This page is older archived content from an older version of the Emerald Publishing website.

As such, it may not display exactly as originally intended.

Inquiry-based learning

Definitions and characteristics


Inquiry-, or enquiry-, based learning is an approach which assumes that learning happens most readily through discovery guided by mentoring, rather than through transmission of information. It has been fuelled by recent interest in active learning approaches, and by a concern to deepen the research input into teaching.

Note that both spellings, inquiry and enquiry, are used equally. For simplicity’s sake, we shall adopt the "i" spelling, and the abbreviation IBL.

IBL is a complex concept, and like many educational terms its meaning is not precise, but has different connotations in different contexts.

We shall look first at some definitions of the term before considering where and how it is used, including its links with problem-based learning, research, group work and networked learning, and how it can best be supported by the tutor. We shall also give examples along with places where further information can be found.

Definitions and characteristics

A common definition of IBL is that it is a form of learning where self-directed inquiry and research play a strong part. It encourages the formulation of questions as a means of finding out about a particular topic, rather than giving students the knowledge in a conventional form such as a lecture. The questions suggest lines of inquiry, help define learning needs, and stimulate the students’ curiosity so that they construct the knowledge for themselves. It is a form of self-directed learning which will encourage critical thinking.

Good information seeking skills are essential for IBL, which helps build library, web search and indeed information literacy skills generally, as well as those of critical thinking. Particularly at research-based universities, IBL is popular because it creates a bridge between research and teaching: learners are encouraged to become researchers at an early stage of their academic career.

Much IBL, particularly in the earlier years before the student launches into a third-year research project, is done in small groups. These groups may meet in real time, online: there is also a natural affinity between IBL and networked learning.

IBL is seen as a powerful form of active learning, a student-led approach which will encourage critical thinking skills and therefore deep learning. Roy et al. (2003a) define IBL as a question-based form of self-directed learning that follows the basic stages of that model: deciding what needs to be learnt, identifying resources and how best to learn from them, using the resources and reporting learning, and assessing progress. Self-assessment is an important part of IBL: students need to be able to evaluate their skills in all areas of learning from selecting resources to writing.

IBL is often linked with another popular form of learning: problem-based learning (PBL). The similarity is that PBL approaches a particular topic through the formulation of a problem, which is then used to define issues and scope out further research. IBL is however more open ended with a less well-structured approach; the aim of PBL, which is very popular in health-related disciplines, is to solve a problem and learn about a discipline en route, whereas that of IBL is to foster the spirit of inquiry.

IBL thus has many advantages: it encourages active and deep learning, critical thinking skills, and teamworking. All these are key employability skills and it therefore helps prepare students for working in a world where the ability to cope with a massive amount of information will be critical to survival. In a modular university system which can lead to fragmented knowledge, it enables students to make connections, and is particularly good for interdisciplinary work.


IBL in higher education received an impetus from the Boyer Commission (Boyer Commission, 1998), which published a report highly critical of the US system of higher education, particularly that in America’s leading research universities. The report contended that far from receiving the best teaching from distinguished academics at these universities, students were often taught by junior "teaching associates", ending up with a fragmented body of knowledge and inability to think logically or write clearly.

Boyer advocated a more "student-centred" approach to teaching, with students participating in the spirit of inquiry that undergirds research:

"The research university must facilitate inquiry in such contexts as the library, the laboratory, the computer, and the studio, with the expectation that senior learners, that is, professors, will be students’ companions and guides" (Boyer Commission, 1998).

The Boyer Commission’s central idea was that research should be the basis of all learning at university, from freshman to graduate, with opportunities for group work, and that above all, the production of knowledge should not be an élite activity, but one participated in by all members of an institution. Ideas of learning based on inquiry and research have now been widely adopted, for example by such leading North American universities as Princeton, Harvard, Chicago, McMaster and Calgary.

