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Enquiry/Inquiry Based Learning

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

This page is mainly a holder for web links on EBL (see last section). There is a sizeable literature on this.

Enquiry Based Learning (EBL) or Inquiry Based Learning are about equally used as terms elsewhere.

My comments on the topic

The basic idea is to equate "enquiry" with "research" in the everyday non-academic sense of finding out what is known by others and/or published on the topic. It is, most basically, the idea that students should start with a question and find the answers themselves. "Answers first, then questions" is one description of traditional teaching (and advertising); but EBL represents the more sensible "Questions first, then answers" or "Question driven teaching". Thus EBL contrasts itself with ordinary expository teaching like lectures which tells students what is known without them having any question, any pre-existing use for the knowledge. Set the students a goal or specification for what is to be found out, then require them to go get it.

EBL is a corrective to the lowest common denominator of HE teaching: all talking at students, no discussion. However in a wider perspective we have to realise that both ends of the spectrum are essential. In favour of learner-driven learning (e.g. EBL) are:

Against EBL and in favour of "telling" is that all humans, and never more so than now in our society with its huge pace of change, are strongly dependent on others to alert them to what is worth knowing. From the ten o'clock news to scientific journals, we spend a very considerable proportion of our time learning things we did not and could not ask a question about precisely because we did not know they existed. If anything, this is even more pronounced in education: we take a degree in order to find out what is known in the subject, not to answer questions we already had. This is not only about curiosity: it is a condition of living in the world, and our main way of learning these things is to be told them by people who think we should, or might like to, know them. Professors, journalists, and advertisers are in some sense all doing the same job of "pushing" information that people do not know they want to know. EBL is about the other half, of "pulling" information the learner does know they want: but it is only half the story.

Why should academics or students look into this?

  • EBL corresponds to the "questions first, then answers" side of learning that is seriously under-represented in HE.
  • In promoting EBL you are promoting and rehearsing lifelong learning skills.
  • It is in this university's strategy, but doesn't seem linked to any actions; so it seems unlikely you will be required to.
  • I haven't found any direct evidence of benefit, but a lot of informed opinion is in its favour.
  • If you are thinking of improving your teaching or learning, then the headline of EBL does link together a number of possible actions that are designed to act as a corrective to the lowest standard practice: so it might well be worth a look.

    The effect on students

    Looking at some of the comments the student authors made is revealing of the kind of change EBL may make to student attitudes to learning.

    "I was under the impression that too much work was involved and I could achieve the same end product in an easier way. Now .. I can see it to be a far superior method of learning..."

    "I was terrified by the fact that we were in control and that we did not have a fixed outcome to work towards. ... My mind ... shifted from focusing on the end product, to appreciating what we were learning along the way."

    (These comments come from here.)

    Disciplinary application

    As always with grand educational claims, it is interesting to look at whether and how it can apply to all disciplines, across Arts and Sciences. And several of the student team said that initially they didn't see how this could be.

    In science you might say it's impossible because, at least at the undergraduate level, there's only one right answer to standard "problems", so where is the scope? However when problems are defined in terms of something concrete in the world not of the technique being taught in a given lecture: E.g. "What are all the things you need to know to treat a road traffic accident medically?" or "here's an electronic gadget for measuring heart rate non-invasively: design and build one that does the same thing from scratch". This is typically a shift from defining problems or topics by abstract technique, to defining them by a concrete situation.

    In Arts you might say that it's impossible because the science recipe of defining an EBL topic as a concrete problem doesn't readily apply. Alternatively, you might argue it is all EBL anyway, with each essay requiring a rounded investigation of the arguments for and against the topic. The shift to be bade is generally from single topics (Hamlet, Faust, Feminism, Post-modernism) to more critical questions (which perspective has most to offer a re-interpretation of Shakespeare?).

    What EBL approaches tend to have in common is putting responsibility on the student for deciding what is relevant to the enquiry or problem, instead of that being implicitly pre-defined by the academic context.

    Some links

    (More links.)

    Enquiry led Learning has been added to this university's Learning & Teaching strategy And in the university's strategic plan: one pledge is: "Renowned internationally for enquiry-led learning in a knowledge culture that is shaped by the diversity and richness of our research environment.

    The LTC have some web pages about EBL. Here is a compilation page for convenient printing of their site in one go. They have also produced a booklet (24 small pages; less than 5,000 words) on what EBL is, with some useful references to what to read next, but will not make this available online. (You have to have a friend in LTC and wait some time before you can get one.) In a reflexive application of EBL, both booklet and web pages were produced by a team of students in 2006-7 funded by the Chancellor's fund from a project created by LTC.

  • Video of a talk at LTC about one implementation of EBL in a large class (context page).

  • McMaster's basic recipe
  • Moore et al. "The enquiring mind knows no boundaries: does teaching across the disciplines have to be so different? "

  • Manchester on EBL
  • Sheffield on EBL
  • Surrey on EBL
  • Queens Uni, Canada on EBL
  • McMasters' on EBL: see above
  • Palmer,S. (2002) "Enquiry-based learning can maximise a student's potential" (pdf) Psychology learning and teaching vol.2 no.2 pp.82-86

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