Inquiry-Based Learning

I-Investigate your surroundings, N-Narrow your focus, Q-Ask comparative questions, U-Uncover your prediction, I-Initiate an action plan, R-Research and data collection, E-Examine results and community findings

In my new pedagogical pet project, I am converting many of my classroom lessons into inquiry-based activities. Inquiry-based learning goes by many names: problem-based learning, inductive learning, guided discovery and is often discussed alongside flipped pedagogy and just-in-time teaching. Music professor Kris Schaffer describes how "Inquiry-Based Learning" works in a music theory class.

At the heart of the method is a flip in the order in which information is presented: Traditionally, instructors lecture and then students work on problems at home; or students read about concepts for homework and then apply them in class (a flipped model). Inquiry-based learning puts the problem first and the explanation second--mimicking the way academics address new questions.

With inquiry-based learning, teachers present problems for students to work on before students are taught the key ideas that will help them solve the problems. Learners draw on previous knowledge to deduce the principles at play. They use their own language to describe what’s going on before being given academic terms.

Inquiry-based learning is time consuming because students need time to falter, to be productively frustrated, and to figure it out. It might be difficult to use the method for every lesson in a semester, but there are key places where it can help students in a writing classroom.

1. Turn a list of key terms into an inquiry-based activity.

As an instructor, I have always loved those nice textbook readings and key term lists on topics like rhetorical devices or logical fallacies. The readings give students so much to work with so quickly. But according to my students these key term readings are the least accessible of our course because they cover too many things, making it difficult to grasp any of the ideas well.

For example, I give students a reading on fallacies that teaches them close to 20 new terms at once. My post on rhetorical strategies/fallacies describes how I have amended the teaching of "fallacies," which aren't really formal error at all. This semester, instead of assigning the reading early in the unit, I'm assigning it much later. Instead, I start with a series of inquiry-based learning activities so students become familiar with the concepts first.

At the end of each class period for a few weeks, I take one strategy/fallacy to cover. I choose 3-4 example texts (many come from the examples on my blog) that contain the same rhetorical strategy/fallacy. I give those selections to students and ask them to write about the rhetorical strategies they see in each selection. Next, they determine what they think is a common strategy in all of the selections. After about 10 minutes of writing, we brainstorm a list of their ideas together on the board. At the end I give them the applicable key terms such as ad hominem and character evidence. They come up with really great stuff, and the best part is, it's in their own words.

For example, I gave students the following three selections:
  • I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (Martin Luther King Jr., preacher and civil rights activist, “I Have A Dream” at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC 8-26-1963) 
  • Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. (George W. Bush, 43rd US President, Address to a Joint Sessions of Congress and the American People 9-20-2001) 
  • If Illinois’ income tax rates decline as scheduled at the end of this year, the resulting revenue collapse will threaten the state’s economic recovery, curtail the ability to support vital investments, and create more uncertainty over how the state will meet its many obligations. (David Lloyd, Report for Fiscal Policy Center at Voices for Illinois Children, 2013-2014) 

And here's how they described the rhetorical strategy that each uses:

  • The authors try to create strong ethical stances. 
  • They want to promote change. 
  • They pressure the reader to do something. 
  • There's shock value and fear. 
  • It's an ultimatum. 
  • If you disagree, you're uncaring. You have to agree to be good 
  • They are not questioning if there is a problem, but stating that there is. It's difficult to disagree. 
  • There is choice, but only two: one is good and one is bad. So really there is no choice. 

Finally I define for them juxtaposition and either-or fallacy. By the end of the few weeks, students have created their own language to understand common rhetorical forms and they’ve come up with guidelines for when these strategies succeed and fail. That's when I finally assign the reading on strategies and fallacies over two nights homework.

2. Teach writing principles through example.

Many composition instructors already use model papers and student examples liberally in class, so here the only tweek is to present those models of thesis statements and topic sentences before describing to students the components of good writing.

The textbook How Writing Works gives students a starting point for discovering the principles of a genre. First, you gather a handful of examples from the same category and then answer 3 overarching questions: 1) What is the genre? 2) Who reads the genre? 3) What is the genre for? (Jack & Pryal)

This order gives you the opportunity to talk about reader's expectations using students' actual responses. Depending on your students' level of academic preparedness, you might not get the answers you "want." But that result is not something to be feared. With this style of teaching, you want to start from students understanding especially when it doesn't match with the instructors.

So, if students say that this thesis statement is weak because it's more than one sentence or it uses "I," you can explain how college writing is different than high school. (See my post on rhetorical pronouns for help on the "I" issue.) You can discuss the context and the rhetorical situation to show students new guidelines that might conflict with old writing truisms.

3. Make grammar exercises a guided discovery.

Composition research has long taught scholars that a list of errors does not improve students writing. Inquiry-based learning can still help students zero in on certain problems, but it also mimics how writers use these skills in proofreading.

For example, if students are having an issue with commas, I could create a lesson in which students look at 5 or 6 sentences all using words in a series--some with correct comma usage and others with incorrect comma usage. Students identify which are correct and then fix the incorrect sentences.

Recently my technical writing students reported that they wanted to work on conciseness. I developed an inquiry-based exercise to help them identify 8 common problems that create wordiness.

4. Present theoretical concepts as problems to be solved.

The most fun day in my composition course each semester is also the day I teach our most advanced theoretical concept: intertextuality. I describe the lesson in my post on intertextuality, but I'll summarize it here. In 1932, Vanity Fair published an experimental story called "Ordeal by Cheque," which included just a list of checks written from the wealthy fictional Exeter family. I ask students to write the narrative they think that the checks depict, to tell the "story" in a bullet point chronology.

We then map our stories on the board, and find a lot of similar assumptions. They interpret flowers and lingerie purchases as an affair. They view a car repair bill and military school tuition as evidence that the spoiled rich kid needs to be straightened out. They say that Toni Spagoni, to whom several large sum checks are written, is a mob boss, bookie, or drug dealer.

Next, I have them write for 10 minutes on this prompt: How did you figure out what happened? Below are the things they came up with last semester. When you start to compile their observations about making meaning, you get a list that looks a lot like the characteristics of intertextuality.

Thinking of Other Narratives
  • “I kept thinking of books and movies like The Great Gatsby.” 
  • “I was relying on my schema, things I’ve seen, like Tony Soprano.” 
  • “A lot comes from the media. When I see flowers and France, I think mistress. I think of seeing that on tv and made connections." 

Recalling Stereotypes
  • “I was basing all my assumptions on things I was familiar with--stereotypes and storylines.” 
  • “I looked at the small details. I saw Daisy’s name and a boy’s school, and thought of a marriage and a spoiled rich boy.” 
  • “A lot of people, when they see rich, affluent areas, they think of corruption. They have stereotypes. 

Putting Ideas in Context
  • “We all made connections. We tried to see if two things are alike. So when I saw a hospital plus baby clothes, I knew a baby was born. A ring + $50K was a wedding.” 
  • “I took 2 or 3 checks together and thought what’s going on between these and filled in the blanks.” 
  • “Context clues and reasonable deduction. Seeing what happened before and after can establish cause & effect and sequencing.” 
  • “I would look forward at future checks and then come back." 

Inquiry-based learning stimulates curiosity and energy in the writing classroom. I'd love to hear more about the lessons you create!


  1. This sounds like a great lesson to do with AP Language.


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