Inquiry and Problem-based Learning
If I ask you to imagine university, classes, and studying, what comes to mind? You might picture yourself sitting in a lecture hall, copying down notes from lecture slides the professor is projecting onto a big-screen. Maybe there’s a final exam coming up and you are furiously completing practice tests, annotating your lecture notes, and revising all the content.
This method of learning, didactic learning, is most common in our schools. Instruction occurs from teacher to student — the teacher chooses the topics, method of presentation, and evaluation. While this may be the traditional approach, there are more pedagogical methods out there and they are slowly being implemented into the Canadian educational system. Two unique methods of learning that are used at McMaster are inquiry-based and problem-based learning.
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
You might be wondering: How much content can you really learn through this process if it’s student-directed?
Well, the key to understanding IBL begins with keeping an open mind. IBL is untraditional in the sense that it focuses less about teaching students course material and more on teaching them how to think. Students are encouraged to embrace this process, along with any discomforts and struggles that emerge along the way.
Now, where does an instructor fit into all of this?
Instructors can provide guidance to varying degrees as they take on the role of facilitating the IBL process for their students. IBL is different from didactic learning in that emphasis is put on the student to direct their own learning. This includes determining what needs to be learned, seeking out the required resources, learning how to use them, and assessing progress. IBL sets up a highly dynamic and interactive environment where all members of the classroom experience being learners and teachers.
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.
While IBL prepares students to take control of their own learning, jumping into the process without substantial guidance presents difficulties. Students may struggle with information literacy as they try navigating databases and library services on their own for the first time. In general, the open-ended and somewhat unstructured nature of IBL may feel unsettling and uncomfortable for students who are used to the traditional didactic learning environment.⁵
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
Although it is fairly similar to IBL, PBL is based around a real-world scenario or problem that students work through, whereas the process of IBL stems from a single question.⁹
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.
With PBL, students are typically presented with a problem without the traditional lecture-style delivery of the knowledge that pertains to their problem. Therefore students must brainstorm and research to be able to define the problem, determine the extent of their prior background knowledge, and inquire about how to solve the problem. Through this step, students are able to lead their learning under the guidance of their facilitators.¹⁰
Different learning facilities have adapted various ways for students to present their findings and learnings in PBL. Some include the development of a tangible product to synthesize their solutions. These products are later presented to peers and facilitators. In other cases, students will summarize their findings and communicate them with their fellow students, adopting the role of a teacher. The overarching goal is to expose students to various problems and facilitate learning from other groups as well.¹¹
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.
While PBL is effective in equipping students with a wealth of overall knowledge, this may lead to poor performance on standardized tests that may be more knowledge-based and require detailed recollection of various topics. Another disadvantage is that the preparation of a PBL-based curriculum is extremely time-consuming and the assessment process on the facilitator’s end requires a lot of effort. To effectively assess each student, facilitators must constantly monitor and record the progress of numerous groups at one time, and have in-depth knowledge on each student’s learning process.¹²
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.
Written by: Sunny Kim & Jenny Kang
- 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).
- Lazonder AW, Harmsen R. Meta-analysis of inquiry-based learning: Effects of guidance. Review of educational research. 2016 Sep;86(3):681–718.
- Inouye J, Flannelly L. Inquiry-based learning as a teaching strategy for critical thinking. Clinical Nurse Specialist. 1998 Mar 1;12(2):67–72.
- 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.
- 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.
- Smith, R. PBL Versus Traditional Learning — Which is Best? Uniadmissions. Available from: https://www.uniadmissions.co.uk/pbl-versus-traditional-learning/
- Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Faculty of Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering. Available from: https://www.eng.mcmaster.ca/chemeng/problem-based-learning-pbl
- Schmidt HG. A Brief History of Problem-based Learning. One-Day, One-Problem. 2012 Mar (pp.21–40)
- IBL, PBL, and PjBL, What’s the Difference? Kimberlin Education. 2018 Jun 4. Available from: http://kimberlineducation.com/ibl-pbl-and-pjbl-whats-the-difference/#:~:text=Although%20similar%20to%20IBL%2C%20it,to%20find%20a%20viable%20solution.&text=PBL%20unit%20of%20work
- 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
- Genareo VR, Lyons R. Problem-Based Learning: Six Steps to Design, Implement, and Assess. Faculty Focus. 2015 Nov 30. Available from: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/problem-based-learning-six-steps-to-design-implement-and-assess/
- Norman GR, Schmidt HG. The psychological basis of problem-based learning: a review of the evidence. Academic medicine. 1992 Sep;67(9): 557–65
- Guido M. 5 Advantages and Disadvantages of Problem-Based Learning [+ Activity Design Steps]. Prodigy. 2016 Dec 14. Available from: https://www.prodigygame.com/main-en/blog/advantages-disadvantages-problem-based-learning/