Implementing an inquiry-based teaching approach

Findings from an evaluation of upper primary and middle school students' science inquiry skills suggest there is room for improvement in implementing an inquiry-based teaching approach, at least in terms of students' abilities to undertake scientific inquiry.

The evaluation of students from India in Class 5 to 8 (aged 10 to 14 years), conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) draws on data from the International Benchmark Test (IBT). IBT is a large-scale assessment for students in Class 3 to 5 in English, Mathematics and Science conducted in schools in India, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and South Africa.

Writing in Research Developments [rd] ACER Research Fellow Abha Bhagat explains the study used IBT multiple-choice questions designed for students to assess science inquiry skills in five areas, including how to read and interpret information on a graph, identify a scientific program and drawing conclusions based on evidence.

What did the study find?

  • Students across Class 5 to 8 have a moderate ability to read and interpret bar graphs correctly, but there is no significant improvement in this skill as students move from Class 5 to 6 to 7 and 8
  • At Class 8, 50 per cent of students can read a simple line graph and identify a single piece of information on a graph but find it difficult to identify patterns or trends indicated on the graph
  • 60 per cent of students at Class 5 are unable to understand the variables involved in a simple experiment related to dissolving salt in water at varying temperatures
  • Around 50 per cent are unable to identify a scientific problem when presented with a real-life context related to understanding the purpose of a simple day-to-day investigation
  • Students at Class 6, 7 and 8 struggle with questions based on science inquiry
  • More than 60 per cent of Class 7 students cannot make a scientific prediction related to the outcomes of a context involving the concept of camouflage in animals
  • In general, more than 60 per cent of students lack the ability to think critically and draw conclusions based on observations.

Adopting an inquiry-based approach

According to Bhagat, one of the difficulties in implementing an inquiry-based teaching approach is that there is substantial variation in what educators mean by inquiry-based teaching, and a lack of understanding of the skills required to help students generate their own inquiries and guide, rather than direct the investigation that follows.

‘Findings from the study suggest that teachers need professional learning not only in inquiry-based teaching techniques but also in understanding how students learn,' she writes in [rd].

‘Overall, the message for teachers and students is that science is not simply a body of knowledge to be learned, but a way of thinking and problem-solving that can be applied to a range of real-life situations.'

Read the full article: Inquiry-based learning: Assessing students' science inquiry skills published in ACER's Research Developments.

Think about your own teaching: How often do you allow students to generate and lead their own scientific inquiries? How do you stimulate their curiosity and encourage them to think critically? How are you connecting learning in your classroom to the real world?