Understanding the Difference Between Inquiry and Research


It is common to hear the question “what’s the difference between inquiry and research?” While it’s true that there are some similarities, inquiry and research are fundamentally different in many ways.

Inquiry-based learning is an approach to learning that emphasizes the exploration of questions and focuses on the process of discovery. On the other hand, research is a process that focuses on the establishment of facts and making conclusions based on a systematic study.

Below is a deeper dive into how inquiry and research differ, and how they are similar.


Why does this distinction matter?

Understanding the difference between inquiry and research is important for a few reasons:

1. Inquiry is a broad process that may involve different paths or procedures. Research is a more formal process with the goal of establishing facts. Inquiry focuses more on asking questions, whereas research focuses more on finding answers. The process of asking questions is one that requires a set of skills that needs to be practiced often.

2. The skills required for inquiry are far more broad and can be applied in a variety of contexts. For example, in an inquiry, students ask broad questions with multiple paths for learning. If students are simply conducting research, their questions will likely be more specific. We’ve put together a PDF of question prompts for inquiry learning to demonstrate the openness that inquiry questions should have.

3.  Inquiry typically involves different procedures (depending on the discipline). On the other hand, research is more formal and systematic, meaning it is the same no matter what is being researched.

Related: Creating Strong Driving Questions for Inquiry Learning 


Scope and Depth

Both inquiry learning and the research process begin with questions. In an inquiry, students show curiosity towards a subject by asking high-quality inquiry questions. However, the point of asking questions isn’t to find an answer quickly. Since questions should come from a place of genuine curiosity, students should take their time exploring their questions in depth.

On the other hand, research focuses on finding an effective way of expediting the answer-finding process, which is the opposite of inquiry. It is a more formal process. It does not ensure that students are taking opportunities to explore new pathways or make connections to their own lives. Research can be scaffolded into simple, manageable steps to help students research more effectively.

Learning how to research is not a bad skill to learn; in fact, it is incredibly useful in many situations as learners. The difference is that, with inquiry learning, the scope of learning is broadened. Students are encouraged to think deeper about the content and ask questions they are genuinely curious about, as opposed to following a scaffolded process.


Different Focus

Most classrooms frame the process of learning in a linear way: “topic → research → present → assess”. Students are probably used to being given a topic and told to research it, collect facts, and present their learning. However, inquiry is different. While both inquiry and research aim to seek and uncover information, they go about it in a different way. In addition, research and inquiry teach a different set of skills to students.

With research, there is a more systematic approach used. Typically, teachers will spend a few lessons beforehand teaching students things such as:

  • Typing in relevant search terms
  • Judging whether a website is safe, reliable, and current
  • Skimming and scanning skills
  • Reading snippets
  • Checking for bias

The goal with research is to find answers, explain concepts, and generally increase knowledge. The focus is on confirming facts and expanding knowledge.

On the other hand, inquiry is much broader. The focus is not on finding the “right” answer. The focus is on the process of exploration, solving a problem or query, and understanding something new. It is far more multifaceted and fluid than research, which is often more formal by nature. Inquiry can involve more than one search query, and might change as a result of new information. It is fluid, progressive, and flexible.

Related: 5 Simple and Effective Strategies for Managing Conflict in Inquiry Learning


Active Learning

By definition, active learning refers to any kind of work students do other than listening, watching, and note-taking. Many educators agree that student learning is enhanced when they are actively involved in their learning. With active learning, students are required to think more deeply and critically. Not only does this kind of learning develop students’ thinking skills, but also helps them to better retain their learning.

While the act of researching can be considered active learning, there isn’t as much creative thinking involved. This is partly due to the nature of research as being a systematic procedure for obtaining information. On the contrary, inquiry-based learning focuses more on the process of learning and involves things like group discussion, problem-solving, small activities, and teacher facilitation when needed. Furthermore, active learning can’t be reduced to formulaic methods like research can.


Skills Gained

Because research is more formal and focused on finding answers, students can expect to improve specific skills. These include time management, search skills, analysis, organization, and general technology skills. Furthermore, their research methodology (the process by which you conduct research, including the tools you use and steps you take) will likely improve too. Students who research need to focus on specific keywords, analytical skills, and organizational skills in order to work with the facts they find. In addition, a heightened attention to detail means that students will likely improve their ability to cite or make references accurately. This is important since references and organizing your sources is a critical component of research.

The specific skills gained while conducting an inquiry are endless. What I’ve noticed is that the skills gained during inquiry learning tend to be more soft skills. For example, students demonstrate more attentive listening, self-reflection, collaboration, and responsibility.

In an inquiry, skills can be taught as mini activities. For example, students may need a short activity on how to analyze a map, or they may need some role-playing on how to communicate effectively. If you are teaching inquiry skills as mini activities, make sure to provide opportunities to use active learning and group work. Using scenario-based learning can be a great way to do this – not only does it challenge students to problem-solve, but it encourages them to work on their teamwork and communication skills.

Related: Using Inquiry to Teach Social Justice in the Classroom


Key Takeaways:

(1) Inquiry-based learning focuses on the process of discovery, while research is a process that focuses on the establishment of facts and making conclusions based on a systematic study

(2) Inquiry is more broad and unstructured, whereas research is more formulaic and narrow in scope, with the intent of finding specific answers

(3) Research values the expeditious discovery of facts and information, but inquiry learning usually happens at a slower and more organic pace

(4) Inquiry is far more multifaceted, flexible, and fluid than research, and often changes as a result of new information

(5) The skills gained by research are very specific and cannot always be transferred to every subject or situation; soft skills gained through inquiry learning tend to be more transferrable


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