Promoting Inquiry Based Learning in STEM Classrooms (MSU Workshop)

This workshop, while advertising inquiry based learning, ended up being a refresher on how to use backwards design while setting up your course materials.  A bit of a digression in my personal opinion, but it stressed that to use inquiry-based instruction in a classroom you have to change the way you set up your course.   It’s difficult to use inquiry based activities in a purely lecture based course as you’re not typically asking students to explore and interpret a topic, you’re providing information that is essential for them to learn.  So, designing your materials in a backwards manner means you’ll focus on what’s important and alter your assessments to match the instruction that’s happening in the course.

So, on that note, let’s dip into backwards design for a bit.  I’ll get into the inquiry aspect later, skip ahead if you’re already familiar with backwards design – I swear it won’t hurt my feelings.

Backwards Design:

Backwards design

Backwards design is a strategy for designing your course/course materials in which you don’t go about things in the typical fashion.  Most professors think about what they want to teach on any given day, within the framework of their course, and subsequently design their assessments around those materials ex post facto.  Backwards design has the same steps, but you go about it in a different order.  You first identify the overarching goals of your course (learning outcomes), then based on these decide the assessments which would demonstrate understanding, and then finally you finish where you’d think to start – with designing your lesson plans for each class.  I’ll just link you to the Wikipedia page on Backwards Design for a summary.  The benefits I see for backwards design are:

  • Making sure your assessments match your teaching style
  • Sticking to your course objectives with each class
  • Your students will hopefully see the forest over the trees – they won’t get bogged down in the specifics of each class period.  “Why am I learning this?”

The desired results are your course objectives, and are obviously important for the course.  You should pick reasonable goals which you believe you and your students can accomplish over 15 weeks.  These goals should, in a perfect world, align with the goals of your department and university as a whole.  Finally, if your course is part of a series of courses which cooperate with each other, make sure your course objectives fit.  If your students succeed in your course, it is your responsibility to ensure that this sets them up for success in the next course in the series.  In designing your learning outcomes many like to think of the ABCs.  It is possible to group your learning outcomes into Affective (feeling), Behavioral (action), and Cognitive (understanding) outcomes.  These are nicely outlined here if you would like to read (or watch) further.  While you can make your course objectives without these in mind, it helps to frame how you’ll judge the success of your students in regards to altering their feelings towards, actions regarding, or understanding of the course materials.

Designing your assessments to match your course objectives is a bit more interesting in my mind.  I would guess that the majority of classrooms where we (as 25+ year olds) were instructed were lecture courses where group work and inquiry-based studies were limited.  I still believe these courses have a serious place in our universities.  All students must understand the foundations, but it is often important to have at least seen an expansive amount of information regarding a certain topic (majors classes for example).  So, if you’re looking to create multiple-choice exams to prepare students for a standardized test (think MCATs), then lecture courses can be very successful.  But, many will argue that multiple-choice tests and lecture-based courses are low on Bloom’s Taxonomy, thereby being less intellectually stimulating and beneficial than things higher on the ladder.  As I’ve expressed, I both agree and have my issues with this new paradigm.  I will likely retain my doubts until I witness a higher Bloom-level class succeed with my own eyes.

Regardless of these doubts, it was stressed that professors make their assessment style match their instruction/course flow.  If you merely lecture on a topic it is unfair to ask students to do an inquiry based test.  The opposite is also true, you can’t focus on the foundations in class and expect students to remember the specifics on an exam.  Both of these will result in low grades and upset students.  The woman leading the workshop stressed that low grades on an exam or in a class are typically an issue with the assessments not matching the instruction.  This demonstrates the importance of at least considering backwards design while drafting your course – what you stress as important in your lectures must be what is stressed on the exams.  Memorization in courses is just fine, if that’s what your tests will be.  But, if you’re stressing exploratory research in your lectures and expecting them to know specifics on the exams, your students will get frustrated and I would assume a call from the Dean is coming soon.  Your assessments must match the learning experience.