In 2005, the UK Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) approved funding for 74 Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs), of which 5 were devoted to IBL. The Centre for Inquiry-based Learning in the Arts and Social Sciences (CILASS) at the University of Sheffield aims to build on existing work to promote inquiry as the basis of all learning throughout the university; many modules are being redesigned along inquiry lines. It offers resources and expertise to staff as well as fellowships, and has a particular focus on information literacy to support IBL, collaborative inquiry (group work), and networked learning. The Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-Based Learning (CEEBL) at the University of Manchester supports initiatives both inside and outside the university. Both centres use a "hub and spoke" model, with the hub in the centre and outreach in the departments, and both aim to contribute to the research on and evidence base for IBL.

IBL and the curriculum

IBL can be used both throughout the curriculum – as in the University of Sheffield – as well as on a much smaller scale. It used to be thought suitable only for students at more advanced levels, level three and above, once students had acquired a body of knowledge and could use research in their project. However, the thinking now is to embed the approach at all levels. The Boyer Commission (1998) recommended the inquiry approach should start with the freshman year, given that this was a crucial bridge between school and university. Their proposed model involved:

  • pre-programme remedial attention if necessary;
  • a freshman seminar, limited in size, with plenty of writing;
  • opportunities for collaborative learning;
  • constructing the freshman programme as an integrated, interdisciplinary, inquiry-based experience, for example by extended study of a single complicated subject or programme (Boyer Commission, 1998: pp. 19-21).

Subsequent years should build on the freshman year by integrating research-based learning throughout the curriculum, for example by encouraging active forms of learning, mentoring initiatives, interdisciplinary education, written and oral communication skills, creative use of information technology, and a culminating "capstone experience" or project.

For example, the University of Sheffield's Department of Human Communication Sciences organized its induction week activities around inquiry-based learning so that students’ first experience of university was a taster for things to come. Activities included a treasure hunt and poster presentations, and students showcased their posters to other students and staff.

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.

IBL and research

One great attraction of IBL is that it strengthens the teaching–research link in universities, in an environment where reward is based on research output rather than teaching skill. In more traditional approaches, teaching about research happens either through the tutor telling the students about his or her own research, or in a specific "research methods" module as a preparation for the dissertation. In the IBL model, however, student learning is based on the principle of inquiry, so that the research ethos of the department percolates down to students at lower levels.

The whole approach of IBL is similar to that of research: both involve questioning, investigation, and some sort of peer review (in the latter’s case, the "peers" are often fellow students rather than members of a particular disciplinary community).

  • Research starts with the formation of a question or questions, which are then investigated in the literature and through the assembly of primary data. Findings are then reported to the academic community and further questions posed.
  • IBL starts with a particular area of investigation which acts as a stimulus to questions, identification of existing knowledge and gaps, consultation of primary and secondary sources, discussion and review of findings, which are presented in some sort of assessment.


  • MIT offers its undergraduates the opportunity to work with faculty on their research, either on an established programme or pursuing their own research ideas. They get to participate in all the various stages of research from proposal and planning to presenting the results. See
  • At Princeton University, students are required to do some independent work in their junior year, for example, a research project or critique of a research paper.
  • At Sheffield University, second-year archaeology students are trained in the research skills necessary to conduct their dissertation. The General Cemetery in Sheffield provides the starting-point for students to research into a topic of their choice. They select their own research question and assume responsibility for identifying the appropriate tools. They are also required to reflect on the research process, using WebCT.

IBL and group work or peer learning

IBL frequently involves students working in groups, particularly at levels one and two. The advantages of group work are that it helps develop team skills, generate new ideas, and share tasks. Hutchings (2007: p. 24) provides one model of how IBL group work can function:

  1. Generation of the topic within the context of the module, which may come from the tutor or from the group.
  2. Group analysis of topic in order to identify key issues, difficulties, problems etc.
  3. Group identifies gaps in knowledge, or aspects of existing knowledge that require further exploration, as well as suitable resources.
  4. Tasks allocated amongst group, who research primary and secondary sources and collect primary data or conduct experiments as appropriate.
  5. Evidence assembled, discussed and applied to issue.
  6. Further iterations of research if appropriate and if time.
  7. Preparation and presentation of outcomes, the format of which may or may not be up for discussion, and assessment.
  8. Reflection on outcomes and learning process; generation of new questions.

On the Manchester University MA in Translation Studies, students undertake a translation project in a group where different members take on different tasks – project manager, technologist, terminology researcher, translator and reviser – in a simulation of a real life translation project. They also record and reflect on their experiences.

