Exploring Science Through Inquiry

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiousity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. “

Albert Einstein

The American Society of Engineering Education’s Prism Online offers these insights about inquiry learning:

“Inquiry is a key to successful lifelong learning.”Educators create inquiring learners when they build teaching around questioning. Inquiry can help learners clarify issues, uncover holes in arguments, correct factual or conceptual errors, and eventually lead to more thoughtful outcomes.“Inquiry is a necessary and dynamic process in the creation and transmission of knowledge.” Learners “construct” knowledge when new information challenges their prior experiences. This dynamic interchange is an active—never passive— process. Inquiry fuels the cycle of learning, providing a sound method for approaching new data and an abiding drive to push further into the depths of knowledge.

“Just Science Now” offers

  • A clear definition and list of qualities for inquiry
  • Effective questioning techniques
  • Sample lesson plans implementing inquiry
  • Video demonstrations of teachers modeling inquiry
  • Suggestions for integrating effective reading strategies
  • Suggestions for integrating effective inquiry strategies in the science classroom

Inquiry means that students are handling science; they are manipulating it, working it into new shapes and formats, integrating it into every corner of their world, and playing with it in unknown ways. Inquiry implies that students are in control of an important part of their own learning where they can manipulate ideas to increase understanding. As students learn to think through the designs and developments of their own inquiry, they also develop a sense of self-responsibility that transcends all subject areas.

Many science textbooks portray science as a collection of facts or a body of knowledge for students to learn. Unfortunately, the impression this may leave with students is that studying science is nothing more than memorizing facts and mastering theories. On the contrary, there is much room in science for intuitive, hypothetical, playful, and imaginative forms of learning. In other words, there is room for inquiry.

“Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.” 

National Science Education Standards
Compare NGSS to Existing State Standards
About the Next Generation Science Standards

The National Science Education Standards state that “inquiry is central to science learning.”

These standards point out that students engaging in science inquiry will demonstrate the following behaviors:

  • “Describe objects and events.” 
  • “Ask questions.” 
  • Construct explanations.” 
  • “Test explanations against current scientific knowledge.” 
  • “Communicate their ideas to others.” 
  • “Identify their assumptions.” 
  • “Use critical and logical thinking.” 
  • “Consider alternative explanations.”

Approaches to Inquiry

Alan Colburn, in “An Inquiry Primer,” defines inquiry as “the creation of a classroom where student are engaged in essentially open-ended, student-centered, hands-on activities.”

Colburn supports that the inquiry-based classroom encompasses several approaches to inquiry-based instruction. These approaches include Structured Inquiry, Guided Inquiry, Open Inquiry, and Learning Cycle.

  • Structured Inquiry 

    The teacher establishes parameters and procedures for inquiry. Students are provided with a hands-on problem to investigate as well as the procedures and materials necessary to complete the investigation. Students discover relationships between variables or generalize from data collected, which in essence leads to the discovery of expected outcomes. The value in using structured inquiry is it allows the instructor to teach students the basics of investigating as well as techniques of using various equipment and procedures that can be used in later more complicated investigations. In other words, structured inquiries provide students with common learning experiences that can be used in guided or open inquiry.
  • Guided Inquiry 

    The teacher provides the problem for investigation as well as the necessary materials. Students are expected to devise their own procedure to solve the problem.
  • Open Inquiry 

    Open Inquiry has been defined as student-driven. Similar to Guided Inquiry, students formulate their own problem to solve as well as the procedure. Open Inquiry is analogous to doing science. Science fair projects are often examples of Open Inquiry.
  • Learning CycleStudents are involved in an activity that introduces a new concept. Afterwards, the teacher informs the students of the formal name of the concept. Students transfer knowledge of the concept through application in a different context.

Colburn’s Inquiry Approaches in Action

The figure below provides a comparison of Colburn’s four approaches to inquiry-based instruction as applied to one of Florida’s Sunshine State Standards that addresses motion (SS.C.1.2.1 The student understands that the motion of an object can be described and measured).

