What is Inquiry and Why Does it Matter?

The National Research Council (2012, 1996) defines inquiry instruction as teaching and learning activities that engage "students in the thinking processes and activities of scientists." Unlike traditional "cookbook" labs, in which students follow prescribed steps to work toward a predetermined correct answer, inquiry labs challenge students to identify their own questions, formulate new hypotheses, design and carry out investigations, analyze and interpret data, use that data to make an argument in favor of a conclusion, or engage in related ways of thinking and doing science. Guided-inquiry designs, in which the instructor provides elements such as the problem and procedures but students develop the analytical approach and potentially reach novel conclusions, are particularly effective for introductory-level students (Furtak et al., 2012; Chatterjee et al., 2009) since they provide a balance of structure and freedom that supports novices' learning and development.

Inquiry instruction enhances students' overall science literacy, promotes a willingness to engage with new problems and greater engagement overall, supports students' ability to develop multiple working hypotheses, improves students' research skills, and results in more accurate student conceptions of the process of science (Gormally et al., 2009; Wilson et al., 2010; Ryker, 2014). Although inquiry is often associated with some decrease in the amount of content covered to allow time for student investigations, inquiry has been associated with increased content learning in introductory geology labs and higher MCAT scores in physiology (Luckie et al., 2004, 2012; Grissom et al., 2015). Finally, for departments aiming to foster more constructivist teaching among their TAs, inquiry-based geoscience lab activities correlate with more reformed TA teaching even in the absence of substantial training (Ryker & McConnell, 2014).