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Inquiry-based learning: smart tools help lecturers adapt their courses

Engaged, active students who can see the links within their discipline. These are key aims of the University vision on teaching and learning, but how do you achieve them? An interdisciplinary research team led by ICLON has developed an inventive method that helps lecturers do just that.

Leiden biomedical scientist Nelleke Gruis is a good example of why inquiry-based learning is worth its while. She introduced this learning method to her teaching with the aid of tools (see later in the article) from Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching (ICLON) and soon noticed a big difference. In the old days, Gruis gave seven lectures to around 70 students, and spent nearly all seven hours speaking. ‘I always did it very enthusiastically, but less information sunk in that I would have liked. The students didn’t give much back and mainly seemed to want to know what was important for the exam.’ 

Course overhaul

Gruis decided there must be another way. Having heard an inspiring speech last summer about inquiry-based learning by Fred Janssen, programme director at ICLON and professor of science education, she contacted his teaching team. This led to a complete overhaul of her course. Gruis began the new course with one big question: how do we solve the skin cancer epidemic? Then it was up to her students to come up with and answer sub-questions. Gruis: ‘As a consequence, the students read the literature much more thoroughly and were more likely to read complex scientific publications.’

A tree diagram on skin cancer. By coming up with and answering their own questions, the students engaged more actively with the subject matter.

Three-step plan

What was the secret? Janssen’s teaching team has developed a three-step plan that offers lecturers a quick but structured way to shape their course according to the principle of inquiry-based learning. This begins with the laddering tool. This gives a compact, chronological picture of what the lecturer already does in their regular course and what they are aiming to achieve. The lecturer then uses the perspectives tool to transpose the current course material to a tree diagram (see image). A discipline is more than a container for knowledge and skills, says Janssen. ‘It’s a certain way of thinking and working, a perspective. The lecturer lists the central questions in the discipline and then divides them into sub-questions so that all the course material is incorporated in the branches of the tree diagram. 

Building blocks

In the third and final phase, lecturers take their current course and the tree diagram and use the building block tool to make their lectures more inquiry based. This is achieved by changing the order of and adapting the existing building blocks of the course. Maximum use is made of what a lecturer already does, therefore, which saves a lot of time. Janssen: ‘These tools can also be used by teams of lecturers. Lecturers say they find it inspiring to redefine the learning pathways with colleagues. And students are enthusiastic because they see more links between the different courses and the societal and scientific relevance of what they are learning.’ 

Across the disciplines

Janssen developed the three-step plan around six years ago for ICLON’s University biology teacher training programme. ‘As a lecturer I and other lecturers realised that the teaching is often too fragmented and that students have a fairly passive role in lectures. Lecturers often give the answers to questions that haven’t yet been asked.’ The idea of inquiry-based learning is nothing new, but this three-step plan makes it possible to achieve inquiry-based learning for large groups of students, even if the lecturer has to cover a large amount of material in a small amount of time, says Janssen. This approach is now integrated in ICLON’s teacher training programmes, and more and more lecturers from different faculties – from humanities and social sciences to the natural sciences – are using it to transform their courses. And so too are increasing numbers of lecturers from various other universities in the Netherlands. 

Learning in the time of coronavirus

Is this inquiry-based learning method applicable to this time of coronavirus, with lecturers mainly having to teach online? Janssen: ‘Yes, definitely. It means that lecturers first think through the content and didactics before deciding on the technique. In other words, they put up their Christmas tree before decorating it.’

Lecturers complement one another

Over the past five years a real teaching community has emerged in which lecturers like Gruis share experiences and best practices. Janssen: ‘The big advantage is that we’re a wide-ranging team: lecturers from different faculties, teacher educators and teaching advisers from ICLON and PhD candidates and postdocs who are researching how this form of inquiry-based learning works in everyday practice. We therefore hugely complement one another, and the students are the ones who benefit.’ 

Students are more motivated

Gruis couldn’t agree more. Since inquiry-based learning has taken centre stage, her students are much more motivated and are quicker to develop important skills. ‘They do their own research, understand difficult terms sooner and are better at seeing the links to other subjects. They now think: “Hey, I could become a researcher with my degree.” What is more, they’re already a bit of a researcher,’ says Gruis.  

Questions about the tools? Contact Fred Janssen

Text: Linda van Putten

 

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