Expanded Inquiry Learning Cycle

While working with elementary and middle school teachers from southern New Hampshire, Fiona McDonnell, from the Education Department, and I adapted a three phase learning cycle from Making Science Mentors by Bernie Zubrowski, Vivian Troen, and Marian Pasquale (NSTA Press, 2007). In that adaptation we pointed out that the student and the teacher were undergoing an inquiry activity as illustrated in the chart that was developed. This inquiry cycle provided a structure for teachers to use while learning inquiry methods and trying to implement them into their classrooms. It isn't a step-by-step plan for a lesson, but a general guide for inquiry activities.

For the purposes of this class the cycle has been limited to the student activities and expanded with more detail as shown below. We will use this version of the inquiry learning cycle extensively during this course.


In many science labs the exploration phase is completely left out. Often a handout is given to the students which has a procedure that is expected to be strictly followed. I call this a "cookbook" lab.

The exploration phase is critical to inquiry learning. This is where the student gets familiar enough with the phenomena to ask questions and become engaged in their own learning.

How to begin the exploration phase is often a difficult question for the instructor. What kind of launch, or initial task, will engage the students and start them on the exploration? What materials do you provide? How long do you give them for this part of the investigation?

The exploration phase should include:

  1. A launch.
  2. Time for "messing about".
  3. Motivation to ask questions.
  4. Identifying a question for focused investigation during the experimentation phase.

Experimentation and Data Collection

Many science labs start with the experiment phase. This is an important part of the process, but there is the possibility of significantly more learning if the student has come up with their own questions and then figured out a way to determine the answers to the questions on their own.

The experimentation and data collection phase should include:

  1. Designing an investigation that will clearly have a connection to the question and provide data that can be used to answer the question.
  2. Collecting the data in a way that is easily understood and that can eventually show any patterns or trends that may exist. Putting data into tables and graphs often clarifies patterns or tends and helps to identify conclusions.

Making Sense

In this phase the student analyzes data to make a finding. The student organizes and displays the data as a tool to illuminate the question and then communicates their investigation and findings. Any trends or patterns are articulated and predictions associated with these trends are identified. It is important that it is clear how the data is used to answer the question.

Another related aspect is to not only show that the answer to the question (the "result") flows from the data, but to also consider if the result is consistent with prior experience. Since most students have limited science experience, discussion in small groups and whole class discussions can be helpful in this regard. The result should also be compared with commonly accepted scientific knowledge. To do that may require finding credible websites, books, or journals that have scientific information available. Are the results explained by an existing theory? Could a theory be developed that would explain the results?

Every result in science has some uncertainty associated with it. An experimenter is required to understand how much uncertainty is associated with their result and to communicate that uncertainty to those who receive the result. This is part of making sense of the data.

When the result is qualitative or descriptive the uncertainty could be a discussion of what might be missing or how carefully the experiment was or wasn't done. If you are identifying the parts of a plant by observing it and making a drawing, for instance, there could be uncertainty in the drawing due to the drawing tools you are using. Maybe there is fine structure that you can see in the plant, but that can't be drawn by your pencil. The plant you used may have something that looks like it could be an anomaly. This could be noted and thought of as a source of uncertainty in the drawing which is supposed to represent the parts of a normal plant.

The making sense phase should include:

  1. The result that comes from analyzing the data with a statement of its uncertainty.
  2. A discussion of how the result and the uncertainty were obtained from the data.
  3. An indication of whether or not the result agrees with other observations, past experience, and the accepted science knowledge base.
  4. Any trends or patterns that are identified and predictions associated with these trends or patterns.
  5. A list of new questions that came up and next steps to better understand or extend the question.

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