Approaches to Inquiry-Based Instruction
Structured Inquiry 

Students are given a step-by-step procedure, including visual displays and diagrams for constructing an exhibit demonstrating different kinds of motion (for example, straight, circular, back and forth). Questions prompt students to measure and describe motion of various objects.
Guided Inquiry 

Students are provided with various objects, measuring tools, and other materials. Procedures instruct them to demonstrate different kinds of motion using the provided materials. Later, they are required to demonstrate two kinds of motion using objects not yet used. Finally, students make record of their observations.
Open Inquiry 

Students are given various objects, tools for measuring, and other necessary materials. They are instructed to investigate different kinds of motion.
Learning Cycle 

Students follow guided inquiry procedures followed by teacher-led discussion of their findings. Concepts such as force and other variables are introduced. The idea is that students are exposed to the concepts prior to their introduction. The students eventually return to the inquiry setting and apply the newly acquired knowledge to a new situation. For example, they could be given additional objects to observe and measure the motion of and be asked to analyze the variables that influence the motion.

Adapted from an example provided by Alan Colburn, An Inquiry Primer, March 2000.

The IDEAL Model

Bransford and Stein (1984) suggest using the IDEAL model for solving problems in science. This approach to inquiry-based learning employs logical sequencing of procedures that begin with problem identification and concluding with a reflection of an attempted plan of action.

  • I‘ for Identify the problem
  • D‘ for Define and represent the problem
  • E‘ for Explore alternative approaches
  • A‘ for Act on a plan
  • L‘ for Look at the effects

Implementing inquiry does not have to be intimidating or inconvenient. It should be a natural process of teaching that supports the nature of science and employs the natural curiosity of students. The examples provided above demonstrate how teachers use inquiry as a continuum beginning with structured inquiry and progressing through guided inquiry to finally encouraging open inquiry.

Phases of Inquiry

According to Nancy T. Davis, Associate Professor of Science Education at Florida State University (personal interview, 2002), there are four phases within each of the inquiry approaches. Each phase is characterized by questions that guide students to make their own discoveries. Each phase is briefly discussed below. Possible starter questions and video demonstrations are included for support.View the “Take A Meal Worm To Lunch” lesson
plan used in the following examples.

  1. Initiation Phase 

    The Initiation Phase is the first phase in all levels of inquiry. It is primarily designed to stimulate and motivate students’ curiosity through questioning. This phase provides students with an opportunity to experience a phenomenon or something new that challenges a previous belief or assumption.
    • Have you ever seen…?
    • Did you notice…?
    • What did you observe…?

2. Exploration Phase 

The Exploration Phase is the second phase of inquiry. In this phase, questions are eliminated or narrowed down to those types of questions students can actually physically answer through experimentation or research.

What happened when…?

What did you…?

What could we do to find out…?

What questions do you have…?

3. Experimentation Phase 

The third phase of inquiry is the Experimentation Phase. This is where students form into groups to conduct an experiment. Students collect data and information, and then formulate a method of presentation.

What did you find out about…?

How is it the same as or different from…?

What do you know about the characteristics of…?

4. Presentation Phase 

The last phase of inquiry is the Presentation Phase. Groups or individuals take the information gathered in the experiment and put it into some form of presentation. PowerPoint presentations or project display boards are types of presentations that may be used. The group or individual will share the data with an audience and allow time for questions concerning procedures, data, information, etc.

Can you explain why…?

Why do you think…?

What other factors may be included in…?

Can you find a way to…?

How did you arrive at a solution to…?

Avoiding Problems

The secret to successful teaching utilizing inquiry is to anticipate possible problems and to execute strategies that support the inquiry process. Included in this section are some situations that have been encountered while using the inquiry process and some strategies that have proven successful in supporting inquiry learning.

  • Provide students enough time to complete an investigation. It is important to schedule enough time for any activity in the classroom. Generally this is not a very serious problem with structured inquiry since the procedures are already prescribed and the time to complete the investigation is predetermined by the procedures. However, guided and open inquiry, by their very nature, requires a more flexible schedule. 

