One way to improve certain eLearning courses is to use less of the expository instruction and more of an inquiry-based learning approach. Expository learning is what people expect. It involves an orderly presentation of generalized concepts and principles followed by examples. For certain audiences and content, however, inquiry-based learning might be best.
In inquiry-based learning, things get flipped around. You present learners with examples first and then ask them to infer the concept. Or ask learners to solve a problem with information they gather. Using this approach, questions are the catalyst for constructing knowledge.
Can it work for short timelines?
If you are short on time, you may need to reduce the amount of inquiry-based learning compared to the possibilities that exist. Still, even a reduced approach can be motivating for adults, because it allows for self-direction and learner control—approaches many adults prefer. (See Characteristics of Adult Learners).
Expository versus Inquiry
Expository Approach to Instruction
Below is a simple example of an expository approach for teaching PowerPoint users about graphic formats. All the information is provided as statements, creating a more passive learning experience. Learner’s simply need to take the information and assimilate it into existing cognitive structures. The chance that they will remember all of it is not high.
Inquiry Approach to Instruction
On the other hand, the inquiry-based approach below invites exploration because it uses a questioning strategy. Working in the context of a question creates a more active experience. The learner must apply strategies to make comparisons and evaluate information to answer the question.
These types of cognitive tasks may increase retention. They also show a certain respect for the learner’s intellect. In the example below, the PNG Format button is selected.
Benefits of Inquiry-based Learning
When designed correctly, inquiry learning has some benefits over the expository approach because it:
- Mimics one of the natural ways that people learn, starting with a question and seeking an answer
- Promotes independent thinking
- Facilitates the construction of knowledge
- Is applicable to learning alone or in collaboration with others
- Encourages learners to gather data and information before coming up with an answer
Much of the research that compares completely open discovery learning with structured learning does not result in performance improvements. It’s important, therefore, to use evidence-based design guidelines with this approach. Also, it may be most appropriate for people who have some skills and knowledge in the domain.
- Meet the needs of the audience. Consider the audience’s abilities and knowledge in the subject matter when designing inquiry-based learning. Ensure they will understand the questions and know how to go about solving a problem.
Provide more assistance and structure to novices and decrease it for experts. Avoid the expertise reversal effect, which involves providing more assistance than is needed, increasing the demands on an expert’s working memory.
- Provide guidance. It’s important to provide some type of guidance during the inquiry learning experience, particularly for those less familiar with the topic. Due to the the limits of working memory capacity, cognitive resources can be taxed with too many irrelevant details in an entirely exploratory approach. With guidance, however, mental resources can be directed at acquiring knowledge.
- Select examples carefully. If you are asking learner’s to construct generalized concepts and principles, choose examples that have similar relevant attributes. Ensure your examples also have a wide variety of irrelevant attributes, which will help learners form broad and accurate generalizations. See Six Ways to Use Examples and Non-examples.
For more on this subject, see Inquiry-Based Learning.