Enquiry-based learning in five steps

Enquiry-based learning bridges the gap between theory and practice, enabling students to learn by doing. Nicky Goodall shares five tips for successfully bringing it into your teaching

Nicky Goodall's avatar
The Open University
16 Jun 2023
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Student nurses taking notes

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Enquiry-based learning closes the gap between theory and practice by asking students to actively engage with ideas or topics, investigating and questioning as they build knowledge. In simple terms, it is learning by doing.

The Open University is pioneering enquiry-based learning in which students meet virtually once a fortnight with a facilitator via Adobe Connect in small groups consisting of seven to 10 students. Students will typically be employed in practice while studying, so they should be encouraged to bring examples from their on-the-job experience to help them efficiently match the theory and practice and spark discussion in the wider group.

Enquiry-based learning is student-centred and places emphasis on peer collaboration, facilitating bonds between classmates to build a community of learning. This means having the students prepare, plan, get involved in and evaluate the active cycles of learning through every fortnightly tutorial process.

A recent report, Enquiry-based learning: Transforming nurse education, gathered feedback from cohorts who had completed new enquiry-based learning modules as part of their nursing degrees. The report revealed that working interactively in groups benefited students by exposing them to more varied perspectives and helped them to retain new knowledge. Two thirds of respondents said it helped their nursing practice and three quarters said their team-working skills and critical thinking were enhanced.

Here are five tips on how to effectively implement enquiry-based learning for better student outcomes, based on our experiences so far.

 1. Be well prepared

Facilitators should offer a menu of learning opportunities to effectively respond to where students want to focus. To build on the idea of a learning partnership, facilitators could also offer “microteaching” sessions to gather feedback on how to develop future sessions.

Instructors can use any number of learning triggers to spark class discussions, from written articles to physical artefacts. These could be clinical- or research-based, or originate from art, prose, photography and poetry. For instance, you could ask students to watch a film then discuss the softer skills they saw develop there. A rich diversity of materials and ideas can help boost engagement and act as useful prompts to get students talking.

2. Be creative

As a facilitator, you should encourage creative thinking and problem solving in your group. The enquiry-based learning modules have set scenarios to train students in handling different real-life challenges. In nursing training, you could use an avatar who is an informal carer for a child with autism. Interactively engage with the students, asking them what sorts of healthcare professionals they will involve in this case and how they can support patients with these conditions. Ask students to write a reflective account of where they have looked after someone in their practical work, encouraging them to draw parallels between the theory and practical learning.

Humans are attracted to stories and educators should capitalise on this. Narrative transportation theory suggests that people are hardwired to learn through stories. Reflection is an important element of the training method and can be optimised through storytelling. So use stories as triggers and encourage students to form and tell their own stories drawn from their experiences in practice and what they are learning.

3. Be enthusiastically and resolutely inclusive

Develop a community of learning and practice that draws every member of the group into the sessions and encourages active participation. Using Adobe Connect and any other virtual learning platform, facilitators will be able to track not only attendance but also student engagement.

There are many well-documented ways to enhance student engagement online, but much of it comes down to ensuring active participation in sessions, rather than enabling students to passively listen.

So encourage open dialogue among students by enabling microphone functions, using a shared online whiteboard, asking questions throughout, interspersing sessions with small individual and group tasks, encouraging the use of the “chat” function and ensuring students feel relaxed and safe within the group.

Encourage peer collaboration by setting students group projects such as presentations on a certain topic. Support their teamwork by ensuring each student has a clearly defined set of responsibilities or tasks within the group.

Instructors should capitalise on the students’ contributions throughout fortnightly classes, using their responses and discussions to inform future sessions.

4. Consistently role-model softer skills

Instructors should role-model active listening skills, being reflective and genuine. In the case of nursing, this means embodying the 6 Cs of effective healthcare practice: care, compassion, competence, communication, courage and commitment. Step back and give students centre stage so they can develop their public speaking, sharing knowledge and presenting to their peers, then taking feedback from them.

5. Track the learning process and progress

Make sure the learning process and students’ progress is recorded using an approach that is agreed by the group. This should demonstrate good record-keeping and track student and group contributions over time.

The final stages of enquiry-based learning are to review and consolidate. Ask students to review their learning with peers from a series of trigger questions, and identify areas needing further development. Encourage students to discuss how their skills have and will influence their practice.

Nicky Goodall is a central academic, module chair of an enquiry-based learning module and programme leader for the future nurse curriculum at The Open University.

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