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Inquiry-based learning

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IBL and the tutor

IBL is a student-centred method, but that does not make it a tutor-free, unsupported option. The tutor needs to create the initial stimulus within a particular framework, and then mentor and facilitate the ongoing process.

The tutor’s role in IBL is not to provide the information, but to encourage students to ask meaningful questions which will lead them down fruitful avenues of inquiry. They need to provide stimulus, not content. The stimulus may well be in the form of a specific problem, or question. According to Hutchings (2007) and Roy et al. (2003b), whatever form the stimulus takes it should be:

  • open to research, i.e. capable of being answered by research methodology;
  • interesting enough to motivate students to enter into the process of discovery;
  • open enough to allow a range of intellectually valid responses;
  • specific enough to be dealt with within the time-scale and resources;
  • capable of being focused down from a general question into a series of sub-questions, or one particular, narrower, question;
  • matched to the level of experience of the students, and allowing them to demonstrate a range of skills.

The framework will include time available, the nature of peer or group interaction, and resources. It may also be a good idea to run a try-out session, in which the students are introduced to IBL, as in the Hutchings example above.

Much of IBL facilitation is around helping students to frame questions. Brainstorming may help, as may asking open-ended questions yourself.

Hutchings (2007) describes how in teaching eighteenth century poetry at the University of Manchester, he would present a poem by Samuel Johnson, and then pose a number of questions. One was, to decide whether the poem implied a belief system, and on what evidence. He wanted to lead them to the word "talent" in the verse;

His virtues walked their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure th’ Eternal Master found
The single talent well employed.

Looking up the word "talent" in the OED would lead them to the biblical reference, and Hutchings would lead them to the word by pointing out that the capital letters of "Eternal Master" indicated a reference to the divine. The question he wanted them to ask was, why was the biblical reference changed (talent in the singular rather than the plural)?

The tutor also needs to monitor progress, making sure that the learner is on track, offering guidance (not direction) where needed; motivate by showing how all ideas are valued; facilitate reflection; and nurture the group process.

Students at on the BHSc course McMaster University in Canada have to do inquiry-based courses. One student describes how her facilitator gave her a course outline and times to meet, but not deadlines. The student was supposed to meet with the facilitator four times a year to discuss evidence supporting her ability to assess her skill level, and negotiate a mark based on the evidence. She also worked in a small group, interviewing a homeless person, exploring a question. They were not told what the question was and it took some time to get going. In the end they had answers to questions, but the real learning lay in working with one another, asking questions, and thinking about the answers.

Sometimes, the teaching is carried out not by full faculty members, but by graduate teaching assistants. A key recommendation of the Boyer Commission was that graduate assistants be trained as teachers (1998: p. 39), and many universities get graduate students to teach, with some offering training. In other cases, mentoring is done by third-year students.

The University of Sheffield Biblical Studies Department has a cascade project whereby level three students mentor those at level one. This project is currently being revised so that IBL will form a key component of the programme.

Although the principle of IBL is that students make their own choices about where to find information, the tutor needs to have a say in what resources are available. These can be both time-tabled sessions such as classes and seminars, as well as books, journals, websites etc. – and indeed the tutor’s own expertise!

IBL encompasses a wide range of approaches to teaching, from the highly structured to the less so. It helps foster research skills, and is very amenable to group work and ICT-based learning. The skill of the tutor lies not in imparting content but in asking and stimulating powerful questions. Such an approach is a fitting one in a university, and prepares students well for a world in which inquiry skills are essential.