4 Of The Most Common Problems with Inquiry-Based Learning and How to Solve Them



Inquiry-based learning is an amazing way to get students excited, motivated, and engaged in their learning. It provides the basis for which teachers can assess the progression of soft skills such as teamwork, responsibility, and initiative. However, implementing a successful inquiry-based learning project can cause a few hiccups. Some common problems include students’ inability to recognize when they’ve been successful in their work. Other common problems include tackling students’ underdeveloped collaboration and teamwork skills, and overcoming their difficulties with organizing their own work. This article seeks to address these four common problems in inquiry-based learning and provide helpful, practical solutions to overcome them.

Related: 4 Powerful Benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning

1. Students don’t know when they’ve been “successful”

Inquiry-based learning doesn’t typically rely on traditional assessment methods. Preparing tasks and activities with highly structured assessment models don’t always work well in inquiry learning. For many students, the lack of a rigid assessment structure is confusing and can create unnecessary anxiety.

This is a common problem with inquiry because students are not prepared for the flexibility and freedom associated with this kind of learning. They have a hard time determining if they are on the right path or if they’re “doing it right”. Providing structure and support is crucial with inquiry learning.

Related: 20 Ways To Know When Inquiry-Based Learning is Working


Solutions:

There are a few simple solutions to this common problem. Ensure that students know ahead of time that the emphasis is on the process rather than the product. Discuss the soft skills that will be developed during the inquiry process – skills like teamwork, organization, and responsibility. Emphasize that the inquiry process is highly personalized, and therefore, their learning goals are too.

Regular conferencing with students 1:1 or in small groups provides them with structure and deadlines, which many of them need in order to feel a sense of predictability and responsibility. Co-creating and sharing a success criteria that is personalized for them helps them take accountability for their learning and keeps them on track to achieving their specific goals. Discussing the process along the way, building in time for regular reflection, and keeping open communication with students are all ways to implement ongoing, real-time formative assessment in the classroom.

Students will know they are successful by consulting with their learning goals, communicating with their teacher, regularly reflecting on their process, and asking questions when needed. Although inquiry-based learning tends to steer away from traditional methods and assessments, some students require these structures to give them the push they need to get their work done and produce something meaningful.


2. Lack of spark and initiative

Particularly in guided inquiries, students can lose their spark quickly. This can happen if they don’t feel engaged in the content or in their learning. While students typically ask their own questions, they may come to a point where they just aren’t as engaged. For an inquiry to produce beneficial results, learning needs to be meaningful. However, students’ levels of engagement can fluctuate throughout the inquiry process; this is normal!

We spoke about the state of “flow” in our previous article. We discussed the idea of striking the right balance of keeping students motivated while also challenging them. This can be a difficult balance to achieve, but produces amazing results.

If the students’ skills are higher than what is needed for the problem, they become bored. On the other hand, if students do not have the skills with which to solve a problem, frustration ensues.

The concept of “flow” needs to be considered when you design your project. A balance needs to be struck between keeping the challenge open and accessible, and adding in elements that increase the difficulty in small increments to keep students motivated and eager to continue their learning. Teachers who know their students and perform regular assessments are well-equipped to set challenges at the appropriate levels; this ensures that boredom and frustration are both kept at bay.


Solutions:

The solution to this issue is found primarily in the beginning stages of your inquiry. Inquiry-based learning requires learners to be more engaged and motivated in their learning than they’re probably used to. It is important that student’s interests and passions are explored deeply at the beginning of the inquiry process. 

Related: How to Teach Effective Questioning Skills in Inquiry-Based Learning

Spend time discovering what makes students excited, engaged, and eager to discover more. Try asking students “What topics are important and interesting to you?” or “What deep questions do you have about the world around you?” The formulation of questions and the development of a plan for learning requires a bit of background knowledge. If a student picks a topic they know nothing about, this can cause problems later on. It is a good idea for students to have some background knowledge on their topic before diving in.

Once they have generated a few ideas, ask students “How do you feel you could make a difference or raise awareness about the things you’re interested in?” Narrow your line of questioning further by asking “What topic could you talk about, write about, or engage in for hours and hours without getting bored?” These questions should tease out the topics and questions that students are most interested in. Ultimately, this will lessen the chances of students becoming bored or disengaged later on, which are common problems students encounter.

If students are lacking motivation, the best thing to do is schedule a meeting with them to try and determine the issue. There could be a number of reasons for this:

  • the information they have gathered is too dense, or they are unable to understand it
  • they are feeling bored
  • the motivation they had at the beginning is waning
  • they feel like other students have “picked better topics” and are regretting their choice
Related: How to Help Students Form Rich, High-Quality Inquiry Questions

It is important to address these issues with respect and compassion. It is an overwhelming feeling to have when you put your heart and soul into an idea only to find out it is no longer feasible. Similarly, it can be frustrating for a teacher to think that he or she has made a plan with students, only to hear them want to “change” their idea. These are common problems that pop up more frequently than you might think!

If students feel overwhelmed by their information, or are having trouble understanding it, go through it with them. Sort through the information they’ve gathered. Get knee-deep in the trenches with them. Provide more structure for them by offering a checklist, graphic organizer, sectioned binder, or other organizational tools that can help them organize and structure their information. Let them choose what will work for them, and hopefully this will alleviate some of these common problems.

