Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment


Inquiry-based Learning
Kathleen L. Kitto
Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Research


I am particularly pleased and greatly honored to be introducing Western's Innovative Teaching Showcase for academic year 2015-2016 not only because of my profound professional passion for Inquiry-Based Learning itself, but also because of my deep admiration for the individuals and teams whose work is honored:

  • Andrew Boudreaux and the Physics Team (Physics and Astronomy Department)
  • Stephanie Treneer (Mathematics)
  • Team from SMATE (Science, Math, and Technology Education): Emily Borda (Chemistry), Deb Donovan (Biology), Sue DeBari (Geology), Scott Linneman (Geology), and Alejandro Acevedo-Gutierrez (Biology)

In each of these portfolios, you will discover thought-provoking ideas and discoveries leading us forward as we strive to help each of our students succeed and gain deeper comprehension of course outcomes and concepts. My own courses were transformed by Inquiry-Based Learning and the differences I could see and measure were simply stunning to me. In these portfolios you will also find ideas that perhaps challenge you and cause you to reflect upon your own courses and teaching methods. Consider these ideas carefully as I did. While transforming the way in which you teach can be challenging and the road not always straight, the rewards for you and your students are many.

Some aspects of inquiry-based learning are not really new, of course. We have been challenging our students by asking difficult questions for a very long time. Inquiry is what we do, even as infants, to learn. I've watched my own grandchildren poke, prod, smell, taste, listen, and peer at their new environments in their own quest for discovery and understanding. But, Inquiry-Based Learning is much more than asking questions and resisting the temptation to answer them by delivering lectures alone. Based upon our current understanding of how individuals learn, students must construct their own understanding and knowledge base by actively doing: creating a hypothesis, performing experiments, creating something, making observations, reflecting on these experiences, making sense of the new, and reconciling past misperceptions. The role of the facilitator in Inquiry-Based Learning is also active in that the instructor guides the process by provoking higher-order thinking, delivering new information, and facilitating collaborative learning. As you may guess, it is very easy to write about Inquiry-Based Learning, but it is much more difficult to do it well and to assess its effectiveness. We are very fortunate at Western Washington University because we have individuals and teams of individuals who are international leaders in Inquiry-Based Learning. It's important that we all learn from their experiences and understanding. I am pleased to highlight their portfolios here with the deep hope that these highlights will lead you to reading and contemplating their work deeply.

First, Andrew Boudreaux (on behalf of the Physics Team) describes the complexities of designing Inquiry-Based Learning courses and laboratories. Andrew writes:

"Employing inquiry-based instruction can lead to a tension between coverage of material and attention to sense making. ... We have found it helpful to maintain continuous focus on differentiating what is taught from what is learned. It is all too easy to allow the former to substitute for the latter. ... By experiencing what it means to truly master a concept, students can become more aware of when they do and do not understand, and develop the ability to ask themselves the questions needed to move their learning forward."

"At Western Washington University, students in introductory physics labs build their own understanding of key concepts through a process of inquiry. Student thinking and ideas are the focus; instructors play a supporting role, teaching by questioning rather than by telling. The lab curriculum emphasizes sense making, rather than error analysis or verification of physical law, with a goal of connecting students to the intellectual process of developing new knowledge of how the world works."

Stephanie Treneer writes about the changing role of the instructor in Inquiry-Based Learning in her Math 302: Introduction to Proof via Number Theory class. Her portfolio contains a rich description of her own experiences using Inquiry-Based Learning in a Math course where students may not be expecting such an approach. Stephanie not only builds trust, but also has enhanced student outcomes significantly. She writes about her role:

"In order for my class to be successful, student buy-in is key. This class is very different than most math classes they have taken, and they need to have some level of trust that it is worth the effort. It's critical to have a core group of students who are willing to put in the time and struggle with proofs, and be not too afraid of making mistakes. ... I find that when students are providing feedback to their peers, they almost always do so in a supportive and positive way. They tend to develop a feeling that they are all in this together."

Finally, she describes the positive outcome of the transformation that results from Inquiry-Based Learning:

"On presentation days the class is clearly rooting for a presenter to give a successful proof. They make polite suggestions, and are apologetic when they have to point out a flaw. When they are satisfied with a proof, they applaud."

The team from SMATE (Science, Math, and Technology Education): Emily Borda (Chemistry), Deb Donovan (Biology), Sue DeBari (Geology), Scott Linneman (Geology), and Alejandro Acevedo-Gutierrez (Biology) describe an Inquiry-Based course sequence, which they developed and provide evidence to show the effectiveness of their approach. Their portfolio is a rich resource for those interested in knowing more depth about the methods, their constructivist approach, the team implementation in a course sequence, and an in-depth analysis of assessment data. The SMATE team discusses an important topic that some instructors may undervalue - understanding what students know or don't know, or think they know, but understand incorrectly. They write:

"A student's incoming ideas take on enormous importance because incomplete or incorrect ideas provide a shaky foundation for future learning. There are several commonly held misconceptions and student difficulties in science (some of which are highlighted in the Private Universe Video Series) that hinder learning. The SCED 201-204 curricula have been designed to help students confront many of these ideas head-on."

The SMATE team describes the importance of team collaboration in Inquiry-Based Learning, which goes beyond student buy-in.

"The pedagogy also depends on student collaboration. The students work in established groups to develop initial ideas about a phenomenon, generate evidence via investigations, develop and support conclusions from the evidence (sense-making), compare/contrast their initial ideas with the evidence gathered, and reflect upon their learning. Each group also shares its ideas with the rest of the class, both during discussions about initial ideas at the beginning of an activity and about summarizing questions at the end."

"Class discussions about summarizing questions also use whiteboards, but the purpose of these discussions is much different from an initial ideas discussion. Now students are asked to support their claims with evidence and compare their newly developed understanding with their initial ideas. This is the point in the learning cycle in which students need to come to a correct understanding about the phenomenon they are investigating."

I urge you to carefully read the three portfolios that are part of Western's 2015-2016 Innovative Teaching Showcase and consider the Inquiry-Based Learning pedagogy for your own courses. We all know how important it is for all of us to do all we can do to improve student success and how important it is for our students to be an integral part of that journey. There are many others at Western using Inquiry-Based Learning pedagogy, too. I know we all share enthusiasm and passion in our quest to find the best ways to support all our students in their journey with us at Western.