Inquiry-based learning

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Active learning

Active learning is an educational approach in which educators enable students to construct their understanding, teaching them to become problem solvers and critical thinkers. In contrast to a classic 'chalk and talk' presentation in which an instructor delivers information to students, students learn how to gather, analyze, and evaluate information themselves.

Studies show that active learning can help encourage women and racial minority groups in fields where they are underrepresented. Multiple studies have looked at the effects of active learning in the natural sciences, areas in which women and racial minorities are also underrepresented. Interactive engagement methods such as Peer Instruction have been reported to increase understanding for all students and to decrease the gender gap in Physics. Other work in the sciences, such as that motivating the The National Academies Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Education [1], similarly suggests that active learning improves all students' comprehension of materials and may be particularly beneficial to female, African American, and Latino students.

How to Incorporate Active Learning

Incorporating active learning into the classroom requires changing the environment from one of passive information reception to one of inquiry and desire to understand. This shift in thought can be achieved by adopting several related practices and attitudes.

Bloom's Taxonomy
  • Become familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy and help your students move up the pyramid.
  • Use One-minute papers.
"The one-minute paper is a "modest, relatively simple and low-tech" innovation designed to obtain regular feedback from students. In the final minute or two of class, the teacher asks students to respond to the following two questions:
1. What is the most important thing you learned today?
2. What is the muddiest point still remaining at the conclusion of today's class?"
Using an experimental design, John F Chizmar and Anthony L. Ostrosky (1998) report an approximate 6.6 percent increase in economic knowledge relative to pre-treatment levels.
  • Flip your classroom.
Peer Instruction is an instructional strategy that works even in large classes; it engages students through a structured questioning process involving every student. Harvard researchers implemented and evaluated the method and found "increased student mastery of both conceptual reasoning and quantitative problem solving upon implementing PI."
  • Prompt students to answer “Why?” questions. Qmark.jpg
Pressley, McDaniel, Turnure, Wood, and Ahmad (1987) presented undergraduate students with a list of sentences, each describing the action of a particular man (e.g., “The hungry man got into the car”). Students in the treatment group were prompted to explain “Why did that particular man do that?” Another group of students was instead provided with an explanation for each sentence, and a third group simply read each sentence. On a final test in which participants were cued to recall which man performed each action (e.g., “Who got in the car?”), the treatment group substantially outperformed the other two groups. (Summary from Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, and Willingham, [3])
Translating this result into the economics classroom is feasible and desirable, but it requires a bit more nuance. Generally economics requires students to retain not only the base information but also a particular explanation of that information. Economists could provide follow-up research to identify the efficacy of questioning techniques that lead students to develop and retain this higher order learning.
  • Emphasize the "how" rather than the "what" of knowledge.
Explain the methods economists used to learn the causes of increased income inequality rather than simply reporting the By placing an emphasis on the knowledge-creation process, students learn basic concepts and begin to learn how to generate knowledge themselves.
  • Don't emphasize that there is "one right answer."
An emphasis on a single correct answer to a question discourages student involvement and discourages critical thinking. When students contribute to classroom discussions, identify the value in their comments. Then, clearly explain the generally accepted answer and why that answer is valuable.
Providing students with a case representative of the lesson's educational objective effectively engages them beyond pure memorization. With this method, students develop a solid understanding of the underlying concepts through analysis of the case. Consult this guide to implementing the case method in the economics classroom.
  • Use problem sets with context-rich problems.
Problem sets effectively engage and challenge students by requiring them to comprehend and use concepts from the lesson. For a guide on using context-rich problems in the Economics classroom read here.
  • Schedule periodic recitation sessions with students.

Other Examples of Active, Inquiry-Based Learning

Stephen D. Morris (Department of Economics, University of California, San Diego) presents research-based suggestions for improving the teaching of AS/AD in his paper, Teaching General Equilibrium to Undergraduates: A Graphical Approach.

See "Focus on Inquiry: A Teacher's Guide to Implementing Inquiry-Based Learning" by the Alberta Ministry of Learning , and a similar, shorter document from Penn State.

A Dream Experiment in Development Economics by Prakarsh Singh & Alexa Russo, The Journal of Economic Education (Volume 44, Issue 2, 2013)

Partial-immersion language programs promote language acquisition through active use rather than through memorization of vocabulary and verb conjugations. See

Additional Evidence and Research

Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics, PNAS 2014

Teaching more by lecturing less, Cell Biol Educ. 2005


The rate of information dissemination has dramatically increased, due to technological development and global interconnection. An educational system that focuses on memorization and lower order cognitive skills is obsolete and inefficient. Instead, curricula can be reorganized to emphasize problem-solving and other higher order skills. Through inquiry-based teaching practices, educators create an environment of inquiry, helping students to seek more than simple answers, to explore the mechanisms underlying what is known, and to learn how to create knowledge themselves.