What Is Inquiry-Based Learning?

Elementary students learning about science through plant habitats

Although the term first appeared back in the 1960s,1 educators often still wonder, “What is inquiry-based learning?” Science teachers are often most comfortable with this kind of learning, as inquiry is a key component of the scientific method. Educators in other disciplines, however, may struggle to see how it applies to what they teach and how they can use inquiry-based learning in their classrooms. 

The process of inquiry includes seeking knowledge through questioning. Inquiry-based learning makes use of this natural tendency. Students must ask questions, generate information and data, apply knowledge in new ways, synthesize their findings and arrive at well-supported conclusions. Educators who practice inquiry-based learning nurture inquisitive habits in students that will aid them in their lifelong search for knowledge.

Although there can be challenges within inquire-based learning, such as a lack of resources, there are also many benefits to the process as well as ways that students can experience inquiry-based learning to help them stay engaged in the content. After earning your education degree, it’s important to understand what strategies you can use to engage and motivate students. 

Types of Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning is student-centered, so there is usually not a lot of pre-work you need to complete. You can determine what type of inquiry you want your students to complete.

  • Confirmation Inquiry: Students confirm the answer to a question using a specific method. You may need to provide resources for them to learn more about the method. 
  • Structured Inquiry: This model is quite common; in fact, you may already be using it with your students. You provide an open-ended question as well as a solutions framework. Students apply this framework and generate a conclusion. 
  • Guided Inquiry: Students work in groups to determine what type of investigation to conduct to answer an open question. 
  • Open Inquiry: This model is the most like scientific research. Students identify a question they want to answer and then complete the investigation through whatever means they decide on. They present their findings at the end of the inquiry learning process.

6 Inquiry-Based Learning Benefits

There are some incredible benefits to inquiry-based learning that not only support classroom learning objectives but also build students’ soft skills that are applicable to all areas of their lives.

1. Celebrates Curiosity

Students are naturally curious. When students engage in inquiry-based learning, they can ask the questions they want to ask and try different solutions that enable them to recognize that there is not always one right answer or a single correct path toward knowledge.

2. Builds Creativity

Through inquiry-based learning, students must think deeply about a topic. They then start to consider many ways of approaching a problem. They use creativity and critical thinking to come up with new approaches. Sometimes one way does not work, so they must try something new. This keeps them innovating and creating potential approaches to find the answers they seek.

3. Enhances Problem-Solving Skills

Inquiry-based learning focuses on solving open-ended questions or problems. Students must use critical thinking and reasoning skills to come up with a conclusion and defend their results. This means they will look for new ways of thinking about their problem and come up with solutions that other people have not tried before.

4. Demonstrates Interconnectedness

When students become immersed in learning, they find connections between what they are trying to learn and information they already know. For example, a student making an inquiry into changes in the weather may need to use their math skills to calculate monthly temperature averages.

5. Gives Students Autonomy

Working in an inquiry-based learning classroom helps students develop a love of learning through independence. Rather than simply following along with a lesson, students create the lessons they learn based on their own inquiry, becoming independent thinkers and problem-solvers.

6. Provides Authentic Differentiation

When students engage in inquiry-based learning, the experience is naturally differentiated. Students can work alone or in small groups. The information that they seek may come from a variety of sources such as texts, videos, websites and discussions. Students work at their own pace to gather information and apply it to their problem. They also determine the best way to share their results, whether it be through a demonstration, a written paper or a slideshow.

Inquiry-Based Learning Examples

One of the many exciting things about inquiry-based learning is that is can be done in any grade level and in any subject area. Students of all ages can participate in inquiry-based learning. In fact, inquiry-based learning projects are a great way to include cross-grade collaboration and promote interaction between younger and older students.

Community Garden

Researching the impact of a community garden is a great way for students to experience inquiry-based learning. Younger students can learn about fruits, vegetables and flowers and plant life cycles. They can plant seeds and watch them grow. Older students can research nutrition and learn how plants impact the environment. They may even start a schoolyard garden to make observations. High school students might be interested in learning about hunger, food accessibility and patterns of food distribution.

During their inquiry, students may learn can learn about topics related to math, science, economics, health and nutrition and social studies. Learning about community gardens can also allow the class to be more involved in the local community outside of the school. This allows students to see how their inquiry and research can be applied to real life.


Habitats are a common theme of study in elementary school that can easily be used as the basis for inquiry-based learning. Young elementary students might learn about plants and animals that live in certain habitats. Older elementary school students can learn about the impact of changes in the habitat on its inhabitants. Middle and high school students can look at how communities adapt to their habitats and how environments must change to meet the needs of a growing population.

Habitats as a theme for inquiry can be as broad as your students choose to make it. See what they want to learn about, what sparks their natural curiosity, and let them ask questions and investigate the topics of their choice.

What if?

“What if?” inquiry can be particularly powerful at all grade levels and subjects. It expands on students’ curiosity about the world around them and lets them consider alterative outcomes. For example, a “What if?” inquiry for young students might be to ask them, “What if cars had never been invented?” Students might be led to research the invention of the wheel or they may create news ideas for alternative modes of transportation.

Older students might ask questions about historical events such as “What if JFK had not been assassinated?” or “What if the United States had never intervened in World War II?” History teachers can help students begin to answer these questions by providing them with a good grasp of the historical landscape at the time that these events happened; then they use their creativity and research to come up with plausible explanations and answers. 

Grand Canyon University aims to provide an exceptional academic experience for every student. If you would like more information about GCU’s education programs, including the Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education program, visit the College of Education or click on the Request More Information button at the top of your screen. 


1Retrieved from Concept to Classroom, Workshop: Inquiry-based Learning in January 2022

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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