How Can We Engage Our Online Students in Deeper Thinking? The Potential of Guided Inquiries

Concurrent Session 4

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Using guided inquiries in traditional classrooms yields noteworthy learning and engagement results. However, this instructional method is rarely used in non-science fields or in an online setting. Attendees will themselves experience a guided inquiry as they learn about the method’s strengths, broad online and curricular applicability, and underlying theoretical support.


Alison L. Barton, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Special Education at East Tennessee State University. A regular online instructor, she leads faculty development sessions about online instruction across the university, and has recently been awarded the university's designation of Online Master Teacher. She has previously been awarded the College of Education's Teaching Award, as well as ETSU's Distinguished Faculty Award for Teaching.

Extended Abstract

Despite the popularity of online courses, as evidenced by their growing enrollments, gaining student engagement can be a challenge within the asynchronous setting (Robinson & Hullinger, 2008). Guided inquiries may be one potential solution to this dilemma. Guided inquiry activities that follow the learning cycle model have demonstrated fairly robust success for student learning and engagement, primarily in STEM-oriented courses (Brown, 2010; Eberlein et al., 2008). These activities are typically done in on-ground settings using small groups. The learning cycle, however, is based upon Piaget’s constructivism theory which asserts that learning occurs when new information is introduced (disequilibrium) that is then either assimilated or accommodated by the learner’s cognitive schemes (Lawson, 1989), which is largely an internal, individualized process. Further, guided inquiry questions, even fielded independently, can encourage students to think more deeply about course concepts, which helps students more effectively rehearse and code information to put into long-term memory (Willingham, 2010). The use of guided inquiry activities, therefore, may be valuable as an instructional strategy even when work is done remotely and individually, as often must be the case in asynchronous online classes.


Guided inquiries, following the learning cycle, consist of a process of helping learners to first explore a concept, then to create their own understanding of the concept, and finally to expand their understanding of the concept by applying their fresh knowledge to a new situation (Marek, 2008). These three necessary elements can be flanked by two additional steps: engagement and evaluation (Marek, 2008; Niederberger, 2009). That is, the learning task can begin with an activity or element that engages the learners, and the learning task can end with learners’ evaluation of what they have learned. The steps of the learning cycle do not necessarily need to fall in order and may at times fluctuate back and forth among steps as learners are guided along.


A guided inquiry activity will be demonstrated to attendees as the information about guided inquiry is presented: Attendees will actively experience the guided inquiry process in small groups as they learn about the guided inquiry process. Although, for this conference, the learning will occur synchronously and on location, attendees will explore and see examples of how the elements of the learning cycle can be incorporated asynchronously and completed individually by online learners.


The goals of this Education Session are to (a) introduce attendees to the instructional strategy of guided inquiry, (b) provide attendees with the experience of the instructional strategy (guided inquiry), and (c) allow attendees opportunities to discover, through guided inquiry, the relationships between this instructional method and sound learning theories which underpin it.


With these goals in mind, attendees will participate in a 30-minute guided inquiry wherein information about guided inquiries is presented. Attendees will: identify the elements (many of which can vary) of a guided inquiry activity; explore the advantages and challenges of offering guided inquiry in an online setting; explore and discuss constructivism and its application within the guided inquiry process; explore and discuss information processing theory and its application within the guided inquiry process; explore, discuss, and apply elements from the learning cycle/5-E model of instruction; and briefly discuss the challenges of providing guided inquiries in an asynchronous environment. Time will be provided at the end of the 45-minute session for questions and group discussion.


Participants will be provided with a guided inquiry worksheet at the session, which will be completed in their small groups. A .pdf of the informational slides presented will be made available electronically.




Brown, P.J.P. (2010). Process-oriented guided-inquiry learning in an introductory anatomy and physiology course with a diverse student population. Advances in Physiology Education, 34, 150-155.


Eberlein, T., Kampmeier, J., Minderhout, V., Moog, R. S., Platt, T., Varma-Nelson, P., & White, H. B. 92008). Pedagogies of engagement in science: A comparison of PBL, POGIL, and PLTL. Biochemical and Molecular Biology Education, 36, 262-273.

Lawson, A.E. (1989). Theory of instruction: Using the learning cycle to teach science concepts and thinking skills. NARST Monograph, Number One. National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Department of Science Education, College of Education, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH 45221.


Marek, E. A. (2008). Why the learning cycle? Journal of Elementary Science Education, 20, 63-69.


Niederberger, S. (2009). Incorporating young adult literature into the 5E learning cycle. Middle School Journal, 40, 25-33.


Robinson, C. C., & Hullinger, H. (2008). New benchmarks in higher education: Student engagement in online learning. Journal of Education for Business, 84, 101-109.


Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.