There are many reasons to believe that Inquiry Learning is a useful and beneficial tool that positively impacts student learning. Much anecdotal information supports that premise. Reputable and widely accepted theories of student development form its foundation. Positive short-term effects are observable in the classroom. Intuitively, the Inquiry Process just makes sense.
Nevertheless, it seems reasonable--even wise-- to take a critical look at learning through inquiry. Has the impact of the Inquiry Process on student learning been documented or is it just an urban myth? In search of an answer, I turned to the available research. Fortunately, there are a number of studies that look at various effects, which should make finding an answer relatively simple. But, it turns out that documenting the effectiveness of Inquiry Learning is anything but simple.
Searching through the literature, the first thing I noticed was that people call the process by different names. Sometimes it is difficult to tell if a study is really about inquiry learning (as I understand it) or about something else. Determining whether the Inquiry Process positively impacts student learning, first depends upon our definition of it. Virginia Lee (2004) notes in her book that institutions would be wise to generate a definition of inquiry learning that is widely understood and accepted across campus. According to Lee a good working definition of inquiry learning creates a language that fosters productive discussions among disciplines.
The second thing I noticed was that no matter how you define or what you call the process, it is difficult to gage effectiveness. Are we looking for outcomes? Inquiry learning is a continuous unending process. Are we looking for content mastery? Then we better all agree on proficiency standards. Are we looking for real long-term understanding, sensitivity to the complexity of life, the ability to think critically, and so on? We can all meet again in 25 years to test that issue.
Thirdly, I noticed that a good deal of the research on Inquiry Learning is qualitative. In many cases those studies raise more questions than they provide answers. Are the findings generalizable or unique? It seems that to some degree using and evaluating Inquiry Learning is a value laden activity. Successful use of the Inquiry Learning Process requires the instructor to use judgment, be reflective and responsive, balance classroom components effectively, and many other things that constitute being a good teacher. Oddly enough it seems to require the same things of students.
All that said here is a quick and simplified survey of research findings:
· Problem-based or inquiry-based learning was developed as a tool to teach medical students (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980). Two meta-evaluations (Albanses & Mitchell, 1993; Vernon & Blake, 1993) investigated the effectiveness of this learning technique in the medical school environment. Findings indicated that students showed better clinical problem-solving skills and were motivated by the process.
· College students believed that they developed better problem solving skills; were more active and interested (Lieux, 1996).
· Students had more positive perceptions of the learning environment, more confidence problem-solving, and were more positive about life-long learning (Woods, 1996).
· Students reported frustration, uncertainty, and discomfort with the ambiguous and open ended nature of the process (Edens, 2000).
· The inclusive character of inquiry learning benefited students at both ends of the spectrum: learning disabled (Ferretti, Macarthur, & Ojolo, 2001) and talented (Naisbett, 1997).
· One of the first tangible changes in teaching practice was in the way the instructor asked questions in the classroom (Baumfield, 2006). Instructors reported having a better understanding of students’ thinking. Better feedback on teaching. Both student and teacher self-esteem were promoted (Wilks & Emery, 1997; Zohar, 1999).
· Instructors reported a better sense of professional autonomy and stronger motivation to teach (Baumfield, Higgins, & Lin, 2002).
· Positive effects on students when learning was carefully guided (Chall, 2000; Singley & Anderson, 1989).
· Better outcomes were noted when the instructor used guidance combined with some direct instruction (Klahr and Nigam (2004).