clarity.

What is Inquiry?

Problems are the stimulus to thinking [G]rowth depends upon the presence of
difficulty to be overcome by the exercise of intelligence. The problem grows out of the
conditions of the experience being had in the present, and that it is within the capacity of
students; and secondly, that it is such that it arouses in the learner an active quest for
information and for production of new ideas. (Dewey 1938/1997, p. 79)
According to John Dewey, the American philosopher and progressive educator, inquiry
originates in a state of uncertainty or imbalance occasioned by difficulty and the need to
resolve uncertainty and restore balance (Dewey 1910). He viewed it as a natural way of
thinking and motivation for learning. Recent studies in brain dynamics confirm his belief.
The inherent variability of the brain increases with the presentation of new stimuli or
problems. The heightened instability in the brain plays a significant role in learning: it
opens us up to experience, causing us to investigate the environment with enhanced
receptivity; prepares us for different ways of behaving; and facilitates the encoding of new
information. Searching, exploring, and other trial-and-error behaviors are visible indicators
of psycho-physiological uncertainty that pave the way for a new state of equilibrium,
learning and/or development (Germana & Lancaster in Lee 1998).
The various methods of inquiry of the academic disciplines such as empirical research,
research from sources, and problem solving are refinements of this natural way of thinking.
[Sc]holarly disciplines [are] ways of making meaning out of complex and challenging
experience (Doherty et al. 2002, p. 10). In response to a particular aspect of experience,

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each discipline evolves a set of concepts, theories and principles, standards to validate
knowledge, and an increasingly sophisticated set of methods to explore it (Donald 2002).
Over time, researchers and scholars of teaching have developed models that represent the
methods of thinking in their disciplines. These models include the Vee diagram (Novak and
Gowin 1984), the stages of inquiry (Hudspith and Jenkins 2001), the inquiry process (Justice
et al. 2007), the MORE thinking frame (Tien et al. 1999), and the general problem solving
model (Schoenfeld 1985). Some, like the problem-solving model, have emerged from
research in fields such as artificial intelligence, while others, like the Vee diagram, have been
developed as a heuristic to help students understand the nature of knowledge construction.

What is Inquiry-Guided Learning?


Inquiry-guided learning promotes the acquisition of new knowledge, abilities, and attitudes
through the investigation of questions, problems, and issues using the ways and standards of
inquiry in the disciplines. It is consistent with a broad set of contemporary theories of learning,
which together are called constructivism. According to constructivism, individuals create
knowledge and meaning for themselves through exploration and engagement, often in specific,
real-world contexts. Constructivist theories underlie a range of learning strategies including
group work, discussion, case studies, and role plays. As Fig. 1 illustrates, inquiry-guided learning
is a subset of so-called active learning strategies that also belongs to a group of strategies Prince
and Felder (2006) referred to as inductive teaching and learning methods. Instead of moving
from general principles to applications, a more common instructional approach, instruction
begins with specificsa set of observations or experimental data to interpret, a case history to
analyze, or a complex real-world problem to solve. As students try to analyze the data or
scenario or solve the problem, they recognize a need for facts, rules, procedures, and guiding
principles, which the instructor either presents to them or they discover themselves. Problembased learning is a specific type of inquiry-guided learning that arose in fields such as medicine
and engineering in which problem solving is a dominant mode of inquiry. Undergraduate
research, properly structured, is also a type of inquiry-guided learning.
There are two major areas of debate regarding inquiry-guided learning. The first
concerns the relationship between critical thinking and inquiry-guided learning (Lee 2004).
According to the APA Delphi Report (1990), a consensus definition developed from the
informed opinions of experts, critical thinking refers to a process of purposeful, selfActive learning
Inquiry-guided learning

Problem-based learning

Inductive teaching &


learning methods
Fig. 1 Inquiry-guided learning as a subset of active learning

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regulatory judgment that gives reasoned consideration to the evidence, context, conceptualizations, methods, and criteria by which judgments are made. In my view, the various
methods of inquiry represent forms of critical thinking specific to the disciplines.
Depending on the aspect of experience it studies, each discipline has developed its own
set of conceptualizations, methods, and criteria, which it uses to arrive at new knowledge
claims, decisions, or judgments. By studying and using the ways of inquiry in different
disciplines, in an exploratory way in the general education program and more deeply in the
major, students acquire a flexible and general capacity for critical thinking.
The second area of debate regarding inquiry-guided learning is the extent of guidance
permissible in inquiry-guided learning (Lee 2004). Some contend that only inquiry
conducted in response to student-generated questions with minimal guidance is truly
inquiry-guided learning (Kirschner et al. 2006). Others advocate a developmental approach
(Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007): initially instructors support students inquiry in any number of
ways and gradually withdraw support as students knowledge base and abilities to inquire
develop. The extent of support depends upon the judgment of the instructor. For a variety of
reasons, explained more fully below, this article supports the developmental view.