IBL will be a core part of the new Manchester University degree, BSc IT Management. Student teams will solve problems set by business partners, taking on particular business and technical roles and aiming to deliver appropriate solutions. The teams will have a mentor from business and will also use collaboration tools to interact with students from a similar programme at the University of Arizona.

Group work is important at all levels in Sheffield University Management School. Level one aims to equip students with skills in collaborative inquiry. The topics for investigation will be set by students, who will also be responsible for selecting their own datasets and defining criteria for assessment. They will also build information literacy skills and reflect on their learning.

Sometimes, learning involves peers rather than a group; here the peer can act as a resource. In addition, talk between the peers can help increase understanding as students explain their ideas.

Kahn and O’Rourke (2004) describe a case study of students learning a language in pairs (one being a native speaker of the language concerned). Students carried out a series of research tasks – discourse analysis, translation, study of a newspaper, or survey of a journal – with the native speaker being used as a resource. The task was supported by online discussion forums with WebCT, and the tutor was also available to advise.

At Harvard University, one professor, Eric Mazur, developed a technique of peer instruction in an introductory physics module, whereby some class time is given up to conceptual questions, designed to expose common difficulties. Students discuss these questions in pairs and then try and agree the right response in groups of three or four. Students benefit by thinking about the material, justifying their responses, and clarifying their thoughts by explaining them. See

Networked learning

Information and communication technology- (ICT-) based approaches offer considerable possibilities for IBL, whether as blended or full distance learning. There are a whole range of benefits afforded by the different connections that ICT can enable, described by Goodyear (2001) as networked learning: students can talk to other students or their tutor, and learning resources can be accessed 24/7 from anywhere. Thus students can:

  • browse a database – McKinney and Levy (2006), for example, describe how Sheffield University’s Department of Psychology carries out an inquiry-based project with first-year students, who engage with the Lexis-Nexis Executive database of newspapers to look at the public presentation of psychology. They are supported by trained postgraduate tutors, as well as by discussion boards and live chat on WebCT, the university’s virtual learning environment.
  • have online discussions – in the Department of Music at Sheffield University, students on a distance learning MA are provided with some target articles which they then critique and discuss online. Students then negotiate their own topics for further discussion.

The following example, also from Sheffield University, shows how several different aspects of technology combine to create a highly interactive learning experience.

The aims of the foundational module, "Understanding Law", are to understand how law interacts in a dynamic fashion with the prevailing culture, and to change the way that students interact with basic legal material. Students need to see that there is more to law than applying rules in a mechanical fashion. An innovative electronic workbook will have research exercises designed to help them develop fundamental skills of legal inquiry, and then use effective arguments. The workbook will be supported by colloquia in technology-rich learning environments (teaching rooms with networked computers and electronic whiteboards) and students will be required to keep a portfolio showing evidence of their learning. See

Multimedia can enhance resources, too. Sheffield University Management School is developing web-based case materials, including video clips and interviews from real organizations. The intention is to simulate the muddly contexts and situations that exist in the real world, to facilitate student inquiry and learn about applying concepts to make sense of those situations.

IBL and the tutor

IBL is a student-centred method, but that does not make it a tutor-free, unsupported option. The tutor needs to create the initial stimulus within a particular framework, and then mentor and facilitate the ongoing process.

The tutor’s role in IBL is not to provide the information, but to encourage students to ask meaningful questions which will lead them down fruitful avenues of inquiry. They need to provide stimulus, not content. The stimulus may well be in the form of a specific problem, or question. According to Hutchings (2007) and Roy et al. (2003b), whatever form the stimulus takes it should be:

  • open to research, i.e. capable of being answered by research methodology;
  • interesting enough to motivate students to enter into the process of discovery;
  • open enough to allow a range of intellectually valid responses;
  • specific enough to be dealt with within the time-scale and resources;
  • capable of being focused down from a general question into a series of sub-questions, or one particular, narrower, question;
  • matched to the level of experience of the students, and allowing them to demonstrate a range of skills.

The framework will include time available, the nature of peer or group interaction, and resources. It may also be a good idea to run a try-out session, in which the students are introduced to IBL, as in the Hutchings example above.

