Inquiry and Problem-based Learning

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What is Inquiry-based Learning?

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) has been taught at McMaster for nearly forty years. It was implemented with the intention of promoting interdisciplinary themes in the classroom.¹ While exact definitions of IBL are still contested, more than anything else, it is a process. IBL is a vehicle for student-directed exploration, and it allows students to achieve a higher level of understanding. The cycle typically begins with identifying a question to be investigated. This is followed by information collection, evidence analysis, and drawing conclusions. Finally, and most importantly, students evaluate the conclusion, reflecting upon the strengths and weaknesses to then identify areas for more inquiry — then the process begins again!²

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What are the advantages and disadvantages of IBL?

All steps of IBL require critical evaluation, from the research question, to the method of data collection, drawn inferences, and final conclusions. Throughout this process, students develop critical thinking skills. Instead of complying with existing information, they are required to formulate independent ideas.³ As well, students gain a sense of autonomy while learning to initiate, manage, and execute the process of knowledge acquisition. By taking responsibility for their learning, students come to understand that they are able to acquire any knowledge they desire in virtually any domain.⁴ IBL’s learning environment is conducive to collaboration rather than competition between students, setting up a space where students feel free to take intellectual risks without fear of penalty.

What is Problem-based Learning?

Problem based learning (PBL) is a group-centred approach in which students work through a problem under the supervision of a facilitator.⁶ Students are presented with a problem prior to being fully exposed to the subject. This allows them to identify gaps in their knowledge and seek out resources to understand the issue holistically.⁷ PBL allows students to be leaders of their own learning, as they learn to work through problems on their own.⁷ PBL was first introduced within the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University, but has since expanded worldwide and into various fields of study as it gains recognition for its effectiveness.⁸

How does PBL work?

The implementation and design of PBL varies in different schools and programs, but can generally be broken down into a few main steps.

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What are the advantages and disadvantages of PBL?

Due to the nature of the PBL process, students will develop research skills as they work through problems on their own. Working through PBL problems requires students to explore beyond their knowledge on the topic and facilitate their own learning by conducting research to find a solution to the assigned problem. A study conducted on PBL also shows that this form of learning allows for long term retention by encouraging group discussions and elaborations.¹² Finally, working in a collaborative setting allows for the development of teamwork and interpersonal skills which are crucial in a university setting.


Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. There is no definitive “ideal” style of teaching, as it all depends on the learners and circumstances. However, it is important to explore different approaches to learning, and think about how we can transform the traditional university classroom to improve the learning experience for both students and instructors alike.

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  1. Spronken-Smith R. Experiencing the process of knowledge creation: The nature and use of inquiry-based learning in higher education. InInternational Colloquium on Practices for Academic Inquiry. University of Otago 2012 (pp. 1–17).
  2. Lazonder AW, Harmsen R. Meta-analysis of inquiry-based learning: Effects of guidance. Review of educational research. 2016 Sep;86(3):681–718.
  3. Inouye J, Flannelly L. Inquiry-based learning as a teaching strategy for critical thinking. Clinical Nurse Specialist. 1998 Mar 1;12(2):67–72.
  4. Kuhn D, Black J, Keselman A, Kaplan D. The development of cognitive skills to support inquiry learning. Cognition and instruction. 2000 Dec 1;18(4):495–523.
  5. Levy P, Petrulis R. How do first-year university students experience inquiry and research, and what are the implications for the practice of inquiry-based learning?. Studies in Higher Education. 2012 Feb 1;37(1):85–101.
  6. Smith, R. PBL Versus Traditional Learning — Which is Best? Uniadmissions. Available from:
  7. Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Faculty of Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering. Available from:
  8. Schmidt HG. A Brief History of Problem-based Learning. One-Day, One-Problem. 2012 Mar (pp.21–40)
  9. IBL, PBL, and PjBL, What’s the Difference? Kimberlin Education. 2018 Jun 4. Available from:,to%20find%20a%20viable%20solution.&text=PBL%20unit%20of%20work
  10. Yew EHJ, Goh K. Problem-Based Learning: An Overview of its Process and Impact on Learning. Health Professions Education. 2016 Dec;2(2): 75–79
  11. Genareo VR, Lyons R. Problem-Based Learning: Six Steps to Design, Implement, and Assess. Faculty Focus. 2015 Nov 30. Available from:
  12. Norman GR, Schmidt HG. The psychological basis of problem-based learning: a review of the evidence. Academic medicine. 1992 Sep;67(9): 557–65
  13. Guido M. 5 Advantages and Disadvantages of Problem-Based Learning [+ Activity Design Steps]. Prodigy. 2016 Dec 14. Available from:



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MSU Macademics

MSU Macademics is a service that advocates to improve the quality of education and celebrate teaching excellence at McMaster.