Why Inquiry-Guided Learning?


The 1998 Boyer report argued that, because inquiry is part of the ecology of the research
university, inquiry-guided learning capitalizes on the strength of the faculty in research and
allows students to reap the benefits of attending a research university rather than a smaller
liberal arts college. While this argument is superficially compelling, there are other, better
reasons for supporting inquiry-guided learning that apply equally to any institution of
higher education, not only research universities. I have already acknowledged the
compatibility of inquiry-guided learning with constructivism and research findings in
neuroscience regarding the response of the brain to novelty. However, there are other
reasons for adopting inquiry-guided learning as well.
In recent years learning outcomes have become the recommended, if not widely accepted,
starting point for planning courses and curricula and, coupled with assessment, insuring
accountability in higher education. Regardless of institutional type, most colleges and
universities identify certain outcomes over and over again as being particularly important
including critical thinking, problem solving, taking responsibility for ones own learning, and
the desire for lifelong learning. Inquiry-guided learning promotes these kinds of outcomes and
the specific skills associated with them, for example, the ability to ask good questions, to
analyze and interpret evidence, and to select and justify the best solution to a problem.
Further, inquiry-guided learning develops abilities and attitudes valued by proponents of
both liberal and professional education and by those who feel that higher education should
equip students for the varied demands of modern life including the requirements of the
work place. As students become increasingly skilled at organizing an inquiry or tackling a
complex problem or issue with other people, they develop a set of capacities and attitudes
relevant to work, home, and community. These capacities and attitudes include the ability to
communicate effectively; to interact with others, even those who are very different from
themselves; to plan and manage complex projects; to take initiative; and to persevere in the
face of obstacles and resistance. On a more philosophical level, through inquiry-guided
learning students become increasingly comfortable with and able to make good decisions
and judgments under conditions of uncertainty, a hallmark of intellectual growth and
maturity (Perry 1970). These kinds of decisions and judgments arise equally in very

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specific circumstances or in response to major decisions over the entire life course (e.g.,
value-based decisions concerning career, life style, and partner).

Facilitating Inquiry-Guided Learning


As professors we do not always see the connection between what we do as scholars and
what our disciplines can teach our students. In order to be able to assist students to learn
through our disciplines, we need to go back to a time when the discipline was for each of us
a novel way of knowing and being in the world and consider how we can assist our students
to practice our disciplines at increasing levels of sophistication (Doherty et al. 2002, p. 10)
Inquiry-guided learning requires instructors to imagine the forms of inquiry they conduct in
their disciplines as contexts for learning rather than scholarship. For example, in addition to
acquiring a knowledge base and the skills of inquiry, students can also practice appropriate
forms of written and oral communication, working effectively with others, directing their own
learning, and perseverance in the face of uncertainty and frustration through participation in an
inquiry. This is an important, and frequently difficult, shift in perspective for many faculty
members to make.
An important aspect of using disciplines as contexts for learning is designing a set of inquirybased experiences that is suitable to the developmental level of students. Using good
pedagogical judgment, instructors need to balance manageable challenge with appropriate
support. Challenge is the degree of complexity in the inquiry, while support is the degree of
structure provided (see Knefelkamp 1974). If the experience is too challenging, many students
will give up or act out their fear and frustration in other unproductive ways. If the experience is
too easy or support is excessive, many students will be quite comfortable, others bored. In either
case little learning will occur. In good inquiry-guided learning experiences, most students should
be just at the edge of or a bit beyond their current abilities (compare Csikszentmihalyi 1990).
Challenge and support can take a variety of forms in inquiry-guided learning. For example,
the possibility of a variety of perspectives, open-endedness, scope, the number of distractors,
and gaps in essential information all contribute to the challenge of an inquiry. In contrast,
modeling, heuristics, guiding questions, rubrics, mini-lectures on aspects of the knowledge base
relevant to an inquiry, assigned readings, direct instruction on important skills of inquiry (e.g.,
developing a research question and hypothesis, analyzing data, generating possible solutions),
and feeder assignments leading up to a final report of an inquiry are all examples of support that
can be used alone or in combination with one another.
Another way of thinking about the balance between challenge and support is the degree
of directness of the inquiry and the extent to which instructors define and guide the inquiry.
The continuum of approaches below progresses from indirect engagement by reading about
the nature of inquiry to conducting an inquiry designed by ones self:

