Centre for Teaching and Learning

Centre for Teaching and Learning
Centre for Teaching and Learning

Inquiry-Based Learning

What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

Based on John Dewey’s philosophy that education begins with the curiosity of the learner, inquiry in the classroom places the responsibility for learning on the students and encourages them to arrive at an understanding of concepts by themselves.

At McMaster University in Hamilton, Inquiry-Based Courses are offered to all first year students with Inquiry-Based Learning following the four basic stages of Self-Directed Learning where students take more responsibility for:

  • Determining what they need to learn
  • Identifying resources and how best to learn from them
  • Using resources and reporting their learning
  • Assessing their progress in learning

Most courses will draw on one or more of these stages, while a comprehensive senior inquiry course will have all four of these elements. Students will take the initiative and be largely responsible for seeing they successfully complete their learning in a given area. Generally, students draft a “learning contract” that specifies what they will learn, the resources, and how their learning will be demonstrated and assessed. Throughout the course students then execute their learning contract with the instructor submitting a grade on completion of the contract.

Why Teach Inquiry?

Encouraging learners to be self-directed is a critical skill that students need to acquire in order to be successful in post-secondary education and their careers. This method encourages students to build relevant research skills, such as identifying learning goals and resources that are then implemented to meet deadlines.

Inquiry-Based Teaching Strategies

Our colleagues at McMaster suggest that:

Teaching through “inquiry” involves engaging students in the research process with instructors supporting and coaching students at a level appropriate to their starting skills. Students learn discipline specific content while at the same time engaging and refining their inquiry skills. An inquiry course:

  • Is question driven, rather than topic or thesis driven
  • Begins with a general theme to act as a starting point or trigger for learning
  • Emphasizes asking good researchable questions on the theme, and coaches students in doing this
  • Builds library, interview, and web search skills, along with the critical thinking skills necessary for thoughtful review of the information. Coaches students on how to best report their learning in oral or written form.
  • Provides some mechanism (interviews, drafts, minutes of group meetings, bench mark activities, etc.) to help students monitor their progress within the course.
  • Draws on the expertise and knowledge of the instructor to model effective inquiry and to promote reflection.

Guidelines for Creating an Inquiry-Based Class

Denise Jarrett, writer and researcher for Inquiry Strategies for Science and Mathematics Learning, indicates that inquiry-based instruction improves student attitude and achievement, facilitates student understanding, fosters critical thinking skills, and facilitates mathematical discovery. She provides guidelines for creating an inquiry-based classroom that provide students with the time, space, resources, and safety necessary for learning. These include:

  • Engaging students in designing the learning environment.
  • Integrating science laboratories into the regular class day
  • Using inquiry in the mathematics classroom
  • Employing management strategies to facilitate inquiry
  • Reflecting the nature of inquiry by displaying and demanding respect for diverse ideas, abilities, and experiences; modelling and emphasizing the skills, attitudes, and values of scientific inquiry: wonder, curiosity, and respect toward nature; enables students to have a significant voice in decisions about the content and context of their work; and nurtures collaboration among students 


Institute for Inquiry
Created in response to widespread interest in inquiry-based science instruction, the Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry provides workshops, programs, on-line support, and an intellectual community of practice which affords science reform educators a deep and rich experience of how inquiry learning looks and feels.

A Questioning Toolkit

Learning based on the process of enquiry: Conference proceedings. University of Manchester, 2003.
Document can be downloaded (Learning Based on the Process of Enquiry)