Enquiry-Based Learning and Student Research

My previous Teche post discusses how student engagement with research can be facilitated by building enquiry-based learning activities into the curriculum, as these enable students to develop an orientation and many of the skills needed for research tasks.  These include analysing requirements, investigating source materials, identifying critical information and ideas, constructing a resolution and working in teams.

The link between enquiry-based learning and research-related student activity has been investigated to determine the best way for using EBL activities to develop important skills and prepare students for engagement in research tasks. By considering different styles of EBL, suggestions have been developed for implementing enquiry-based approaches to prepare students for research-related activities.  These suggestions can be applied to enhance student engagement and orient students towards research-led teaching and associated student learning tasks.

The aim of research-led teaching has links to investigations across the university sector in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.  Wide ranging reports on the topic such as The Higher Education Academy report Developing undergraduate research and inquiry (Healey & Jenkins, 2009), the ALTC study The Teaching-Research Nexus, (Krause & Green, 2008) and a Macquarie University report Research Enhanced Learning and Teaching (Homewood, Rigby et al, 2011) all provide a rationale for exposing students to the research activities of academic staff and engaging students in research-related activities.  A wide range of examples from different disciplines and year levels included in these reports support the proposition that students can be involved in research-related activities regardless of discipline or year level.

An important issue in the relationship between EBL and student involvement in research is the nature of the enquiry task and how students are oriented to this and given guidance in its implementation.  If students are tasked with learning by enquiry, how much guidance should they be given and how much should they be expected to work out for themselves?  Spronken-Smith and Walker 2010) point to forms of enquiry with different levels of guidance.  An enquiry task may be:

  • Structured – the enquiry task and the approach is defined by the unit convener
  • Guided – the task is set and general guidelines provided however the approach to resolution can be influenced by the students
  • Open – students decide how to resolve the enquiry and take their own approach.

(Spronken-Smith & Walker 2010, p727)

By considering the student activity in a unit taking each form of enquiry they conclude that only the open enquiry engages the students in all of the tasks required by a research activity.  From student feedback data reported in the study, the students saw that the open enquiry activity ‘helped develop their ability to engage in research-related activities’.  It was even described by some as an ‘apprenticeship in research’.  The authors concluded ‘there was a very strong teaching/research nexus for both students and teachers’ (Spronken-Smith & Walker 2010, p734).

There is logic in the idea that students can be prepared for research by embedding enquiry-based approaches across the curriculum, progressing from structured to guided to open enquiries and on to research-related activities as the students progress through their degree program.  This, properly managed, would ensure a progressive development of skills that are both valued by employers and are good preparation for engagement in research.

Healey and Jenkins (2009) however have a different take on this idea.  They suggest that students should be engaged in more open and guided enquiries early in their degree program to build motivation.  This provides an opportunity to orient the students towards a research culture and the idea of learning through research.  Structured and guided enquiries can then be used to develop knowledge and skills, before returning to open enquiries, perhaps in a capstone unit.

Students need an orientation to the idea of learning by research, as opposed to being told what they need to know.  Building EBL activities into the curriculum is a way of doing this.  The approach leads to engagement in active learning in a way that develops the kind of communication, problem-solving and teamwork skills that are valued by employers.  They are also skills needed for involvement in research-related tasks.  As Healey and Jenkins (2010) suggest, it is a good idea to engage students with a research orientation early in their degree program, and to systematically develop enquiry and research skills as they progress to completion and graduation.   That way they should have some valuable experience to carry into further research or employment.



Healey, M., & Jenkins, A. (2009). Developing undergraduate research and inquiry. Retrieved from York: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/developingundergraduate_final.pdf

Homewood, J., Rigby, B., Brew, A., & Rowe, A. (2011). Research Enhanced Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from Sydney: https://staff.mq.edu.au/public/download.jsp?id=50005

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 from http://trnexus.edu.au/

Spronken-Smith, R., & Walker, R. (2010). Can inquiry-based learning strengthen the links between teaching and disciplinary research? Studies in Higher Education, 35(6), 723-740.  Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075070903315502