Inquiry Based Learning:

Inquiry in this post involves the effort of students to explore, collect, and examine information regarding a topic or question.  If you still don’t have a solid idea of what an inquiry-based study would look like, think of scientific research.  You have to come up with an idea, do some research, refine your question, do more research, and then proceed onwards to an eventual conclusion/understanding of the topic being researched.  You might think “woah woah woah, this is dangerous…my kids aren’t that smart.”  Well, in some cases this is true.  But, in a lot of cases students merely don’t know how to do inquiry based learning.  You must teach your students how to ask the right questions, find the right information, and interpret/synthesize that information into a complete story.

This can be done most easily using directed inquiry.  In directed inquiry you tell your students where to go, how to get there, and what types of conclusions they should draw from it.  This is akin to most laboratory sessions in the sciences – you’re letting the kids explore but not really giving them the freedom to move off the beaten path.  Some may argue that this is not inquiry at all as you’re limiting their freedom, but I believe that directed inquiry is best used for early undergraduate students or those who have never used inquiry-based techniques before, as it provides them with a framework on which to build from.

Once your students have demonstrated they are able to successfully get through a directed inquiry project, you could move on to guided inquiry.  In guided inquiry the professor is in charge of asking a question and providing the methods to answer it, but the students have a bit more freedom than in directed inquiry to move in their own direction and use their own thought process.  In doing this, I would hope that most professors are open to constant questions from the students.  Students must have a resource to know if they are on the right track.  If this is not the case, I imagine it would be far too easy for students to get lost – having no map to direct their explorations to meet up with the conclusions they want to reach.

Now, say you’ve already guided your students through an inquiry and believe they’re ready to proceed onto the next step.  Open inquiry allows your students complete freedom to explore a topic.  I see this failing miserably in courses primarily composed of underclassmen.  However, for upperclassmen or graduate courses, I believe this type of open inquiry could be enjoyable and liberating for students.  These students, however, must have had experience with using inquiry as a learning tool or students may ask the wrong questions, seek the wrong materials, or not reaching any true or valuable conclusions about a topic.

Finally, the workshop leader brought up what’s called coupled inquiry.  In coupled inquiry, you couple a directed inquiry exercise with an open inquiry exercise.  I believe this is the least risky technique at all levels for a professor interested in using inquiry based learning.  The professor first demonstrates or directs an inquiry for their class.  This initial step provides a framework for such inquiries.  Then, an open or guided exercise can be undertaken by the students.  They should build upon the framework provided and now have the freedom to pursue a question of their choosing.  Were I to attempt an inquiry-based learning exercise, I would undoubtedly begin with coupled inquiry.

My Inquiry Based Learning/Backwards Designed Activity:

During the workshop we emulated an active classroom and were expected to proceed through the backwards design of an inquiry based learning lesson.

I chose to start with a cognitive/affective outcome for an Introductory Microbiology course:  After succeeding in this course my students will have seen that many microbes serve beneficial functions in our lives and thus remove the fear that many have of microbes.

The assessment that I would hope my students would be able to accomplish to demonstrate their understanding would be a 5-10 minute group presentation to be submitted by video.  I would ask my students to pick a beneficial microbe/community that’s essential in an industrial or food product, look up primary literature to back up their claims, and finally to create a video as a small group.  This would let the students explore a bit, but limit the range of questions they could ask.  I would make several qualitative assessments leading up to the video to ensure students are proceeding through the study adequately.  The final assessment would be an analysis of the completeness, synthesis, and presentation of the materials into a coherent video.  The best videos would be presented to the class (1-2 per day) to help cement the idea that microbes do serve beneficial purposes in our lives.

The activity/instruction behind this would be a brief lecture or two setting up the background for the information they will be exploring.  Next, I would pick a specific topic of interest that fits and proceed (in brief) through the procedure so the students can see what I expect and how to get started on each step.  Finally, I would allow space in multiple class periods to hone their question, examine the available information, and create their video.

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