The cold left-overs of inquiry-based learning

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

It looks like the tide might be turning. Since its heyday at the beginning of this century, inquiry-based learning has slowly but surely come to look more and more like an educational exercise guided and supported through…good instruction. And the reason is obvious: Learners learn more and better that way. 

 In 2006, Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller, and Dick Clark wrote a famous/notorious (your choice) article on inquiry-based learning[1] (IBL). Well, it was actually also about constructivist[2], discovery[3], problem-based[4], and experiential learning[5]. In the article, the authors explained why, for example an inquiry-based approach is neither effective nor efficient. Since then, many articles and books have been published on the topic, both by  IBL’s proponents and opponents. Interestingly, at the same time things started to turn. IBL moved towards “guided discovery”, problem-based learning approaches added “normal instruction” in order to improve learning outcomes, and so forth. Two recently published review articles shed more light on the matter. It’s time to scratch ourselves behind our ears and ask: What’s left of IBL?

The first article is an excellent meta-analysis by Ard Lazonder and Ruth Harmsen (Twente University) on the effects of guidance – or actually of various forms of instruction – on IBL. Lazonder and Harmsen describe IBL as a learning approach where learners conduct experiments, make observations, or collect information to derive the underlying principles of a topic or domain. The guideline is always a research question that either the teacher or the learner has posed. People might think there is a distinction between guidance and instruction, but in reality they’re actually quite similar if not the same thing.

The authors conclude that adding guidance has a positive effect on completing the learning tasks as well as on the learning outcomes. The first two findings are not very shocking. We’d say. Duh, of course this happens because good instruction leads to better learning than no instruction. However, they didn’t find a positive effect on completed learning activities, such as coming up with hypotheses or reflecting on results. This, on the other hand, is quite surprising because proponents of IBL actually claim that these types of learning activities are the reason to choose for IBL. These proponents claim that such activities (like coming up with a hypothesis and reflecting on what you’ve discovered) enable better learning (sometimes they say deeper) and achievement. Lazonder and Harmsen’s meta-analysis clearly shows that this is not the case.

Honestly, we’re not at all sad if we’d move away from the idea that IBL without proper support and guidance would lead to learning. In the review article, one can read that the effectiveness of IBL depends almost entirely on the availability of suitable guidance. However, what is awkward and even unfair is that the authors seem to want to save some semblance of validity of IBL by comparing this mixed approach (i.e., IBL + guidance) with pure directive forms of instruction. That’s simply either setting up a straw man or presenting a caricature of what “normal” instruction is. As if good, normal classroom instruction is nothing more than giving a lecture; talking and explaining without any interaction with the learner. Nope, effective instruction should never be and is never just that.

What the authors of the article call ‘guidance’ includes constraining (clearly defining task size), status updating (visualising learner progress), prompting (remind a learner that something needs to be completed), heuristics (explaining how something needs to be done), scaffolding (explaining and/or “taking over” complex parts of a task) and explaining (telling how something needs to be done). These techniques actually equal a general definition of good instruction or providing quality education. Who won’t agree with that? It’s like stating the obvious!


Obviousman, from the comic strip Non Sequitur created by Wiley Miller, is a superhero who can’t stand the overly obvious or hypocritical.

The second article from Katharina Loibl, Ido Roll, and Nicol Rummel is also a meta-analysis. It’s about how and why problem-solving followed by instruction optimises learning. Loibl et al. analyse various studies that focus on problem-based learning (PBL) and instruction. They conclude that this combination only works if the instruction is very specific, focuses on mistakes or gaps in the learner’s solution compared to the pre-defined solution, or is compared to a peer’s solution. Duh squared! Keep pushing that open door further open, people! This is exactly what effective instruction is supposed to do!

Strange, yet expected, is that the authors suggest a pathway of solutions that characterise the real-deal PBL proponent. Step 1 on the PBL pathway is almost always “retrieving prior knowledge”; that is, knowledge that learners – hopefully – have learned in the past, followed by explaining the problem, showing a contrasting case or the solution of another learner, and as a last step explicit instruction.

Why is the starting point always “retrieving prior knowledge”? On the one hand it does activate information retrieval from long-term memory, but on the other hand – and research has shown this to be the case – prior knowledge is actually often times incomplete, incorrect, irrelevant, or even completely absent. There are sometimes even hard-core misconceptions that are extremely hard to eradicate. Why not start with the assumption that you need knowledge before you can solve a problem and that you can gain that knowledge through effective instruction of all kinds. This instruction can be given by a teacher or a video or whatever other suitable medium.

The bright side of all of this is that people seem slowly to be getting a grip on IBL/PBL and seem to acknowledge the value of guided instruction in its various shapes and forms. For example, in a recent blog by Greg Ashman about a ‘discovery learning’ method called JUMP Math he writes’ “You have to ask: exactly what are the students discovering? It seems as if they are discovering the concepts that the teachers explain to them”. Because more and more people seem to acknowledge the need for guided instruction for effective learning, education has an opportunity to improve. We just need to keep going in the right direction.


Ashman, G., (2016, October 9). Discovering JUMP Math [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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. doi: 10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1. Retrieved from

Lazonder, A. W., & Harmsen, R., (2015). Meta-analysis of inquiry-based learning: Effects of guidance. Review of Educational Research, 86, 681-718. doi: 10.3102/0034654315627366

Loibl, K., Roll, I., & Rummel, N., (2016)., Towards a theory of when and how problem solving followed by instruction supports learning. Educational Psychology Review. doi:10.1007/s10648-016-9379-x

[1] Inquiry-based learning starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios—rather than simply presenting established facts or portraying a smooth path to knowledge.

[2] Constructivist teaching is based on the belief that learning occurs as learners are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction as opposed to passively receiving information.

[3] Discovery learning is a technique of inquiry-based learning and is considered a constructivist based approach to education.

[4]Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centred pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem.

[5] Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience, and is more specifically defined as “learning through reflection on doing”.


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