&
&
&
&
&
&

Reading about the nature of inquiry


Reading and analyzing journal articles
Observing and interviewing other inquirers about their work
Doing preparatory exercises to actual inquiry
Conducting inquiry designed by others
Conducting inquiry designed by self

In contrast, Bonnstetter (1998) developed an inquiry continuum ranging from traditional


laboratories through student research inquiry in which instructor guidance yields to
increasing student control of the inquiry process (see Table I). Instructors can also use these

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Table I Inquiry continuum


Traditional
Hands-On

Structured
Inquiry

Guided
Inquiry

Student-directed
Inquiry

Student Research
Inquiry

Topic

I/S

Question

I/S

Materials

I/S

Procedures/Design

I/S

Results/Analysis

I/S

Conclusions

I = Instructor; S = Student
Slightly adapted from Bonnstetter 1998

approaches in combination with some of the strategies noted above in order to tune the
inquiry-guided learning experience to the developmental level of students.
Achieving the proper balance of challenge and support is a combination of science and art
honed through experience. Knowing something about the cognitive development of college
students, however, can hasten the process. The work of Belenky et al. (1986), King and
Kitchener (1994) and Perry (1970) alerts us to the kinds of difficulties most students will face
as they learn through inquiry and, consequently, the kind of support they are likely to need.
For most first-year students, learning through inquiry will be unsettling because it violates
their assumptions about the origins of knowledge and the role of instructors and students in
the learning process (and even older students). Briefly, many entering students believe that
knowledge is a repository of right answers known by instructors or found in textbooks. The
role of the instructor is to tell students what they need to know and for students to give it
back, preferably on an exam with clear right and wrong answers. Gradually students come to
see the function of inquiry in knowledge construction (including the use of evidence to
support an argument; warranted knowledge claim, judgment, or decision) and the active role
they share with the instructor and other students in the process of inquiry.
Increasing experience teaching through inquiry coupled with work in developmental
psychology can also inform the creation of developmental rubrics for key abilities. Good rubrics
themselves support judgments made through specific descriptions of student performance at
various levels. The descriptions include clear statements of what students are able to do at each
level, the kinds of errors they make, and/or the conditions under which they are able to perform.
For example, one notes the descriptions of emerging and mastering standards for two criteria
from Washington State Universitys Critical and Integrative Thinking Rubric (n.d.):
Identifies and assesses the quality of supporting data/evidence and provides
additional data/evidence related to the issue
Emerging: Merely repeats information provided, taking it as truth, or denies evidence
without adequate justification.
Mastering: Examines the evidence and source of evidence, questions its accuracy,
precision, relevance, completeness
Identifies and considers the influence of the content on the issue
Emerging: Discusses the problem only in egocentric or socio-centric terms.
Mastering: Analyzes the issue with a clear sense of scope and context, including an
assessment of the audience of the analyses. Considers other pertinent contexts.

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Often overlooked as a critical factor in the implementation of inquiry-guided learning are