If students are bored or losing motivation, talk with them about their end goals. Ask them how can they use their information to make change. How might they raise awareness about the issues they’ve discovered? Who do they look up to, and how would that person think outside the box to spread a message? What steps would make them feel satisfied with the work they are producing? Who in their life might benefit or be affected by the work they’re doing? Remind them that their questions can be modified and altered as they go along. In my experience, asking questions like these helps students get back on track and gives them a little motivational push. Remind students that they can tweak and adapt to new information. This will hopefully help to ease any anxiety and frustration they may be experiencing, too.


3. Students have difficulties with collaboration and teamwork

More often we are seeing a shift from a focus from individuals to teams in the workplace. Working as a team, having regularly scheduled meetings, and being assessed on “team member performance” are all common in the workplace. For inquiry to be truly collaborative, students need to work as part of a team as opposed to a “group”.

It is difficult to manage teamwork in the classroom; especially if there are two or more dominant personalities on the same team. Furthermore, having two or more shy, quiet students on the same team can create issues as well.

Unfortunately, these are common problems in the classroom. It is inevitable that one team member will feel left out, or one might get stuck doing all the work. Finding a balance between mingling different personality types and creating teams with like-minded students is crucial. Encouraging students to think outside the box, consider other viewpoints, and understand the importance of collaboration are important. Student hesitation can arise for a variety of reasons – these include preconceived ideas about group work, insecurity, or simply having bad past experiences. Whatever the case may be, care and compassion are important qualities to have when managing teamwork and collaboration in the classroom.

Related: How to Quickly and Easily Manage Conflict in the Inquiry Classroom


Solutions:

Reframing how students work by calling it a “team” as opposed to a “group” is important for a few reasons. First, many students hear the word “group”. They cringe at the prospect of bickering, poor communication, and, ultimately, one person being stuck doing all the work while the rest of the group contributes very little. Rephrasing the word “group” to the word “team” reframes the idea of working with others. Sometimes, this is all it takes to change a mindset. Furthermore, being part of a team emphasizes the idea of shared values, openness, and collaboration. This is different from being in a group because groups don’t always have shared values and sometimes struggle to compromise on an end goal.

Aside from simply changing names, there are some other ways to model and encourage collaboration and teamwork for students. The questions that teachers ask need to be big enough to invite all kinds of participation and perspective-sharing. Students need to be able to participate in all conversations and contribute their experiences, opinions, and ideas; crafting multiple entry points into the conversation encourages all students, even reluctant speakers, to participate.

Another solution is to model what productive team discussions look like. Teachers should teach students how to perform in a team, including the modeling of skills like brainstorming, listening, building on ideas, and posing new ones. For students to work collaboratively, they need to build positive relationship; ones that are fostered through strong communication, openness, and using body language appropriately to respond to the ideas of others and ensure that theirs are heard, too.


4. Lack of focus and organization

In order for students to be successful with inquiry learning, they need to be able to organize themselves. They need to manage the various tasks and activities they have set out for themselves. This requires planning and coordination, which some students struggle with. Without the ability to stay organized, they will surely run into problems.

Although students may be excited about the prospect of taking control of their learning, they can become overwhelmed quickly. Keep in mind that students are not typically asked to manage several tasks and processes at once in their traditional educational activities. Being responsible for many aspects of their learning journey can cause a lot of stress. Teachers need to manage their students’ expectations and check-in regularly with them, otherwise these common problems will bubble up.


Solutions:

As mentioned earlier, addressing and teaching soft skills like organization, preparedness, initiative, and responsibility begin before the inquiry even begins. Structure time to build in short, quick lessons on using a graphic organizer, or effective note-taking. Always be available to students if they have a question about how best to organize their research, or what their next steps should be.

Ensure students are focusing on their learning goals each day, which helps them to organize and prioritize their tasks and information. These are very difficult for some students, so encouraging them to set their own goals and check in with themselves daily and weekly provides the structure and organization they need to stay on top of things. This also helps minimize boredom by providing small, achievable challenges for students to accomplish.

Providing an organized and accessible learning environment is also crucial to helping students establish and maintain structure and organization for themselves as well. Organizing the physical classroom, including table and chair set-up, accessibility of books and materials, and setting up digital workspaces helps to create a sense of calm and efficiency for students.

Finally, allow students to choose organizational materials that are helpful for them. Provide materials such as graphic organizers, folders, portfolios, clips, and binders and let students select the one(s) that will help them make meaning of their information. In my experience, students have a difficult time making sense of the information they’ve gathered without some kind of organizational aid to help them.


BONUS TIP:

Creating fun and engaging inquiry-learning units and projects takes a decent amount of time and planning. It also requires teachers to know their students inside-and-out to determine what they’d enjoy most and what they’d find most meaningful. Here are a few of our highest-ranking articles that provide some tools and support for implementing a fun and engaging inquiry unit:


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Some links may be affiliate; they do not cost you any extra. I only recommend items that I have personally used and read and that have provided great results for myself and my classroom! (Full disclosure policy here)

  • Inquiry Mindset: Awesome resources to learn the basics of inquiry-based learning and implementing it successfully in the elementary classroom. Addresses common problems and challenges with traditional teaching methods.
  • Hacking Project-Based Learning: Great book filled with ways to upgrade your inquiry implementation, get inspiration for projects to do with your class, and feel energized about inquiry learning.
  • Hacking Questions: Super helpful book about creating high-quality questions with students, tips for drawing out better inquiry questions, and how to steer students to delving deeper with their questioning.


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