- Zora Neale Hurston
One of the cornerstones of academic life is disciplined, systematic, and free inquiry. When we position our students to be curious and rigorously pursue new knowledge, we open up new vistas and opportunities to explore. There is no one way to structure inquiry or research in the post-secondary classroom. Rather, inquiry can be structured at multiple levels for different purposes. There are common features, however, that can guide our planning for and implementation of student inquiry and research.
Key features of the strategy
There are many forms of inquiry employed in higher education. They vary based on the origin of the question(s), the level of scaffolding or support provided to students, the duration and scope of the work, and the relative focus on process or outcomes. What nearly all forms of student inquiry or research have in common is that it is driven either by a question or a problem. In an interesting exploration of inquiry approaches employed by faculty from three Australian universities, Aditomo and colleagues (2011) lay out nine forms of inquiry: scholarly research, simplified research, literature-based inquiry, discussion-based inquiry, applied research, simulated applied research, enactment of practice, role playing and other. You may notice that many of these forms of inquiry are represented with different learning activity types presented on this blog, applied research, enactment of practice, and role playing.
Across all these examples, Aditomo et al., suggest that all these forms of inquiry shared two common features. First, they are all characterized by active learning. Students actively engage in their learning, most often in a collaborative fashion. Second, true inquiry learning activities center on questions or problems rather than on subject concepts or topics. They note, “Even the narrower forms of inquiry identified in this study, such as Literature-based and Discussion- based Inquiry, can be designed in ways that are problem-driven (p. 1255).” What can these different forms of inquiry look like in practice?
Examples and Variations
Despite considerable interest in inquiry and research in undergraduate programs, the literature suggests that it is not widely implemented. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, faculty developed a new course titled, Entering Research, designed to assist students in navigating the challenges of beginning research (Balster et al., 2010). The course is a combination of structured class sessions combined with independent research projects under the guidance of a mentor. The authors explain, “The course is designed to help students find a research mentor, explore the culture of research, write a research project proposal, and begin doing research (p. 109).” While situated in the biological and physical science departments, the model is replicable in a variety of disciplines. A three-year study of student outcomes of the course suggests that students find value in the process of identifying a mentor, understanding their place in a large research community, and connecting their research to their coursework.
Inquiry in Sociology
Atkinson & Hunt (2008) describe a range of different examples of inquiry-based learning activities in sociology. They move from brief, structured examples to a longer-term, less structured example. In one of the examples, students are provided with a data set from the U.S. Census from 1950-1990 and challenged to analyze how occupational structures vary by race, sex or education. In this open-ended experience, students formulate their own questions and hypotheses and analyze the data in a number of ways. Students conclude by writing formal research papers that include their hypotheses, analysis, findings, and discussion. This type of inquiry represents a less-structured, more student-driven approach.
Redesigning Curriculum for Inquiry
In many cases, opportunities for student inquiry are unique to the particular courses in which they are enrolled. Spronken-Smith and colleagues (2011), however, describe an interdisciplinary degree program in ecology that was designed to systematically integrate inquiry experiences for students throughout their coursework. The research team developed a program in which students progressively developed their skills in conducting research over the course of the three-year degree. Rather than moving from one experience to the next, they opted for a “spiraling” curriculum in which students revisited topics or skills throughout the program with increasing levels of sophistication.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
When students engage in inquiry/research, they develop critical 21st century learning skills in knowledge construction and self-regulation. As they research important questions in different disciplines, they must make meaning from disparate and sometimes conflicting sources. They have to synthesize and evaluate information to help them to answer the question for themselves. In this process, they also develop important self-regulation skills that include both metacognitive components (How can I organize this information in a meaningful way?), as well as, strategies for both organization and persistence.
Similar to problem-based learning and case studies, digital technologies can help support the process of knowledge construction in a number of ways. First, students can utilize Web-based databases of journal articles and resources along with reference management tools (e.g., Mendeley) to collect and organize their sources. They can also use digital notetaking applications (e.g., OneNote and Evernote) to capture their notes and annotate documents for future reference. Finally, concept mapping tools (e.g., Mindmeister) can help students organize their thinking, helping to prepare students to share their results.
How do you encourage inquiry and research in your courses?
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