What Is Inquiry-Based Learning? A Look into the Research and Practice

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Inquiry-Based Learning: Definition and Explanation

Broadly defined, inquiry-based learning, or IBL, is a student-centered teaching and learning approach that emphasizes active engagement and critical thinking.

In practice, IBL increases enthusiasm, gives students responsibility for their own learning, and addresses the common refrain, “why do we need to learn this?” The approach engages students by allowing them to:

  • Pose questions they are interested in, with guidance from the teacher
  • Investigate those questions individually or in groups, typically during in-class or out-of-class time
  • Present their findings using a variety of methods, such as a website, podcast, movie, or whole-class presentation
  • Reflect on their learning in order to build metacognition and become better investigators in the future

Although inquiry-based learning is increasingly popular in science and math curricula, it can be a highly effective approach in all academic areas—see, for instance, research suggesting its benefits in history and English language arts. Teachers often ask how they can fit IBL into an already crowded school year. The first thing to acknowledge is that it is not expected, or even desirable, that all learning occur using an IBL approach. Instead, especially for teachers new to IBL, it can be used for a small number of key topics in which students are likely to be able to ask their own questions and generate interesting answers.

IBL is ultimately an instructional tool to help educators activate students’ prior knowledge and guide them in their learning. A classroom is not a binary “IBL classroom” or “non-IBL classroom.” Rather, it is a continuum where educators can use inquiry-based learning in different ways and to different extents. Contrast inquiry-based learning with the 5E instructional model, for example, which is similarly a framework for guided student inquiry but more rigid in its implementation.

When teachers incorporate inquiry-based learning into their classroom, they act as facilitators. This does not mean that teachers are less important in the context of classroom instruction; instead, it means that teachers guide students through the inquiry process and support student investigations. The teacher ensures that investigations are aligned with the overall learning goals while also providing students with significant flexibility in choosing investigations and methods of expression that are based on their interests. Teachers provide feedback to help students create productive investigations, stay on track, and meet learning objectives. Teachers create a safe and supportive classroom environment that encourages risk-taking and experimentation—including modeling when teachers themselves don’t know the answer to a question and must conduct their own investigation. For IBL to be successful, students need an environment in which they feel comfortable asking questions, sharing their ideas, and making mistakes without fear of judgment.

Once these conditions are met and students are supported in taking significant control over the investigation and method of expression, IBL promotes a sense of ownership over learning and helps students develop skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, and communication. By allowing students to create their own investigations, IBL can be used to meet the needs and interests of diverse student populations.

Inquiry-Based Approaches in Education

The way in which inquiry-based learning is implemented depends on the subject. For example, one of the key tenets of inquiry-based learning in science is using the scientific method to test hypotheses around scientific phenomena. In mathematics, IBL is used to allow students to ask their own questions and explore them using mathematical reasoning and mathematical concepts. When IBL is used in history, it involves interrogating primary and secondary source documents to ask and answer questions about the past.

While the use of IBL may be different across academic areas, the benefits are similar. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable benefit is increased student engagement. As students take control of their own learning and realize that they can ask and answer their own questions (with teacher guidance and support!), they will realize that the academic content they are learning is applicable to their own interests and become more engaged in learning.

IBL also helps students develop higher-order and critical thinking skills. Students have to make decisions about what questions are appropriate for investigation, how to apply academic knowledge and processes to these questions, and what type of conclusions can be drawn.

IBL can also result in a deeper understanding of concepts. As students learn to apply their knowledge by asking questions and exploring ideas, their knowledge becomes more robust. Additionally, when students work on investigations in pairs or small groups, appropriately scaffolded IBL can foster productive collaboration and clear communication.

There are levels of IBL, allowing teachers to provide the level of inquiry they are most comfortable with and that they feel is most appropriate for their students and the content to be learned. These have been described as (Banchi & Bell, 2008):

  • Confirmation (or Limited) Inquiry: Students confirm a principle when the answers are known in advance. This is exemplified by traditional science labs.
  • Structured Inquiry: Students investigate a teacher-presented question through a set of procedures prescribed by the teacher.
  • Guided Inquiry: Students investigate a teacher-presented question (or a question slightly modified by students) using procedures designed or selected by students.
  • Open Inquiry: Students investigate student-formulated questions (with input from the teacher to ensure they are appropriate and relevant) using procedures designed or selected by students (with input from the teacher to ensure the procedures are appropriate and possible).

Importantly, educators do not have to rely on only one level of inquiry when teaching a unit. It may make sense to begin with a very directed Confirmation or Structured Inquiry activity that highlights something students will find surprising or unexpected. Building from that activity, students may then engage in a Guided or Open Inquiry activity to go deeper on what was behind the unexpected results. While Confirmation and Structured Inquiry activities can provide some benefits, the most effective way to truly engage students and build metacognition is through Guided and Open Inquiry. By ensuring that students have some background knowledge on a topic, it is possible to find the sweet spot for Guided and Open Inquiry: students will have enough background knowledge to ask and investigate interesting and relevant questions, but with room to be surprised and learn while conducting their investigations.

Inquiry-Based Learning Examples

HMH Into Math is, broadly speaking, a flexible program that includes many components to serve different math educators. The program provides examples of structured and guided inquiry throughout the year. In this example we see a specific question asking students to determine how many scarves can be cut from a piece of fabric. However, there are multiple types of scarves and students can choose how many of each one to make, as well as what mathematical method to use. The activity ends with reflection questions regarding both the mathematics used and how students can improve the process.

This inquiry-based activity can easily be modified by the teacher to provide even more latitude to the student, for instance by replacing scarves with strings of LED lights, planter boxes, or other items that are of interest to students. The activity can also be expanded to include new disciplines, for example formulating a business plan or creating physical scarves as a hands-on art project.

Similarly, HMH Social Studies provides frequent opportunities for students to engage in structured and guided historical inquiry-based learning activities throughout the year. For example, in the activity shown below, “Choices among the Haudenosaunee,” students read two primary historical accounts to help them understand which factors the Haudenosaunee, an Iroquoian-speaking confederacy of Native Americans, considered when deciding if they should support the British, the American colonists, or neither—that is, stay neutral—during the American Revolution. After students are introduced to the context of the inquiry, they then read firsthand accounts and are presented with questions to support their understanding and analysis of the sources.

Other examples of inquiry-based activities can be found across HMH’s blog, for example 7 End-of-Year Science Activities to Celebrate the Start of Summer (which can be conducted any time of year!). One of the activities has students designing and testing different tools for cleaning up an oil spill, or creating a parachute from commonly available materials. Each of these can be modified for different levels of inquiry and for a wide range of student ages.


Explore how our programs, including HMH Into Math K–8 and HMH Social Studies 6–12, use inquiry-based learning to encourage students to think critically and engage in their learning.

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