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Using Inquiry in Science Instruction

Imagine that your science students have been divided into two groups. In the first group, students spend their time recording and memorizing information that you deliver, using a variety of instructional techniques. Students follow your directions, and complete activities that are always designed and managed by you. You are viewed as the sole authority in the classroom, and when students have questions, they immediately come to you for information and explanations.

In the second group, students often design and direct their own tasks. Students make observations, develop hypotheses about phenomena, and devise tests to investigate their hypotheses. They share responsibility within the group and with you for answering questions, and use a scientific approach to solving problems.

Will students in both groups learn science concepts and skills? Absolutely. However, numerous studies have identified specific advantages for the second group.

Benefits of Inquiry-Based Instruction in Science
Research indicates that students being taught in effective inquiry-based learning environments improve skills and exhibit more positive attitudes toward science.

Improved Skills
  • laboratory procedures
  • graphing
  • interpreting data
  • oral communication
  • critical thinking

A Useful Process
When students use the inquiry approach, they utilize processes that allow them to demonstrate the mental and physical behaviors of scientists. In the process, they learn more than discreet science concepts and skills. They learn a practical, useful approach to solving problems and answering questions. The inquiry process involves the following steps.
  1. Observe a process or event.
  2. Formulate questions based on observations.
  3. Develop a workable hypothesis.
  4. Devise a strategy for testing it.
  5. Analyze and draw conclusions from collected data.
  6. Communicate findings to others.
Identifying Inquiry-Based Activities in Your Classroom
Inquiry-based instruction involves creating situations in which students take the role of scientists. These types of learning situations typically occur along a continuum. As you read the following descriptions, think about where your classroom activities fall along the continuum. Can you identify ways to increase the level of inquiry for your students?

Structured Inquiry   Guided Inquiry   Student-Initiated Inquiry
Students follow precise teacher instructions to complete a hands-on activity. ←→ Students develop the procedure to investigate a teacher-selected question. ←→ Students generate questions about a teacher-selected topic and design their own investigations.

Incorporating the Inquiry Approach into Instruction
Inquiry-based instruction requires a unique approach. As with all classroom activities, however, the use of sound instructional techniques is critical to maximizing student learning. Consider the following strategies when implementing the inquiry approach with your students.
  • Help students become aware of each phase of the process. All scientific study involves a design phase, an investigation phase, and a period devoted to constructing meaning from the data that has been collected. To teach students how to focus on these elements discreetly, conduct guided and independent practice with each element individually. Once students are comfortable with each phase, they can move toward integrating all three phases into the investigative process.

  • Be aware of and correctly interpret student behaviors and comments. The inquiry approach can be frustrating for some students, particularly for those who are most comfortable following teacher directions without question. Most students will occasionally need a nudge or hint to point them in a productive direction. Students may make comments or demonstrate behaviors that demonstrate that they have "hit a wall," and need additional guidance and direction. Be prepared to provide assistance as students design hypotheses and experiments, conduct tests, and analyze data. Help students work as independently as possible, while being available to keep them moving in the right direction.

  • Establish, enforce, and model high standards for work, communication, and behavior. Giving control of the investigative process to students does not mean losing control of the classroom. Students must follow the management and safety expectations you establish. You must provide instruction about and also model effective use of time, collaboration with peers, and the safe and proper use of equipment.

  • Help students learn to collaborate to solve problems. Working with and learning from others are integral parts of the scientific process. Students must work effectively with a group for inquiry-based instruction to be a success. Make your expectations for group work clear, and provide ongoing feedback based on your observations of student interactions.

  • Monitor your responses. Because most students are familiar with traditional instructional models, they are accustomed to asking a question and being told an answer. Inquiry-based instruction requires a different approach. If you give too many hints, provide too many answers, or ask too many leading questions during an inquiry exercise, student interest is stifled. Supply what students need to move forward with the investigative process, but don't ruin the process by letting students know what will happen before they have the opportunity to find out for themselves.
Science instruction should reflect the way that science is practiced in the real world. While it isn't always practical or effective to use inquiry as the sole teaching method, inquiry should have a prominent place in every science classroom. When students are active participants in asking questions, designing procedures, carrying out investigations, and analyzing data, they take responsibility for their own learning, and begin to think like scientists.

This article was contributed by Jennipher Willoughby, a freelance writer and former science and technology specialist for Lynchburg City Schools in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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