Guided Inquiry: A Flexible Technique for Engaging Students

shutterstock_124813237Like many instructors, I am continually looking for ways to better engage students and, hopefully, benefit their learning. To this end I have incorporated a variety of techniques into my courses; including inquiry labs, case-based studies, clicker questions (without actually using clickers), and various electronic supplements. These have been met with varying degrees of success, as assessed solely by student feedback. And although I continue to use all of these to some extent, my new “favorite” active learning activity is guided inquiry. I find it a flexible method that can used in class, as homework, or in labs. It can also be used to focus on graphical interpretation, which is a skill I have a particular interest in.


What is Guided Inquiry?

Guided inquiry is a form of inquiry-based learning, the latter of which is a broad category of learning where students focus on solving problems, scenarios or posed questions in a manner that aids them in constructing knowledge. The phrase “guided inquiry” is not always defined consistently, with some experts only using this term when the solution to the presented scenario is not already known, and others using it to describe any process that “guides” students through the learning cycle.  I personally apply the phrase in the same manner in which is it presented by the POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) Project, where it is used to describe the following process:

  1. Model Exploration. Models are often figures or graphs, but could include objects, videos, etc. Exploration commonly involves direct questions, which can be answered by appropriately examining the model and interpreting the information correctly. In a presentation of figures of a homeostatic feedback loop, model exploration might involve listing the components of the loop.
  1. Concept invention. Additional questions require students to identify patterns in the model. In the example of the homeostatic feedback loop, such questions might focus on the interactions between components and their reliance on one another.
  1. Students are asked additional questions that require them to apply the concept to a different or new scenario. Such questions may be convergent (students should have similar answers) or divergent (where there may be multiple reasonable answers).

As in many types of active learning, this process is best carried out in small groups of students. When process skills are added into the overall activity, such as teamwork or oral communication, the activity is often described with the trademark POGIL acronym, although this label should only be used after the activities have been reviewed and approved by the POGIL office.


How I Use Guided Inquiry in my Physiology Courses

When I started teaching 15 years (or so) ago, I was the “typical” lecturer, presenting information on slides (overheads to start), hoping that the students would passively absorb the information. In my teaching there have always been certain figures, such as the oxyhemoglobin dissociation curve, that I would spend significant time presenting information about. Today, as a reformed educational facilitator, I have a goal of using guided inquiry (or another active learning technique) to have students investigate such figures. To this end, I use guided inquiry in lectures, in some labs and occasionally as homework. The benefits of using these “in class” include the ability to roam the room and eavesdrop on student conversations and to include a “report out”, which can stimulate discussion even amongst the groups.


I am Interested, How do I Get Started?

Guided inquiry activities can take significant effort to put together, especially without good examples to work from. If you are a member of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS), you can access five activities free from their site. There are also currently two books that contain POGIL activities for physiology, and they would be a great way to get started. The collection of guided inquiry activities for physiology is growing, which should provide additional options for those of us looking for added options to use in our classes.




Ron Gerrits is a Professor of biomedical engineering at Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). He earned his BS degree in biomedical engineering from MSOE in 1994 and his Ph.D. in Physiology from the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) in 1999. That same year he returned to MSOE to become the coordinator of the health science courses. Since that time he has taught a variety of courses, including cell biology, microbiology, nutrition, physiology, pathophysiology and pharmacology, to nursing, biomedical engineering and perfusion students. His main professional interest is science education. To this end he has been active with the Biology Scholars program, the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society, Project Lead the Way, and various summer programs for high school students. He has also been the program director of the Masters of Science in Perfusion program since 2002.

Leave a Reply