Inquiry-based learning offers something unique to students with its different approach to the learning experience.

A four-part model that promotes fluid learning and insightful problem-solving. Described by Indiana University as an instructional model centered on problem-solving and question-answering, inquiry-based learning is a unique and fluid way to consider how students develop skills and improve their knowledge.

While multiple varied versions of the concept exist, they all have the following in common:

  • A focus on learning that requires diverse perspectives to be considered in a meaningful way
  • Students must work in collaboration and be active in the process of learning
  • Learning through Academic content is an organic part of the solution-finding process
  • Educators offer students rich information and learning support to assist them in finding solutions successfully
  • Solutions are defended and shared publicly by students in some way

The method of this model can’t be individually split or broken into important stages to support the teaching process. Instead, this model can be used as a teacher guideline, thanks to its inclusion of indicators for students and educators at every stage. There are also apps and information about tones for each phase to ensure the model is used effectively.

Education resources


4 Stages of inquiry-based learning

As a way of gaining knowledge, inquiry-based learning can accommodate project-based learning easily. The approach also lends itself well to blended learning and challenge-based and place-based education. This makes it a versatile and practical choice for many different educational trends.

1. Interaction

The main concept of inquiry-based learning’s first phase is encouraging students to dive into relevant, credible, and engaging media sources to identify an opportunity for inquiry and understand the ‘need’ behind it. There are many ways in which interaction can play a large part in learning and many methods to interact. These can include:

  • Student-material interaction: Usually obtained through research and other formal and informal means such as digital media, reading, or collaboration. This can be supplemented with materials provided by a teacher.
  • Student-peer interaction: Interaction that is chosen by a student or teacher and is informed through a need for information, as well as perspective.
  • Student-expert interaction: Interaction from field experts at accessible levels.
  • Student-media interactions: Interaction through pure data, as well as through digital and text-based media.

An inquiry is, by nature, fluid and based on curiosity. Traditional schoolwork can often stifle this more organic inquiry by forcing students into a particular cognitive method. This can be caused by students only learning through narrow or restrictive practices. In this model, teachers are facilitators of more extensive learning, offering resources and allowing students to follow their curiosity.

The general tone of interaction is curious, unburdened, playful and open-minded. Student indicators that suggest active involvement in this phase include:

  • The active skimming of a range of media
  • Following areas of interest and forming connections with certain types of media based on their usefulness
  • Seeking out peers for resources and ideas also should be considered a positive indicator

For teachers, indicators of complying with phase one of the inquiry-based learning model include asking probing questions and encouraging more free thinking and investigation. As well as modeling curiosity and thinking aloud when interacting with media. Apps that can support this stage of learning include:

Many questions can help students develop the right mindset for the interaction phase of this model. These may include the following as appropriate choices:

  • What information sources are available for me?
  • What do my peers know, or what are they learning?
  • What is worth studying?
  • What interests me when it comes to problems or situations?
  • When am I working at my best?

2. Identification

In the second phase of inquiry-based learning, the emphasis is on paraphrasing, categorizing, and summarizing with the support of both experts and teachers. This is characterized by the analysis, identification, and clarification of data, as well as getting a better feel for topics of the inquiry, such as their scale, possibility, and overall nature.

Once phase one is complete, students are ready to move on to clarify their thought processes. As well as gaining an understanding of the nature of the knowledge and information around them. This includes:

  • Challenging scientific sources
  • Identifying opportunities for revision
  • Establishing ideas for projects
  • Understanding how to tackle problems through scale

Students must be allowed to be both reflective and communicative, but inward and outward thinking patterns work in collaboration. This helps students better reflect on their existing knowledge and identify pathways forward from their current position.

Clarifying should be more reflective, gaining additional focus, independence, and caution. Student indicators at this stage include:

  • Paraphrasing familiar language in understanding
  • Resisting looking for solutions or answers
  • Distinguishing between opinion and fact
  • Evaluating the relevance and credibility of sources
  • Focusing on possibility

For teachers, indicators will include offering frequent and non-evaluative feedback and providing graphics organizers and ways to frame student thinking. Probing questions are also positive indicators, including why they think they know something. Apps that can aid in the process of phase two include:

A variety of appropriate questions can be applied at this stage to further enhance and encourage learning:

  • What is the big picture?
  • How do the pieces fit together, and what are they?
  • What’s accessible to me, and what isn’t?
  • Are there data, perspectives, or collaborative opportunities I’m missing?
  • What do I think I know, and what do I understand?

3. Examination

The third phase of inquiry-based learning, examining questions, encourages students to become more self-directed.  And also to continue asking all the questions to push themselves further and do more. A critical part of the process, it enables students to identify misunderstandings, uneven confidence, or even lack of organization clearly and effectively.

Both students and teachers at this stage should be able to have a level of trust when it comes to inquiry and the nature of the concept to move in both a recursive manner and an iterative one. Unlike more ‘tidy’ forms of academic models, it’s important to understand that this type of learning isn’t just a straight line. A straight line makes it more difficult to measure in terms of distinct progress of quality.

The overall tone of this phase is one of confidence, creativity, and interdependence, evolving beyond the clarification of stage two. Student indicators at this level include:

  • Curiosity
  • Precision of questioning
  • Monitoring of the self
  • Thinking about the ‘big picture and applying concepts in the ‘little picture.

For teachers, positive indicators in this phase include modeling the questioning process and thinking aloud when revising or reworking flawed questioning. It also includes utilizing tools such as concept mapping and hosting QFT sessions or Socratic-style seminars. Apps that can be useful at this stage include:

There is a range of suggested and appropriate questions for this third phase, and they may include the following:

  • What is worth understanding?
  • What gaps do I have in my existing knowledge?
  • What is beyond my reach, and what is within it?
  • What experience do I have in the past that can help me now?

4. Reflection

The final stage in the process of inquiry-based learning, reflection incorporates actions that are driven by curiosity and that are both accessible and relevant – and must justify and culminate inquiry as a whole. Reflection can include any of the following concepts:

  • Solutions designed to address problems on a scale of management
  • Applications designed to have logic and a base on curiosity
  • The design of the next steps to prolong and extend personal learning

The tone of the fourth phase is explicitly focused on becoming more calculating, remaining creative, and introducing restraint into the process. Student indicators for this process may include:

  • Clarification of thought processes
  • High productivity
  • Self-directed learning
  • High levels of interest and freedom to follow curiosity

For educators, positive indicators of the design phase can include creating collaborative conditions and means, the identification of areas that require revision, and the ability to reflect on the process as a whole. These apps offer support and utility for the reflection process:

The fourth phase of the inquiry-based learning process is another opportunity to ask the right questions, including the following:

  • What is my next step, what next?
  • What is the correct audience for this research?
  • What have other people done before me?
  • Where is the best place for me to do good work?

Student Questions For Post-Phase Reflection

Once you have completed all four steps of the inquiry-based learning model, it can be useful for both students and teachers to follow up their experiences with reflection, both for the sake of processing and to offer added insight into the value of the model. The four questions could be:

  • What skills did I use and depend upon?
  • What do I now have a greater understanding of, and how do I have that understanding?
  • What else could I have accomplished?
  • Why is inquiry important for learning?

Classful supports teachers to go above and beyond for their students. With our unique way of funding, we can help you bring inquiry-based learning to your classroom. See more about what we do online today.