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Promoting Student Inquiry

author: Clifford H. Edwards
submitter: Reeny Davison
description: Edwards discusses how teachers can and must develop students' questioning skills and then build upon those skills to help students conduct investigations examining the hypotheses they wish to address.

This article was originally published in Science Teacher, 1997, Vol 64, Number 7, p. 18-21 and is posted by permission of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

published in: Science Teacher, NSTA
published: 1997
posted to site: 08/06/1998


Methods for developing the essential skills for inquiry-based investigating


INQUIRY IS ONCE AGAIN BEING WIDELY touted as basic to science instruction. Unfortunately, despite repeated emphasis on this important teaching focus over many years, little inquiry learning has historically taken place in the public schools of the United States (Costenson and Lawson, 1986; Welch et al., 1981).

With the publication of the National Science Education Standards, there is reason for greater optimism that inquiry will become a central part of science education. According to the standards, "inquiry into authentic questions generated from student experiences is the central strategy for teaching science." The standards encourage teachers to focus on inquiry as it relates to the real-life experiences of students and to guide students to fashion their own investigations. Students formulate their own questions and devise ways to answer them. They also collect data, decide how to represent them, and test the reliability of the knowledge they have generated. They learn to justify their work to themselves and one another. This process involves reacting to challenges regarding their conclusions, explaining limitations of their work, making presentations to others, and being willing to receive constructive criticism (NRC, 1996).

A careful analysis of the above expectations along with an examination of current science curricular materials reveals a basic flaw in most of these materials, even in those whose primary aim is to promote inquiry. As well intentioned as curriculum developers might be, it is difficult to create materials that in fact provide inquiry experiences for each student. For one thing, it is hard to create materials that attend to the personal, real-life experiences of students. An even more difficult problem is the development of materials that require students to create their own questions and hypotheses for investigation and then to engage in investigations of their own design. Instead, most laboratory experiences are fashioned to help students understand a particular science concept rather than to conduct self-directed investigations of problems in which they have a personal interest. True inquiry is usually forfeited in the process.

To have bona fide inquiry experiences, students must formulate their own questions, create hypotheses, and design investigations that test the hypotheses and answer the questions proposed. Published materials are generally too structured to provide the necessary freedom for students to engage in these important inquiry skills. However, to meet the expectations of the science standards, students need an opportunity to do self-directed inquiry learning that takes their curiosity and interest into account.

Students often need help initially to engage in authentic inquiry experiences. Neither teachers nor students know in advance the direction of the inquiry activity. Teachers may know the general category of the research students will undertake, but the specific direction of the research must be dictated by students' interest and desires. Students' attention can be focused upon a particular area of learning, but no direction should be given in advance about what will be studied. Students need to be directed to follow through the steps of the scientific method to solve problems they themselves have devised.


The first inquiry skill students need to learn is that of asking questions. Young children seem to have a never ending supply of questions. Older children, on the other hand, rarely ask questions, preferring instead to let their teachers perform this duty. They are more accustomed to providing memorized answers to questions asked by teachers. It can be safely said that this behavior is shaped by the educational system. The consequence of this conditioning process is well established in most learners once they have spent a few years in school and can significantly interfere with their ability to formulate questions and conduct self-directed investigations. Teachers interested in promoting inquiry have a challenging task to overcome the tendency of many older students to become passive.

There are three basic strategies for helping students ask questions. The first is to provide them with an observable phenomenon to ask questions about. Initially some coaching will be necessary. Teachers can, for example, ask students to focus their attention on a particular aspect of what they are asked to observe. This works best when the phenomenon being observed is active in some way. For example, in a demonstration in which a Florence flask is inverted over a burning candle anchored in a shallow pan of water, students will observe that the candle will burn for a time and eventually will be extinguished. Two different, related phenomena are commonly observed in connection with this demonstration. Sometimes the level of the water starts to slowly rise in the neck of the flask just as the candle is extinguished. Other times the water level starts to rise before the flame goes out and is the agent for extinguishing it. Students should be invited to formulate questions that occur to them as they watch and later to explain what they observed and suggest possible follow-up investigations.

A second strategy that promotes questioning is to have students read articles regarding interesting happenings in science. Appropriate articles can be found in newspapers and various science periodicals such as Science News and Scientific American. This activity can often stimulate extensive research by students on topics of interest. A dialogue between students and teacher will undoubtedly be necessary to begin the questioning process.

