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Rationale for Enquiry-Based Learning

Outline of a range of benefits for students and staff to adopting enquiry-based approaches

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Peter Kahn
24 August 2009

What is it that leads an institution or department to major on a particular approach to learning? It certainly takes a huge effort to bring the staff and students with you, when seeking to move from a traditional lecture based course to something more dynamic. But we see it happening regularly. A couple of years ago Abertay Dundee University shifted almost a third of its teaching budget from lectures to project-based learning. At my own institution, Engineering has recently shifted significantly towards active learning, an approach which includes projects, problem-based learning, and plenty of challenges and design work. Developments are also widespread in this area at the universities of Birmingham, Sheffield, Surrey, Manchester and elsewhere.


There are plenty of terms used to describe these approaches, which have a great deal in common. In each case, though, it is clear that they are driven by a process that involves student enquiry (or inquiry, of course). But what is it that leads a department or institution to put the time and effort in to make the shift?  Let me pick out some of the reasons here (based in part on the introductory guide linked to on an associated posting):



Issues around goals for student learning

  • As a more realistic approach, basing learning around student enquiry enables students to develop skills and personal qualities that are relevant to employment.
  • Part of the challenge here is that students have to act integrate understanding from a range of domains, in order to match the complexity of the project situation. Learning is often reduced to what can easily be digested otherwise (and this points forward to one of the challenges with EBL – setting an enquiry at an appropriate level).
  • The tailored nature of EBL allows students to identify and fill gaps in their knowledge-base, while also allowing them to draw on the wide range of experience that they have already acquired.


Issues around the learning process

  • What we also find is that teaching in this way is more compelling for the lecturer than using traditional approaches where the lecturer is fully in control. It is simply more interesting to employ a dynamic approach to teaching and learning. Chapter 3 of my book with Lorraine Walsh, Developing your Teaching (Routledge, 2006) draws out some of these ideas more fully.
  • There is also the standard recognition that enquiry fosters a deep approach to learning, as students make their own connections between ideas. We also see student activity within learning, rather than leaving them passive.
  • The research evidence also suggests (see Healy and Jenkins, Developing Undergraduate Research and Inquiry, 2009, HEA) that students work harder. Indeed this research points to quite a wide range of enhanced outcomes from learning based around research activity.

Departmental and institutional initiatives

What I've also seen, though, after 10 or so years of working in this field, is that these above reasons are not enough when it comes to a department or institution. Higher Education is shifting. These sorts of reasons are fine, but only if the individual lecturer is ready to put in some further effort (or finds the additional interest sufficient to justify the extra work). Even with support, projects and funding, something more is required to make this mainstream. Significant institutional or departmental drivers are also required to make this happen at this level:


  • Branding - student recruitment may be a difficulty. Moving over to these approaches to learning can make a real difference in attracting students to the department or institution. We are likely to see more of this as HE becomes increasingly competitive; but the challenges are nonetheless significant.
  • Professional bodies - in some disciplines (as with medicine) there can be a genuine push to adopt approaches that result in graduates with the desired attributes. This makes it significantly easier for these disciplines to adopt such approaches, as research does not dominate to quite the same extent.    



There is, of course, plenty of promise when looking at these sorts of approaches to learning; but one still needs to deliver a carefully thought-through approach that takes colleagues with you, even with such drivers in place. I’ll post up at some point further material on what it takes to get a collaboration going, and also on the nature of the challenges that are out there to making enquiry-based learning happening.








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