the conceptualizations of teaching and learning held by the instructor (see Kember 1997).
Campuses committed to the reform of undergraduate education through inquiry-guided
learning frequently imagine that saying the word reform will magically make it so.
Instead instructors will implement inquiry-guided learning differently depending on their
assumptions about teaching and learning. For example, based on a qualitative study of
instructors in Hong Kong, Kember (1997) identified five distinct conceptualizations of
teaching, progressing from an extreme teacher-centered/content oriented approach in which
the instructor merely imparts information to a strong student-centered/learning-oriented
approach in which instructors facilitate conceptual change and students intellectual
development. Consequently we can imagine several interactions between conceptualization
of teaching and inquiry-guided learning, each producing a distinctively different
implementation of inquiry-guided learning in courses (see Table II below).
Recognizing the developmental level of students and the resulting balance of challenge
and support as well as the developmental level of instructors, a number of semester patterns
are possible in a course that incorporates inquiry. The patterns represent variations in the
presentation of knowledge (or content), guided skills development, and direct inquiry
experiences (see Table III below) over the course of a semester.
Table II Holistic developmental rubric on the use of inquiry-guided learning by instructors
Committed
Inquiry is the dominant mode of learning and the primary stimulus for knowledge acquisition.
Seamless development of the skills of inquiry and the acquisition of knowledge through the process of
inquiry itself.
Skillful, and often invisible, balance of challenge and support in ways appropriate to the developmental
level of students; enables students to function with a high degree of independence.
Primary source of trust is in the process of inquiry as a mode of learning and the outcomes and products of
inquiry as credible/valid assessment.
Instructor exhibits a tolerance for uncertainty in the inquiry process and openness to unexpected directions
set by students.
Instructor functions chiefly as a collaborator with students in the process of inquiry.
Developing
Inquiry as a mode of learning but often after explicit preparation of students using more traditional
instructional methods.
Separate development of the skills of inquiry and the acquisition of knowledge through explicit instruction.
Balance of challenge and support in ways appropriate to the developmental level of students; mechanisms
of support are visible.
Primary source of trust is in the guidance of the instructor with guidance taking a variety of forms.
Instructor exhibits some tolerance for uncertainty within anticipated boundaries of student performance.
Instructor functions chiefly as a guide to students during the process of inquiry.
Experimenting
Some inquiry as a mode of assessment but only after explicit preparation of students using traditional
instructional methods.
Acquisition of knowledge through explicit instruction with some experimentation engaging students in the
skills of inquiry through isolated learning activities.
Primary source of trust is in instructor control over knowledge delivery.
Instructor exhibits little tolerance for uncertainty beyond isolated and carefully controlled opportunities for
student engagement.
Instructor functions chiefly as an organizer and presenter of knowledge.

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Table III Selected semester patterns in an inquiry-guided learning (IGL) course


Type

No. Pattern

Pseudo-IGL

K, K, K, K, K, K, I A very traditional course with a final inquiry-like project, often


a research paper for which students have not been prepared.

Emerging IGL

K, i1, K, K, K,
i2, K, K, i3

Instructor experimentation with inquiry by introducing inquiry


exercises as in-class activities and/or assignments.

K, i1, i2, I, K, i3,


i4, I

A series of units each built around an inquiry experience,


structured by the instructor, for which students have been
prepared through presentation of relevant content and
inquiry skills development.

K, K, K, i1, i2,
i3, I

A final inquiry experience, perhaps with some opportunity for


student choice and design, for which students have been
prepared through presentation of relevant content and inquiry
skills development.

Ia, Ib, Ic, Id, Ie, I

The course as a series of feeder assignments, designed by the


instructor and on which students receive feedback, leading
up to a final inquiry experience.

I, K, i1, i2, I, K,
i3, i4

A series of inquiry experiences, each designed to address a


targeted content area and to develop the skills of inquiry.
Typical of problem-based learning.

I, K, i1, i2, i3, i4 An inquiry experience, perhaps student designed, through


which students acquire content relevant to the inquiry and
further develop the skills of inquiry.

Guided Inquiry 3

Inquiry

Comments

Legend: K=presentation of knowledge/content; I=inquiry; Ia=feeder assignment to inquiry; i1=guided