A third strategy for questioning calls for teachers to suggest possible topics for investigation. Typically the teacher asks the class what questions occur to them about a particular topic, perhaps the nature of and conditions for plant growth. To prepare for this inquiry activity, the teacher generates a list of possible investigations. These provide a background for the teacher to draw upon in offering cues about possible projects in case students' initial inquiry efforts are not fruitful. Suggestions would not be given directly to students. This list would consist of items like the following:

  • What is the effect of temperature on the growth of different plant species?

  • What is the effect of the amount of water on the growth of different plant species?

  • What combinations of temperature and water provide ideal conditions for growth of different plant species?

  • How does the amount of light affect the growth of different plant species?

  • How does the length of day affect the growth of different plant species?

  • What are the effects of different nutrients on plant growth?

  • What are the tolerances of different plant species in terms of salinity, pH, and various nutrients?


Once students have decided on questions they wish to answer and hypotheses they wish to address, they should be encouraged to design experiments that test their hypotheses. In this effort they should be directed to apply proper controls and make careful measurements. This should be done with an eye to proper data collection and presentation of results to other class members. In each of these activities, the teacher should avoid excessive structure and encourage students to attend to the important aspects of their research design and data collection. Students should also be encouraged to look for possible confounding variables. The focus is on inquiry, not on transmitting science concepts to students.

As students conduct their experiments, the teacher should continue in a role of mentor or guide, giving as little direction as possible. Questions and issues can be brought up as situations demand. Every effort should be made to let students make decisions and draw conclusions. Students should also devise their own way to report their findings to other class members. They also may want to publicize their research beyond the classroom. One convenient place to do this is on the Internet. If the school has its own web site, students' research can be routinely placed online. The Internet also is a place they can look for ideas to investigate or to conduct background research for their projects.


In teacher training programs, it is helpful if preservice teachers are taught to promote inquiry by participating in inquiry experiences similar to those they will eventually provide for their students. This can involve three kinds of activities. The first is to help preservice teachers conceptualize true inquiry and understand the difference between inquiry science and traditional "cookbook" lab activities. Second, preservice teachers can conduct a series of inquiry investigations under the direction of the instructor. A third activity is to have preservice teachers create inquiry based labs to teach to groups of students or their peers. These labs should contain all the elements of inquiry as outlined above. Preservice teachers may also be required to do an extended project similar to a science fair project. These projects may be displayed and judged according to the criteria established for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (these criteria can be found on the World Wide Web at

There are three basic strategies for helping students ask questions. The first is to provide them with an observable phenomenon to ask questions about. The second is to have students read articles regarding interesting happenings in science. And the third calls for teachers to suggest possible topics for investigation.

Prospective teachers in our program have a number of interesting reactions when involved in inquiry activities. First, they claim never to have experienced this kind of science activity before at any level of schooling. Second, they become excited not only because they value this kind of activity but also at the prospect of providing similar inquiry experiences to their students. In addition, they become critical of the kind of laboratory activities they have been exposed to in the past.

Preservice teachers usually experience initial difficulty conceptualizing appropriate problems for scientific inquiry but eventually devise interesting studies. In the beginning some students display shoddy thinking along with poorly designed research. Ironically, even at this late stage of their education in science, their research commonly lacks proper controls. With sufficient practice, however, they eventually acquire the knack for conceptualizing research problems and formulating appropriate research strategies. For example, one group of students grew plants that were attached to a ceiling fan. They wanted to find out if plant growth would be influenced by centrifugal force. They discovered that the stems and leaves grew away from the direction of the force. They were excited by the results until they realized that the ceiling fan also contained a light to which the plants may have been responding. Thus they needed to redesign their research and conduct follow-up studies.

With practice, prospective teachers can learn how to provide inquiry experiences for their students. However, before authentic inquiry will become an integral part of science education, the following three things must happen. First, inquiry will need to be properly conceptualized and publicized. Second, traditional published laboratory materials will have to be replaced by inquiry-based personal investigations initiated by students with the help of their teachers. Finally, teacher training will need to include properly conceived inquiry experiences as an integral component of science courses as well as a central aspect of training in science education methods.

Clifford H. Edwards is a professor of secondary science education, Department of Secondary Education, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602.


Costenson, K., and A. E. Lawson. 1986. Why isn't inquiry used in more classrooms? The American Biology Teacher 48(3): 150-158.

National Research Council. 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Welch, W. W., L. E. Klopfer, G. S. Aikenhead, and J. T. Robinson. 1981. The role of inquiry in science education: Analysis and recommendations. Science Education 65(1): 33-55.