    1. Design a schedule of days and exactly what should be completed within that time period. Set a realistic time frame.
    2. Allow students time out side of class to complete procedures.
    3. Stagger presentations as students complete investigations.
    4. Manipulate various types of equipment prior to designing investigations.
  • Be aware that often students have difficulty identifying a problem to investigate. 

    1. Expose students to multiple environments or events to stimulate curiosity.
    2. Ask seed questions to stimulate student observations. For example, “Did you see that?” “Why do you suppose this happened?” “What do you notice?”
  • Students may be disinterested, apathetic, or will not engage in the inquiry. 

    1. Design structured, and guided investigations with interesting and pertinent questions.
    2. Allow students to be grouped in open inquiry by the questions they wish to pursue.
    3. Design peer evaluation as a part of the grading system for the final presentation or for participation.
    4. Value the project. Indicate to students the investigation will represent a substantial grade for the grading period.
    5. Involve parents. Notify through a direct phone call from the classroom or email. This usually has a positive effect for all students including those who are reluctant.
  • Use simple structured inquiry as a first step towards building skills and confidence in designing guided and open inquiry.
    1. Ask students questions that will lead them to proper or efficient designs. For example, “What do you think if….?” “How could you do this?”
    2. Allow students to practice accepted scientific procedures or propose questions they choose to investigate.Be aware that students may have difficulty mastering or designing procedures. 

Scientists utilize specific tools such as observation, experimentation, and communication for observing and explaining natural phenomena. They follow a logical order, starting with observations, identifying questions, implementing a set of procedures, and usually, finishing with formulating conclusions. Inquiry methods introduce students to these same skills. These instructional strategies teach students to do science as well as study the results of science.

Inquiry means dealing with concepts and concerns that confront humans every day. These concepts are not independent but are intertwined and multidisciplinary, providing students with a multitude of opportunities to become involved with science. Each concept includes one or more process that teachers must consider in the development of an effective science curriculum.

These concepts and their accompanying process(es) are as follows:

To be effective, science teachers must incorporate a healthy dose of each of the three concepts into every aspect of the curriculum, which requires attention to the processes that promote those concepts. These processes ensure that any science lesson or unit appeals to the curiosity of students and addresses the goals of the curriculum.

  • Concept of Discovery
  • Concept of Value
  • Concept of Exploration

Science is for all students and learning science should be an active process. Inquiry is “hands-on” and “minds-on.”

Science instruction must involve students in inquiry-based investigations. Students collaboratively interact with peers, teachers, and content through the concepts and processes of inquiry. During inquiry, students make connections between prior knowledge and new information gleaned from a variety of sources and experiences.

Granted, inquiry is recognized as a highly effective method for learning, no single approach is appropriate for all classroom situations. Teachers must select strategies and activities that consider the learning styles and needs of students as well as the content of instruction.

Students engage in problem solving, planning, decision making, discussions, and questioning. Additionally, they experience assessments consistent with an active approach to learning.

What is Assessment?

Assessment is a process. Its purpose is to improve student learning through effective feedback. Assessment provides an effective tool for communicating educational expectations and progress toward accomplishing those expectations. Assessment involves the ongoing process of collecting and interpreting data for the purpose of improving understanding and adjusting teaching.

In essence, assessment and learning are two sides of the same coin. As students engage in an assessment exercise, they should learn from it as well.

The challenge is for teachers to shift the assessment paradigm to embrace the concept of assessment as more than a terminal event.

The focus of assessment is student learning and understanding.

Types of Assessment

There are three types of assessment. These are diagnostic, formative, and summative.

