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REL Central Ask A REL Response

College and Career Readiness

June 2017


What does research say about inquiry learning in a K–12 educational setting?


Following an established REL Central research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles to help answer the question. The resources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic databases, and general Internet search engines. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response, and we offer them only for your reference. Also, we compiled the references from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Barron, B., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). Teaching for meaningful learning: A review of research on inquiry-based and cooperative learning (Book excerpt). San Rafael, CA: George Lucas Educational Foundation. Retrieved from

From the excerpt:

“This chapter seeks to expand our knowledge of the benefits of inquiry-based learning, as well as to deepen our understanding of the components of an effective inquiry-based lesson or unit. We’ll explore three approaches to inquiry-based learning: project-based learning, problem-based learning, and learning by design, highlighting key research and unpacking important elements of each approach.”

Friesen, S., & Scott, D. (2013). Inquiry-based learning: A review of the research literature. Calgary, AB: Galileo Educational Network. Retrieved from

From the introduction:

“Contemporary educational researchers promote a myriad of conceptual models and approaches falling under the banner of inquiry-based learning and genuine knowledge creation. Although these approaches possess similarities, they rely on differing definitions of and pedagogical orientations to engaging students in this kind of work. To better inform the choice of practices and orientations to realize the vision for education articulated in the Inspiring Education document we offer a review of the literature on inquiry-based learning. Drawing on the theory and research in the field, we provide insight into the efficacy of particular approaches to inquiry in terms of their impact on student learning, achievement, and engagement. We draw on same body of literature, along with our own analysis, to outline the strengths and weaknesses of particular orientations to inquiry.”

Harrison, C. (2014). Assessment of inquiry skills in the SAILS project. Science Education International, 25(1), 112–122. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Inquiry provides both the impetus and experience that helps students acquire problem solving and lifelong learning skills. Teachers on the Strategies for Assessment of Inquiry Learning in Science Project (SAILS) strengthened their inquiry pedagogy, through focusing on seeking assessment evidence for formative action. This paper reports on both the successes and dilemmas that taking this approach led to as 16 science teachers attempted to assess inquiry skills in high school classrooms.”

Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G., & Chinn, C. A. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99–107. Retrieved from
Full text available

From the abstract:

“Many innovative approaches to education such as problem-based learning (PBL) and inquiry learning (IL) situate learning in problem-solving or investigations of complex phenomena. Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) grouped these approaches together with unguided discovery learning. However, the problem with their line of argument is that IL and PBL approaches are highly scaffolded. In this article, we first demonstrate that Kirschner et al. have mistakenly conflated PBL and IL with discovery learning. We then present evidence demonstrating that PBL and IL are powerful and effective models of learning. Far from being contrary to many of the principles of guided learning that Kirschner et al. discussed, both PBL and IL employ scaffolding extensively thereby reducing the cognitive load and allowing students to learn in complex domains. Moreover, these approaches to learning address important goals of education that include content knowledge, epistemic practices, and soft skills such as collaboration and self-directed learning.”

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“Evidence for the superiority of guided instruction is explained in the context of our knowledge of human cognitive architecture, expert-novice differences, and cognitive load. Although unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide ‘internal’ guidance. Recent developments in instructional research and instructional design models that support guidance during instruction are briefly described.”

Şimşek, P., & Kabapinar, F. (2010). The effects of inquiry-based learning on elementary students’ conceptual understanding of matter, scientific process skills and science attitudes. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2(2), 1190–1194. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“The present study aimed to investigate the effects of Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) environments, on students’ conceptual understanding of matter, scientific process skills and attitudes towards science. A teaching intervention was designed on the basis of IBL principles, which was put into practice in a 5th grade science class (n = 20). Instruction lasted 8 weeks in total as provided by normal science curriculum. The success of teaching intervention was tested via concept test, scientific process skills test and attitude scale. The findings indicated that IBL had a positive impact on students’ conceptual understanding and scientific process skills, but did not make any difference on their attitudes towards science.”

Taylor, J., & Bilbrey, J. (2012). Effectiveness of inquiry based and teacher directed instruction in an Alabama elementary school. Journal of Instructional Pedagogies, 8. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“This research analyzed the teacher-directed instruction against the effectiveness of inquiry-based instruction at a subject school in Alabama for 5th grade science and mathematics. The Alabama school changed the science and mathematics curriculum for a period of 3 years and in the process became an Alabama Math, Science and Technology (AMSTI) school. During the process there was extensive professional development for the teachers and their efforts to apply inquiry-based instruction for the science and mathematics subjects. A statistical analysis was done to determine the impact on student advancement. It was seen that there was a significant improvement for many student subgroups when the method of instruction followed inquiry-based techniques.”

Witt, C., & Ulmer, J. (2010). The impact of inquiry-based learning on the academic achievement of middle school students. Western AAAE Research Conference Proceedings, 29, 269–282. Retrieved from

From the abstract:

“With the institution of No Child Left Behind and an emphasis on high-stakes testing, teachers are becoming more and more accountable for student academic achievement. The purpose of this study was to identify the impact of using inquiry-based, or constructivist, curriculum in a middle school classroom on student academic achievement. The study was developed to determine which teaching method, constructivism or traditionalism, was more effective in increasing student academic achievement. In this research study, the data showed that using inquiry-based, or constructivist, curriculum in the middle school classroom appeared to have an impact on student academic achievement. It showed that constructivism, as compared with traditionalism, appeared to be more effective in increasing student academic achievement within a unit of instruction.”


Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • inquiry AND learning
  • inquiry facilitates learning

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and Google.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published between 2002 and 2015 were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority was given to ERIC, followed by Google Scholar and Google.
  • Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were used in the review and selection of the references: (a) currency of available data; (b) study types–randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, etc.; (c) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected samples, etc.), study duration, and so forth.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Central Region (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Marzano Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Central under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0005, administered by Marzano Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.