Enquiry-Based Learning: Don’t we already do that?

The Learning and Teaching Green Paper includes a proposal for ‘Developing and leading teaching models that promote enquiry-driven learning and prepare students for productive professional and civic lives’.  Depending on your point of view, this is either a highly ambitious aspiration for the university, or a reflection of what we already do.  Don’t we ask students to address questions and topics already, and isn’t that an enquiry?

As I’ve had some experience with implementing enquiry-based approaches in other universities, I’d like to consider the implications and value of this approach.  How can students, staff and the university benefit from promoting enquiry-driven learning?

The Green Paper links enquiry with student involvement in research tasks, referring to ‘research appropriate assessment tasks throughout the curriculum’.  Across the university sector many people are keen on this idea.  An ALTC project, The Teaching Research Nexus found a wide range of instances of integration of research and teaching in universities throughout Australia.  This report provides examples from first to final year units, ranging from classroom activities to laboratory work and field trips across many disciplines.  Even if the students never leave the classroom the emphasis can be on authentic real-world experiences through the nature of the research task.  The report identifies benefits for students from engagement in research and enquiry as follows:

  1. Deepen students’ understanding of the knowledge bases of disciplines and professions, including their research methods and contemporary research challenges and issues
  2. Build students’ higher-order intellectual capabilities and enhance their skills for employment and lifelong learning
  3. Develop students’ capacity to conduct research and enquiry
  4. Enhance students’ engagement and develop their capacity for independent learning

There are a range of examples of integrating research and enquiry into teaching in the Macquarie context.  Two reports, Research Enhanced Learning and Teaching (Homewood, Rigby, Brew and Rowe, 2011) and How to apply active learning techniques: Learning through meaning (Savannah and Parsell (Eds), 2013) provide examples of enquiry approaches.  These include student involvement in research activities in consumer behaviour, the psychology of appetite, and microbiology.

These reports also demonstrate that student involvement in research-oriented activities is not limited to certain disciplines and year levels – there are opportunities and benefits for integrating research and enquiry into teaching in all disciplines and levels.  The research orientation may be your own, or that of your colleagues, or it could arise from learning activities you create that orient the students to research and enquiry.

Enquiry-Based learning

The above studies, and the Green Paper, relate the integration of research with teaching to the enquiry-based learning (EBL) approach as articulated by the Centre of Excellence for Enquiry-Based Learning (CEEBL).  This centre proposes enquiry-based learning as an ‘environment in which learning is driven by a process of enquiry owned by the student’ (CEEBL, 2015).  EBL is proposed as an umbrella term that includes

  • Small-scale investigations
  • Problem-based learning
  • Projects and research

The EBL approach is designed to encourage development of a range of skills that are needed for involvement in research oriented activities and are also valued by employers.  An enquiry task is a complex matter for which there is no set or predetermined answer or solution.  Students must take responsibility for investigating the implications of the enquiry, evaluating the range of possible resolutions, researching and coming to grips with the knowledge base required to implement the resolution, and finally developing this in a finished form.  This may be a report, conclusions from an experiment, demonstration of a project with a report, and/or a final presentation to an audience.  Over several enquiries students can develop the capability to take initiative, to investigate knowledge areas for themselves, to generate solutions to complex matters, and to take ownership and present the results of their own ideas and initiative. If enquiry tasks are conducted in teams, students can also develop skills in communication, collaboration and teamwork.

These are skills needed for engagement with research activities.  They are also the ‘soft’ skills valued by employers (Kahn & O’Rourke, 2004).  Students who can demonstrate that they have learned to produce a product during their university education, and that they are able to take initiative and to work in teams to create solutions are likely to be in demand.  By engaging with enquiry tasks in the early years at university, students can progressively develop important research and problem-solving skills as they progress with their program.

Benefits for staff

Many academic staff members like the idea of finding creative ways of challenging their students to take initiative and to think through complex issues.  It can be both surprising and pleasing to see students rise to the challenge and produce outcomes that are beyond expectations.  Teaching can be more interesting and enjoyable, and it can be satisfying to see students come to grips with matters they may have avoided in previous years.  Depending on how it is designed and managed, students can be seen to be more engaged and capable of achieving higher-level outcomes using enquiry-based learning activities.

Developing enquiry driven learning

There are many ways to engage students in enquiry-driven learning.  Thinking of the ‘real-world’ applications of unit topics may suggest an enquiry scenario to engage students.  There may be ways that study tasks can relate to research you are engaged in with colleagues.  Capstone units can involve project-based tasks with an enquiry framework, or a research activity.  In the early years of a degree students can be introduced to this approach with guided enquiry scenarios that help students to relate to a contextual application of their study topic.

Where to from here?

Enquiry-based approaches are an effective way of engaging students in active learning and encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning.  This can lead to the development of a research orientation and a range of professional skills.  There are many good examples of this approach at Macquarie University already.  I’d like to see this approach implemented in a wider range of programs so that the university and a wide range of programs can benefit from higher levels of student engagement, improved retention, and more research and professionally oriented students.

Further Reading

Homewood, J., Rigby, B., Brew, A., & Rowe, A. (2011). Research Enhanced Learning and Teaching. Sydney: Macquarie University.

Kahn, P., & O’Rourke, K. (2004). Guide to Curriculum Design: Enquiry-Based Learning. Higher Education Academy, 30(3).

Krause, K., Green, A., Arkoudis, S., James, R., Jennings, C., & McCulloch, R. (2008). The Teaching-Research Nexus: A guide for academics and policy-makers in higher education.   Retrieved May, 2015, from http://trnexus.edu.au/

Savanah, S., & Parsell, M. (Eds.). (2013). How to apply active learning techniques: Learning through meaning. Sydney: Macquarie University.


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