  1. Diagnostic assessment provides a way for teachers to chart a course of action, or map out a route, using existing knowledge to build upon. It also allows for identification of gaps or misconceptions in prior learning. These assessments are used to gather information about what students already know and are able to do.Examples of diagnostic assessments include but are not limited to:
    • Graphic organizers
    • Journal Entries
    • KWLs
    • Pre-tests
  2. Formative assessments occur throughout the learning process. They provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate attainment of identified targeted goals without concerns about grading. Formative assessments should vary to accommodate students’ abilities to demonstrate knowledge.Examples of formative assessments include but are not limited to:
    • Conferences
    • Observations
    • Question and Answer Sessions
    • First Drafts / Quizzes
    • Journals
    Formative assessment provides ongoing direction for improvement and/or adjustment in learning and instruction. It is non-graded and considered low-stakes. An important element of formative assessment is feedback. Feedback makes the biggest impact when it occurs during the learning process.Research shows that most assessments should be formative in nature.
  3. Summative assessment is a high-stakes type of assessment for the purpose of making final judgments about student achievement and instructional effectiveness.By the time summative assessment occurs, students have typically exited the learning mode. Summative assessment forms an end point that sums up the performance or learning level of achievement.The evaluation of summative assessments provides a look at student performance as well as an opportunity to evaluate instructional practices.Examples of summative assessment include but are not limited to:
    • Chapter/Unit tests
    • Projects
    • Performances
    • Final copies

How Does Assessment Fit with Inquiry?

The assessment process includes gathering and interpreting information over a period of time, much like the process of inquiry. Expected academic outcomes regarding scientific inquiry and investigation should be apparent in assessment practices.

As students begin the inquiry process, the teacher can diagnose prior knowledge and skills and identify misconceptions. This can be done using a variety of methods or tools.

During the investigation, the teacher can use a variety of formative assessments and/or tools to guide student learning (i.e., observations, checklists, journals, logs, data, self-assessment, etc.) The reinforcement of previously learned skills and inclusion of ample practice for new skills are incorporated within the feedback given and received as a result of formative assessment.

Feedback as a result of formative assessment . . .

  • Informs students of their progress
  • Encourages students to continue or extend learning
  • Offers students an opportunity to improve
  • Provides students redirection

Summative assessment is also a necessary component of the process of inquiry. This type of assessment serves to evaluate students understanding of content as well as processes.

What does Assessment of Inquiry Look Like?

Assessment of active knowledge can take many forms, some of which are indistinguishable from the learning process. Assessments can be individual or group, or a combination of both. It is important to note, however, that assessments must generate evidence of individual achievement in order to be useful. Assessment of inquiry should smoothly link content with process. Assessment should mirror what is most highly valued – scientific understanding, reasoning, and knowledge. As with instruction, the student should be central to assessment.

Assessment of inquiry can take on many forms. Some include . . .

  • Interviews
  • Projects
  • Formal performance tasks
  • Portfolios
  • Checklists
  • Written reports
  • Multiple choice
  • Short answer
  • Essay examinations

Assessment Considerations

What is the purpose(s) for assessment? Assessment should provide information needed to improve instruction and learning. This information is shared through feedback. Feedback informs the teacher as well as helps students improve learning strategies and study habits in order to become independent, successful learners.

What criteria will students use to assess how well they have communicated their findings? Students may use a rubric for the purpose of assessing progress throughout inquiry. This tool may be teacher generated, but is best if students and teacher generate collectively. Sometimes a checklist or a criteria list is sufficient to guide students’ progress. Regardless of the type of tool used to measure student achievement, criteria should be shared with students early-on during the inquiry process.

When and how will students present what they have learned?Who will be the audience? This should be established well in advance and the students should be informed. Who your audience will be plays a determining factor in how you choose to present your findings. Possibilities include multimedia presentations, diorama, written report, play, oral report, model, poster, pamphlet, etc. Ongoing assessment should occur during the entire inquiry process and students should be asked to reflect on the process as well as the results.