Much of IBL facilitation is around helping students to frame questions. Brainstorming may help, as may asking open-ended questions yourself.

Hutchings (2007) describes how in teaching eighteenth century poetry at the University of Manchester, he would present a poem by Samuel Johnson, and then pose a number of questions. One was, to decide whether the poem implied a belief system, and on what evidence. He wanted to lead them to the word "talent" in the verse;

His virtues walked their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure th’ Eternal Master found
The single talent well employed.

Looking up the word "talent" in the OED would lead them to the biblical reference, and Hutchings would lead them to the word by pointing out that the capital letters of "Eternal Master" indicated a reference to the divine. The question he wanted them to ask was, why was the biblical reference changed (talent in the singular rather than the plural)?

The tutor also needs to monitor progress, making sure that the learner is on track, offering guidance (not direction) where needed; motivate by showing how all ideas are valued; facilitate reflection; and nurture the group process.

Students at on the BHSc course McMaster University in Canada have to do inquiry-based courses. One student describes how her facilitator gave her a course outline and times to meet, but not deadlines. The student was supposed to meet with the facilitator four times a year to discuss evidence supporting her ability to assess her skill level, and negotiate a mark based on the evidence. She also worked in a small group, interviewing a homeless person, exploring a question. They were not told what the question was and it took some time to get going. In the end they had answers to questions, but the real learning lay in working with one another, asking questions, and thinking about the answers.

Sometimes, the teaching is carried out not by full faculty members, but by graduate teaching assistants. A key recommendation of the Boyer Commission was that graduate assistants be trained as teachers (1998: p. 39), and many universities get graduate students to teach, with some offering training. In other cases, mentoring is done by third-year students.

The University of Sheffield Biblical Studies Department has a cascade project whereby level three students mentor those at level one. This project is currently being revised so that IBL will form a key component of the programme.

Although the principle of IBL is that students make their own choices about where to find information, the tutor needs to have a say in what resources are available. These can be both time-tabled sessions such as classes and seminars, as well as books, journals, websites etc. – and indeed the tutor’s own expertise!

IBL encompasses a wide range of approaches to teaching, from the highly structured to the less so. It helps foster research skills, and is very amenable to group work and ICT-based learning. The skill of the tutor lies not in imparting content but in asking and stimulating powerful questions. Such an approach is a fitting one in a university, and prepares students well for a world in which inquiry skills are essential.

References and further information


Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (1998), Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities, Stony Brook, New York [accessed 19.2.2008].

Goodyear, P. (2001), Effective Networked Learning in Higher Education: Notes and Guidelines, Centre for Studies in Advanced Learning Technology, University of Lancaster, UK.

Hutchings, B. (2006), Designing an Enquiry-based Learning Course, University of Manchester, UK [accessed 19.2.2008].

Hutchings, B. (2007), Enquiry-based Learning: Definitions and Rationale, University of Manchester, UK [accessed 19.2.2008].

Kahn, P. and O’Rourke, K. (2004), Guide to Curriculum Design: Enquiry-based Learning, University of Manchester, UK [accessed 19.2.2008].

McKinney, P. and Levy, P. (2006). Inquiry-based Learning and Information Literacy Development: A CETL Approach [accessed 20.2.2008].

Roy, D., Borin, P. and Kustra, E. (2003a), What Is Unique about Inquiry Courses?, Center for Leadership in Learning, McMaster University, Canada [accessed 27.02.08].

Roy, D., Borin, P. and Kustra, E. (2003b), What Is a "Good" Inquiry Question?, McMaster University, Canada [accessed 27/02/08].

Further information

The following websites provide useful information and resources.

Center for Leadership in Learning, McMaster University
A resource for all teachers at McMaster University, the CLL has a section on IBL:

Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-based Learning (CEEBL)

CILASS: Centre for Inquiry-based Learning in the Arts and Social Sciences

Learning through Enquiry Alliance
A partnership of Inquiry-based Learning Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs)

The following book has recently been published:

Knapper, C. (Ed.) (2007), Experiences with Inquiry Learning: Proceeding of a Symposium at McMaster University, McMaster University Centre for Leadership in Learning, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.