How to Overcome Challenges with Inquiry Based Learning


Sometimes inquiry based learning doesn’t go as planned. There can be many reasons for this, including a lack of engagement, difficulty organizing students, and uncertainty around inquiry learning. We previously wrote about this topic in the article “4 Of The Most Common Problems with Inquiry-Based Learning and How to Solve Them”. This article explores some more challenges with inquiry learning in greater depth.

Some challenges with inquiry based learning include difficulties measuring success, dealing with low engagement, finding areas of overlap within the curriculum, managing classrooms, and simply becoming overwhelmed with inquiry based learning as a whole.

This article will help you identify these main challenges with inquiry based learning and offer solutions on overcoming them. We also offer workarounds, strategies, and free downloadable resources that address each challenge.


Challenge #1. Difficulty measuring success against learning outcomes

One of the trickiest challenges with inquiry-based learning is knowing how and what to assess. If students are investigating different questions, how can their learning be assessed? The solution to this is by assessing the skills that students are learning and demonstrating, not the content. As a result, assessment needs to be ongoing, as students learn and demonstrate different skills at different times.

To effectively assess inquiry learning, the backwards design model is often used. It is the best way to effectively figure out what essential learning students should acquire (both content and skills-based), what assessment evidence can be collected, and what opportunities to provide students that will demonstrate this learning. Planning out skills-based lessons ahead of time is helpful so that you know exactly what essential skills all students will be practicing, regardless of their particular line of inquiry.

Peer evaluation, especially if students are working in pairs or teams, is an important skill to model and practice during inquiry based learning as well. For example, students should be able to explain the purpose of their assessments, and how it can help steer them in the right direction for their learning. This feedback loop works especially well with formative assessments; for instance, entry and exit slips, quick feedback forms, checklists, and so on.

Assessment in inquiry should inform instruction, guide next steps, and help students to self-monitor their own learning and progress. It should also provide specific and helpful feedback about their learning and help students develop peer and self-assessment skills.

PDF Download: Inquiry Assessment Tools


Challenge #2. Low engagement with the process

This point has two separate challenges:

1) Students may not be engaged with the inquiry process because it is unfamiliar or “too hard” to understand

It is easy for students to take a quick look at something and decide if it’s right for them or not. The same is true in classrooms with regards to new books, activities, or routines. Although they might at first be excited about having more ownership over their learning, they can become overwhelmed quickly and shut down.

Easing students into the inquiry process doesn’t happen overnight. In order to make inquiry-based learning successful and meaningful for students, fostering a love of questioning, observation, and discovery is important. Building that classroom culture takes time. Explaining the stages of inquiry-based learning and giving students time in each stage to understand how it works is an effective way to get them comfortable with this kind of learning.

DIsplaying clear steps in simple language that show the stages of inquiry learning around your classroom will also help students get comfortable with the process.

2) Students may appear to be engaged, but not understand

In this case, it’s important to establish strong, frequent, and honest communication; both among classmates and between students and teachers. If students are working as a team, spend some time showing them how to check in with each other. Model how to ask questions to ensure everyone is contributing and everyone is understanding.

Scheduling some time with students who appear to be struggling is important too. Checking in with them, asking questions about their progress, and asking a few content-related questions helps to see where their struggles are and how their teammates can help.

If my check-in has shown that there is some miscommunication or lack of understanding, I check-in with the other teammates to see how deep the issue lies. I then hold a team meeting with all members and discuss the progress being made and broadly explain the issue. I refrain from naming specific students who are struggling but frame it more as a collective speed bump. For example, I don’t say “[Student] is having trouble understanding [thing]”. Instead, I say things like:

  • What happens when someone finds new information?
  • How is new information communicated in the group?
  • How are you making sure that everyone understands that new information?
  • What are you doing when someone doesn’t understand?

Framing the questions in this way takes pressure off of individuals and puts the onus on groups to make sure they are working cooperatively and pausing to check in with each other periodically.


Challenge #3. Finding areas of overlap in the curriculum and standards

It is common to hear that teachers struggle with implementing inquiry because there is so much content to cover. This pressure is exacerbated by things like standardized testing and routine observations. In some cases, teachers turn to direct instruction to ensure the curriculum objectives are being covered.

Although direct instruction is useful in certain contexts, it is important for students to learn that knowledge isn’t just there for them to acquire. Rather, it is there for them to question, explore, and deeply understand.

Related: How to Integrate Ontario Curriculum Expectations with Inquiry Learning

For example, in a typical science class, teachers might spend a week or two teaching isolated scientific process skills and learning about the scientific method. This is because science objectives are usually conveyed to teachers as a list of topics to be taught. A few weeks later, students might be asked to apply those skills to develop a deeper understanding of scientific concepts.

There are a few problems with teaching skills and topics in an isolated way like this:

  • Inquiry requires an engagement with both process and content
  • Valuable connections cannot be made between different subjects or topics
  • Students might start to wonder what the point or purpose of their learning is if it isn’t something they can relate to or see in their everyday life

These areas of overlap are called “cross-curricular teaching”. It involves incorporating the main ideas and skills from more than one subject simultaneously. It’s a great way to get students to see the connections that exist between various subjects.


Challenge #4. Managing an effective inquiry classroom

This challenge with inquiry based learning runs deep. Students do not routinely develop the ability to analyze, think critically, or solve complex problems. They don’t often make connections between what they’re learning about and the “real world”. Furthermore, they don’t always see the connections that are apparent between subjects – for example, history and science. As a result, inquiry learning will seem very difficult for them, and they’re likely to become distracted, disengaged, or disruptive.

Preparation for inquiry learning is vital to managing an effective inquiry classroom. It begins early, with cooperation skills being taught at the beginning of the year. Modelling how to give constructive feedback that is specific, helpful, and kind is important as well. Other ways to manage your inquiry classroom include:

  • Using predetermined signals for noise reduction
  • Filling “dead time” (a spare 5-10 minutes during the day) with team-building activities or sensitivity training
  • Practise the skill of thinking critically; this can be done by sharing current events or news stories as a class and discussing them, asking questions, sharing opinions, etc.
  • Rearrange desks in a way that is conducive to inquiry learning; for example, using a horseshoe shape or in U-shaped groups
  • Keep a quick pace, and check in with students often to elicit their feedback

Related: Creating an Authentic Inquiry Classroom for Back to School


Recap of Challenges with Inquiry Based Learning:

(1) Inquiry-based learning experiences can provide valuable opportunities for student learning and engagement, but the implementation of inquiry learning in classrooms can be overwhelming.

(2) Overcoming challenges with inquiry based learning will take time and practice, both for the teacher and for the students.

(3) Focus assessments on the skills students are acquiring and demonstrating, and less on the content of their learning.

(4) Create a classroom space that models the skills of asking questions, seeking feedback, and continual assessment so that the inquiry process is clear for students.

(5) Check-in with students regularly and encourage peer and self-evaluation when necessary.

(6) Shift to cross-curricular teaching to help students see the connections between their inquiry and broader themes across multiple subjects.


Do you have any other suggestions for addressing these challenges? Leave a comment below or join the conversation on Instagram!

Featured image photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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