What is Evaluation?Like assessment, evaluation is a process set in motion for the purpose of improving student achievement. Judgments are made about the quality of overall student performance. The process of evaluation provides a means for communicating student performance.Evaluation of Inquiry in the ClassroomAt some point, it becomes necessary to apply a score, grade, or value to student work. Determining what best reflects a student’s performance goes well beyond the scoring issue.Evaluation is the process of determining the score or grade. Evaluation is defined as determining the worth of or assigning a value to student achievement in relation to the targeted goal on the basis of careful examination and judgment.Tools for EvaluationRubrics are very useful tools and can play three roles in supporting the inquiry process through evaluation. First, a rubric informs the student of clear expectations for the successful completion of the project. Well designed rubrics lay out the descriptors of quality that represent a well designed and completed project. Secondly, rubrics inform both the learner and instructor of the progress made during inquiry. The various categories in the rubric can act as benchmarks of progress and can pace students through the investigation. Finally, rubrics help students to formulate understandings of the characteristics of inquiry and how those characteristics fit together in a completed investigation.Evaluating student inquiry can fall into three categories with corresponding rubrics.
Individual Investigations–where students work alone and are evaluated throughout the process.
Group Investigations–where a group is evaluated, which may include peer assessment.
Presentation–where only the complete project is evaluated.

Scientific Inquiry Online Resources
Below you will find a list of quality science Websites. We have taken special care to select sites that provide specific instructions for using the inquiry method in science instruction.
Annenberg/CPB Resources: Learning Science Through Inquiry 

Explore inquiry-based instruction by participating in a video workshop. Whether you are an experienced practitioner of inquiry-based instruction or new to the approach, this workshop lends itself to understanding the process and benefits as well as strategies that support inquiry-based instruction.
Assessing Critical Thinking in a Student-Active Science Curriculum 

This publication presents research information indicating an association between inquiry-oriented instruction and gains in reasoning skills involved in science inquiry.
Beacon Educator 

Learn strategies for teaching key skills for inquiry: questioning, close reading, argumentation and more through online modules and courses offered through Beacon’s professional development site.
Beacon Learning Center 

Explore sample standards-based, inquiry lesson plans addressing topics in all content areas for grades K-12.
Effects of Visual Prompts on Lesson Engagement and Higher Order Thinking in Middle School Biology Students or How to Use Common Household Items that Fascinate Your Students and Encourage them to Pose Interesting Questions 

How can science educators employ teaching strategies that support inquiry-based learning? The purpose of this study is to determine whether the usage of visual prompts influences student engagement and facilitates the development of higher-order thinking processes.
Inquiry by Teachers 

This introductory article sets the premise for further explanation concerning a group of teachers who have demonstrated tremendous growth in the area of inquiry-based instruction.
Inquiry: Learning from the Past with an Eye on the Future 

Examine the evolution of reform for systemic change according to Ronald J. Bonnstetter from the University of Nebraska who suggests the necessity for investment in professional development opportunities that assist teachers in the transformation from skill-oriented practitioners to teachers who have not only gained the skill but have reflected upon practices to the point of evoking true integration. Inquiry-based teaching is underscored as a case in point.
Inquiry, Nature of Science, and Evolution: The Need for a More Complex Pedagogical Content Knowledge in Science Teaching 

According to the author, research indicates a need for more complex preparatory instruction of science content knowledge. Charles J. Eick, Ph. D. at Auburn University, suggests that the goals of scientific literacy include knowledge of processes, understanding of concepts, and organization of science framework through the mode of inquiry. This study examines the teaching practices of twelve interns with the intent of relating the effects of personal and contextual issues to the understanding and implementation of inquiry and supporting practices in the secondary-level classroom.
Reflective Inquiry: Enabling group self-regulation in inquiry-based science using the Progress Portfolio Tool 

Based on the premise that self-regulation is critical to reflective inquiry, this publication discusses how the Progress Portfolio, an inquiry-support software product, engages middle school students in self-regulated reflective inquiry.
Research Towards an Expanded Understanding of Inquiry Science Beyond One Idealized Standard 

This paper presents the results of a multi-year effort to study the implementation and adaptation of an inquiry-based, technology-rich environment known as Kids as Global Scientists (KGS). Note: This document is 64 printed pages in length.
Scaffolding the Development of an Inquiry-Based (Science) Classroom 

Click on the link to see lesson plans that have incorporated Learning By Design in a middle school science classroom.
Managing Inquiry-Based Science 

Learning by Design is an NSF-funded project that supports the movement from traditional teaching to inquiry-based instruction. This synopses of the project presents an overview of a Learning By Design classroom, support for this movement, and an example unit that supports inquiry-based instruction.

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