inquiry skill development

While not exhaustive, the patterns in the table are typical of courses that incorporate
inquiry as a way of learning. In the truest form of inquiry-guided learning, the question,
problem, or issue that focuses an inquiry is the stimulus for knowledge (or content)
acquisition and skill development; in other words, the inquiry comes first, followed by
knowledge acquisition and skill development (see Nos. 5, 6, and 7). In Pattern 5, a series
of feeder assignments culminate in a final inquiry experience: each assignment is a
critical component of the final inquiry. For example, students plan, run, and distribute the
profits of a small business to a local charity. Or they develop a researchable question and
hypothesis, conduct a literature review, design an experiment, conduct the experiment,
record and organize the data, and analyze and interpret the results. Each stage of the
inquiry is a separate assignment on which they receive feedback before proceeding
further.
Pattern 6 is typical of problem-based learning: for example, medical students confront a
case (I), specifically designed to elicit a key content area (K) and to develop critical clinical
reasoning skills (i1, i2, i3, etc.). The students may address several cases over the course of a
semester. Whether a tutor facilitates students examination of the case or students examine
the case independently, their inquiry is still guided: for example, the cases have been
designed explicitly to elicit a critical content area and to practice clinical reasoning skills at
an appropriate developmental level in the context of the overall curriculum. Pattern 6 could
also apply to other instructional contexts in which a series of inquiries over the course of
the semester, whether in a laboratory, a writing seminar, or a design studio, is the
provocation for content acquisition and skill development.
What some purists would only call inquiry-guided learning, undergraduate research is
typical of Pattern 7. The instructor functions as an advisor to whom the student turns for

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periodic advice: for example, the student might consult with a faculty member in order to
formulate a good, researchable question or problem. Once the inquiry is underway, the
student might again turn to the faculty member for advice regarding a technical problem or
a possible source of needed information. In fact, the student behaves much as faculty
members would as they conduct their own research, consulting as needed with other
colleagues. Collaborative inquiry (as opposed to an inquiry conducted by a single student
alone) would also be consistent with this pattern.
Patterns 3 and 4 break with a classic requirement of inquiry-guided learning that the
inquiry is the provocation for content and skill acquisition. While inquiry is still part of the
learning experience, in both patterns students have been prepared for the inquiry by prior
presentation of relevant content (K) and inquiry skills development. Thus, the inquiry is an
assignment for which students have been prepared by direct instruction rather than the
inquiry serving as a learning experience per se. For example, in an introductory psychology
course students develop a psychological definition of vision based on evidence examined in
class, participate in an in-class experiment, write up the experiment in standard
psychological report format, and conduct a semester long group research project on
whether children of different ages think differently as part of units on sensation and
perception, learning and memory, and child development, respectively (No. 3) (Lee 1996).
In a freshman seminar on the science of movement, in the first half of the semester students
learn how to use an EMG to measure muscle activity, to conduct library research including
identifying databases relevant to kinesiology, and to acquire a knowledge base through the
close reading of journal articles with other students and the instructor. In the second half of
the semester, following explicit parameters set by the instructor, students conduct
experiments on a muscle and subject of their choosing, consulting periodically with the
instructor and other students (No. 4) (McNeal 1989).
Instructors are apt to use patterns 3 or 4 for two reasons that are related. They may judge
that students are not ready developmentally to conduct a productive inquiry without prior
preparation; or they themselves, given their current assumptions about teaching and
learning, are not ready to embrace inquiry fully as a mode of learning (see Table II above).
Instead their primary source of trust lies in their own expertise and guidance.
In pattern 2 the instructor introduces occasional inquiry skills development activities
and/or assessments into an otherwise traditional course. The introduction of inquiry skills
may be intentional or haphazard. If the introduction is intentional, the instructor may want
students to develop some of the skills of inquiry such as formulation of a research question
or the analysis of evidence. Due to a perception of the limitations of the format for the
course, however, the instructor gives precedence to the presentation and mastery of content
with the acquisition of the skills of inquiry as a secondary concern. For example, the
instructor may be teaching a very large class or summer session course and feel that the
number of students or the shorter time period, respectively, are not conducive to inquiryguided learning. Like patterns 3 and 4 though, this perception also relates to the instructors
implicit assumptions about teaching and learning. The haphazard introduction of the skills
of inquiry probably implies that the instructor is experimenting. A traditional classroom
instructor has perhaps attended a workshop on inquiry-guided learning or active learning
and wishes to experiment before committing to this method and may be fearful of
relinquishing control or skeptical about the merits of a newly discovered pedagogy.
Pattern 1 is really not inquiry-guided learning at all, but it is certainly very common. It
depicts a traditional, lecture-based course, perhaps including an in-class midterm and final,
with a research paper as the major project. Students have been provided little to no direct
preparation for writing the research paper. As a result they probably have no inkling about

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the relationship between the process of inquiry and the paper itself. Chiefly an organizer
and presenter of knowledge, the instructor has scarcely begun to see the disciplines
potential as a context for learning, not only the content of the discipline but also the skills of
inquiry, written and oral communication, and social interaction as well as the skills and
attitudes of life-long learning.
The primary focus here has been the individual course. Over an entire program, whether the
academic major or the entire undergraduate experience, however, faculty members, working in
concert, can intentionally vary levels of challenge and support and patterns of knowledge
presentation and inquiry skills development across a series of courses to create a developmental
path for students using inquiry as a way of learning. A detailed description of how to do this is
beyond the scope of this article; but interested readers will find good, illustrative examples
elsewhere (Lee et al. 2007; Kirkman et al. 2004; Spronken-Smith et al. 2010).

