An Introduction to Teaching First Year Inquiry Courses

Rich Slatta
Professor of History
Interim Director, First Year Inquiry Program
Updated: May 17, 2016


Inquiry-guided learning (IGL) refers to an array of classroom practices that promote student learning through guided and, increasingly, independent investigation of questions and problems for which there is no single answer.

Rather than teaching the results of others' investigations, which students learn passively, instructors assist students in mastering and learning through the process of active investigation itself. This process involves the ability to formulate good questions, identify and collect appropriate evidence, present results systematically, analyze and interpret results, formulate conclusions, and evaluate the worth and importance of those conclusions. It may also involve the ability to identify problems, examine problems, generate possible solutions, and select the best solution with appropriate justification. This process will differ somewhat among different academic disciplines.

Learning in this way promotes other important outcomes as well. It nurtures curiosity, initiative, and risk taking. It promotes critical thinking. It develops students' responsibility for their own learning and habits of life-long learning. And it fosters intellectual development and maturity: the recognition that ambiguity and uncertainty are inevitable, and in response, we must learn to make reasoned judgments and act in ways consistent with these judgments.

A variety of teaching strategies, used singly or, more often, in combination with one another, is consistent with inquiry-guided learning: interactive lecture, discussion, group work, case studies, problem-based learning, service learning, simulations, fieldwork, and labs as well as many others. In fact the only method that is not consistent with IGL is the exclusive use of straight lecturing and the posing of questions for which there is only one correct answer.

In addition, because of the nature of the outcomes it promotes and the necessity for active engagement, inquiry-guided learning must also involve writing and speaking both in classroom instruction and in the methods used to evaluate students.

While inquiry-guided learning is appropriate in all classes, it is most effective in small classes (i.e., approximately 20 students). It is particularly appropriate for first year students who are forming habits of learning that they will exercise throughout their undergraduate years and beyond. Finally, the rest of the undergraduate curriculum should reinforce these early learning experiences.

  • Prepared by Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning and Hewlett Steering Committee September 2000
    One of the frequent responses by students to first-year courses is that the course doesn't seem focused on first-year students. I'm guessing that this means we could do a better job facilitating the high-school to college transition. To aid in this vital process (essential to improve retention rates), we should build into our courses some skills and attitudes tutorials.
  • To help with that process, I've created a web page for instructors of first-year courses at . Please browse the materials and use what looks helpful as you see fit. In my course, I'm planning short 10-15 mini-tutorials to cover such things as notetaking, learning and teaching styles, critical thinking, time management, using electronic resources, and much more time on writing. I also explain the IGL approach to students and have them write a short paper based on my online essay at Our Approach to History. . I suggest that you to encourage "metacognitive" thinking by your students. If they understand the rationale behind assignments and approaches, it seems to encourage better performance.
  • I think we would do well to heed Stephen Brookfield's advice on getting frequent feedback from students and on helping them with self-assessment. I plan to have student respond a few times a semester. What's going well in the course? What's my biggest challenge? What have I learned to do better? What specific skills need more work? This can happen anonymously (pass out 3x5 cards or use a web-based discussion area or made as an assignment, such as learning journal entries, short essays, class discussion).

    Our Approach: IGL: Inquiry-Guided Learning

    Assumptions about how we approach our students Adapted from "GENERIC PROBLEM-BASED LEARNING ESSENTIALS" at
  • Problems, simulations, and questions posed to students must be ill-structured and allow for free inquiry. Students should be encouraged to integrate information from a wide range of sources.
  • What students learn during their self-directed learning must be applied back to the problem with reanalysis and resolution.
  • Self and peer assessment should be carried out at various points during the semester.
  • Student examinations must measure student progress towards the course objectives, which should be formulated to promote and reward inquiry.
  • A catch-all description of our approach might be "student-centered, problem-based, inquiry-based, integrated, collaborative, reiterative, learning." IGL assumes that we take a constructivist approach to teaching. See Martin Ryder, University of Colorado at Denver School of Education on Constructivism and Paul Lefrere, The Open University, United Kingdom, "Teaching in Hyperspace"

    Dynamic Teachers Take on Many Roles to Facilitate Student Learning

  • What makes certain teachers effective and inspiring in the classroom? Sharon F. Rallis and Gretchen B. Rossman, with Janet M. Phlegar and Ann Abeille, successfully describe the characteristics shared by "dynamic teachers." In short, be a combination of Superman, the ideal woman, and other super heroes. "Being a good teacher now requires taking on new roles" to ensure that students learn, maintain the researchers. Their book suggests that dynamic teachers adopt no less than seven roles:
    1. "The Moral Steward," recognizing the worth, capabilities, and rights of their students
    2. "The Constructor," who understands the subject and knows different ways to teach in order to accommodate students' various ways of learning
    3. "The Philosopher," who reflects critically about what is and isn't working in the classroom and makes midcourse corrections as necessary
    4. "The Facilitator," creating conditions in which students feel safe to take risks, make mistakes, "fail," and have time to try again
    5. "The Inquirer," who depends heavily on assessment to find out what students have learned and what they need to learn more about
    6. "The Bridger," a partner with parents, other teachers, and the community to ensure that their teaching responds to community needs and wishes
    7. "The Changemaker," actively pursuing change in classrooms, pedagogy, standards, professional associations, and policy arenas.
  • Source: Dynamic Teachers: Leaders of Change Corwin Press, Inc., 2455 Teller Rd., Thousand Oaks, CA 91320-2218 or from Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands, 300 Brickstone Sq., Suite 950, Andover, MA 01810. Cite order no. 9124, 157 pp., $20 plus $2.50 postage and handling, prepaid.

    Course and Program Assessment

    We've tried a number of assessment procedures in hopes of developing data to improve our courses. At one time, a group of faculty evaluated early and later writing samples from each of the classes. However, the rubric did not provide fine enough gradations to be helpful. It also seemed silly using an essay assessment in some courses, public speaking, for example. What I want from you is a narrative assessment report filed within a month after you finish to course. Focus on specifics: what assignments and activities worked well? which did not? Summarize helpful feedback from student evaluations. Indicate what you might change if you taught the course again. I hope to develop a database of good practices that can be shared with future instructors.
  • The campus project of assessing the GER offers helpful insights into the rationale and utility for assessment. See .
  • Extensive Resources on all aspects of First-Year Teaching