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Inquiry-based learning

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IBL and problem-based learning

As discussed earlier, IBL is often linked with problem-based learning (PBL); indeed, problems often serve as the basic stimulus.

In PBL, the whole of the learning is based on the solving of problems: problems, rather than systematic presentation of content, drive the curriculum. Hutchings (2006: p. 7) gives the principal aims of PBL as – to:

  • get students to define the issues underlying the tasks, and decide on research methods and format of the outcomes;
  • encourage independence in research methods, as well as collaborative work through task sharing;
  • get students to take responsibility for their own learning;
  • develop employability skills, for example, communication, group work, presentation, research and the capacity to take responsibility for the learning process.

In business and management studies, the "problem" is often presented as a case study, with the students acting as consultants.

Hutchings (2006) describes how, when he taught eighteenth century literature at Manchester University, he based entire 12-week modules on the problem-based learning method. The two examples he gives are courses on Samuel Johnson and on eighteenth century poetry. The first week was also an introduction to the PBL method. In weeks two and three students tackled an introductory problem, giving oral presentations. In weeks 4-7 students worked on the first assessed problem with an oral presentation; in weeks 8-11 they worked on their second assessed problem with a written presentation. Week 12 was for exam preparation. The problems included presenting a book for a (real) BBC book programme, debating a motion with proposers and seconders, producing open learning course material, writing an introduction to an edition, and creating a proposal for an edition. Both schedule and tasks are tightly defined, and Hutchings’ paper (2006) represents an excellent introduction to problem-based learning, citing as it does practical examples in detail.

At the University of Delaware, problem-based learning is used in basic science classes as a way of promoting active learning and the ability to apply concepts. Students are provided with "real world" problems, such as, "What happens when identical twins marry identical twins?", and are asked specific questions.

Although both approaches depend on students posing questions, there are, a number of differences between PBL and IBL.

Differences in PBL and IBL approaches
Problem-based learning Inquiry-based learning
Always starts with a problem Does not have to start with a problem: it can start with a question, or involve investigation of a particular topic via research, fieldwork, etc.
Is focused on a particular problem, usually over a particular (and usually fairly short) timescale. The problem contains very specific instructions for the student, as in the examples above Is open-ended and more wide-ranging. Students need to come up with their questions and can pursue their own interests
Has a very defined methodology and is highly structured Is a collection of approaches

Problem-based learning is definitely one approach for IBL, but it is not the only one.