The Promise and Challenge of Inquiry-Guided Learning


Inquiry-guided learning represents a powerful repertoire of strategies for advancing an
impressive range of significant learning outcomes. It is well grounded in contemporary
theories of learning. Conceptually it provides a logical bridge between the teaching and
research missions of colleges and universities and the related responsibilities of faculty
members. For administrators and others wishing to distinguish the undergraduate
experience at research universities from other types of institutions to the general public,
inquiry-guided learning (including undergraduate research) is a critical part of their clarion
call: inquiry is part of the distinctive ecology of the research university and, consequently, a
mode of learning that capitalizes on the strength of the faculty in research.
While inquiry-guided learning provides compelling clarity in the early planning stages of
undergraduate reform, that same clarity also masks several obstacles to its successful
implementation that are seldom fully appreciated. (Some of these obstacles are not unique
to inquiry-guided learning, but also accompany other reform initiatives such as service
learning, student learning communities. or first-year seminars.) Like many reform
initiatives, using inquiry as a way of learning requires a fundamental shift in most
instructors thinking about teaching and learning. Like any developmental shift, it proceeds
gradually, at varying rates, and differently depending upon the individual instructor (see
Table II above). In other words, simply proclaiming an institutional commitment to reform
through inquiry-guided learning does not make it happen from classroom to classroom as a
distinctive aspect of the undergraduate experience. From the outset reform through inquiry
requires significant buy-in from faculty members, sustained support from the administration
over a number of years (i.e., ten or more), and an ongoing faculty development effort
offering a combination of workshops and consultations, peer support, assessment, and the
promotion of the scholarship of teaching and learning.
Claiming that inquiry-guided learning capitalizes on the strength of faculty in research
ignores the very important distinction between the academic discipline as a framework for
scholarship and the discipline as a framework for learning (Riordan and Roth 2005).
Doctoral programs initiate graduate students into advanced study of the problems and
methods of the discipline as well as its culture but all too frequently with no preparation for
teaching. The discipline becomes an increasingly rigid structure due to its arcane language,
sophisticated methods, and specialized research literature. Such study distances graduate
students (and, in turn, the faculty members they will become) from the experience and
perspective of the typical undergraduate student. With little knowledge of contemporary

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approaches to teaching and learning, few faculty members possess the combination of
empathy and imagination to reinvent their disciplines as sites of learning for their students
in the ways described above.
Further, unlike some approaches to reform such as team-based learning or even problembased learning, there is no single formula or universal model for inquiry-guided learning
that applies uniformly in all disciplines. In fact, inquiry-guided learning is a powerful way
of learning that requires at once a sophisticated understanding of the discipline, a solid
grounding in contemporary approaches to teaching and learning, and a broad repertoire of
teaching strategies, a combination that few instructors possess. In addition, many instructors
want very clear directives on how to implement inquiry-guided learning in their classrooms
and are uncomfortable with flexible heuristics, alternative models, and other tools that
require discretion and adaptation to the specific requirements of their disciplines, courses,
and the developmental demands of students.
Finally, few institutionsincluding their faculty, administrators, and staffembarking
on reform appreciate the systemic nature of reform. Instead the onus and risks of reform
frequently fall upon individual faculty members. While the classroom is the primary site
of learning in colleges and universities, what happens there depends upon a host of
institutional factors: the incentive structure for faculty members, the degree of
collegiality within the academic department (Lee et al. 2007), restructuring of academic
time to accommodate curricular planning and the vagaries of the inquiry process, and
adapted organizational structures consistent with the reform (Alverno College Office of
Academic Affairs 1998). Without the alignment of other policies and structures of the
institution with the trajectory of the reform, reform will be short-lived or will reside only in
isolated pockets of the institution without ever permeating the mainstream of the
undergraduate experience.

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