Digital Learning Strategy: How can I implement enquiry-based learning into my teaching?

How can I implement Enquiry-based Learning (EBL) into my teaching? [PDF 160KB]

There is a need to support students to become successful and engaged learners, developing intellectual independence, curiosity and an informed, critical disposition to the problems they confront in their environments.

This module is designed to guide you through the rationale and principle of Enquiry-based Learning (EBL). The outcomes for EBL have potential to align to many features La Trobe's Future Ready strategy. In particular, a curriculum that enables students to engage with complex problems, apply critical thinking and draw on interdisciplinary knowledge, engage with global citizenship, be work-ready and develop deep approaches to learning.

By the end of this module you will:

  • Be able to introduce and EBL approach drawing on established literature and good practices in EBL
  • Be able to provide practical resources in EBL for facilitators.


Enquiry-based learning (EBL) approaches reflect multiple strands of development and emerging traditions that emerged with the pedagogies of constructivism, following the work of Burrows, Piaget, Dewey, Lewin, Vygotsky, and Lave & Wenger. EBL at La Trobe University draws primarily on the work of Phillipa Levy, University of Sheffield, and from Anette Kolmos and colleagues, Aalborg University. For each of these scholars, enquiry based approaches to learning have been developed for authentic settings and real world engagement.

Enquiry approaches to learning are described at the University of Sheffield as:

a cluster of strongly student-centred approaches to learning and teaching that are driven by inquiry or research. Students conduct small or large-scale inquiries that enable them to engage actively with the concepts and questions of their discipline, often in collaboration with each other. Learning takes place through an emergent process of exploration and discovery. Guided by subject specialists and those with specialist roles in learning support, students use the scholarly and research practices of their disciplines to move towards autonomy in creating and sharing knowledge (CILASS 2013)

Hutchings (2007) refers to EBL as "an umbrella term" for a range of approaches including problem-based learning (PBL), case-study learning and project-based learning. However, others distinguish enquiry-based approaches from the PBL models of case oriented medical education developed by Barrows (1986) and others (Guerra & Kolmos 2011). Levy & Petrulis (2011) contrast the case driven, specific, content driven process of PBL with the more open-ended, flexible process of project-based and enquiry approaches that allow students to formulate their own question.

Open Resource

Phillipa Levy, University of Sheffield. What is IBL?

How do Inquiry and Problem-Based Learning Differ?


Hutchings, W. 2007. Enquiry-based learning: Definitions and rationale. Manchester: Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-Based Learning, University of Manchester

Part 1: Principles and Rationale of EBL

EBL at La Trobe

Two orientations to EBL that are useful to the La Trobe context are:

  • Enquiry as real and complex, not simulation: experiential learning that is driven by complex, open-ended, real life problems, that is able make active connections with private & public organisations (de Graaff & Kolmos 2007)
  • Enquiry as research, not just research-like: Linking enquiry with research: the approach of Levy and Petroulis (2011) connects
  • enquiry with research in order for students to produce new knowledge, not just learning about how to research

Both these perspectives bring real-world relevance and work-ready graduates to curriculum design. In the process of enquiry, "problems – mostly from real and complex situations – are formulated and drive the whole learning process" (Guerra & Kolmos 2011, p. 4). Moreover, Levy & Petrulis (2011) take enquiry beyond "research-like" classroom engagement, and describe a "pedagogy of enquiry and research" as taking students from (i) enquiry for "knowledge construction" (students' conceptual development) to "knowledge building" (contribution to improvement of ideas) (p. 87).

EBL integrates research and teaching through authentic tasks, and so is better able to build a curriculum for the "complexity and uncertainty" of today's professional world (Brew 2010, p. 141).


Levy, P. & Petrulis, R. (2012): How do first-year university students experience inquiry and research, and what are the implications for the practice of inquiry-based learning?, Studies in Higher Education, 37:1, 85-101

Rationale and principles of EBL

There are many variations of EBL and PBL models, however, they have common principles (Guerra & Kolmos 2011, p. 4):

  • Learning is organised around problems or enquiries
  • Contentspans discipline boundaries and exemplifies program (course) objectives
  • The learning experience is mainly social and collaborative, conducted in groups and teams

For students and teaching staff – lecturers and/or facilitators – EBL is more than a set of learning activities, it is a curriculum organised around one or a series of enquiries that have profound effects on the learning experience. The lecture and content are de-centred, and students learn to become capable of working with the uncertainty that real-world problems bring, and lectures, tutorials, seminars and teaching staff become resources and expertise to be called on during an enquiry.

For the student: EBL entails a radical shift from an individual focus on learning to collaborating with others to construct knowledge and solve problems. Through groupwork, students draw on resources in the form of lectures, library, Web materials, organisations, and people.

For teaching staff: EBL involves a shift away from a lecture-centred focus to facilitating and enabling students to work together and draw on available resources in order to tackle complex, real-world problems.

Characteristics of EBL

  • Learning is essentially student-centred, with an emphasis on group work and use of library, web and other information resources.
  • Lecturers become facilitators, providing encouragement and support to enable the students to take responsibility for what and how they learn.
  • Students reach a point where they are not simply investigating questions posed by others, but can formulate their own research topics and convert that research into useful knowledge.
  • Students gain not only a deeper understanding of the subject-matter, but also the knowledge-development and leadership skills required for tackling complex problems that occur in the real world.

EBL approaches can be designed to suite different purposes: Guerra & Kolmos describe two contrasting models: a case-based approach for foundational knowledge that is more teacher controlled and guided, and a project-based approach in which enquiries reflect real world uncertainty and inter-disciplinarity, as shown in the Table 1.

Curriculum element Discipline and teacher-controlled approach Enquiry and learner-centred approach
Teaching approach Narrow, well-defined problems, lectures as central Open, ill-defined problems, lectures as support
Knowledge Disciplinary knowledge (KNOW-HOW) Interdisciplinary knowledge (KNOW-WHY)
Academic staff Teacher-controlled Facilitator, guide, professional development support
Learning spaces Traditional, formal lecture-tutorial spaces Learning spaces for groupwork, both formal and informal
Assessment Individual, summative Group, formative

Table 1: Progression through (Adapted from Guerra & Kolmos 2011, p. 5)

This contrast between guided and open EBL approaches offer models to design enquiry-based curricula that align to the type of content (more foundational, factual knowledge) and to the students' progress through their course. Over a degree program, the enquiry process may be supported in a more controlled environment, and independent group learning introduced progressively. In addition, EBL can be implemented at subject, course or discipline level, and EBL subjects can be offered in parallel with more traditional units.


Guerra, A. & Kolmos, A. (2011). Comparing Problem Based Learning Models: Suggestions for their implementation. In John Davies, Erik de Graaff, Anette Kolmos (eds.), PBL across the disciplines: research into best practice, Aalborg University Press, Aalborg ,Denmark

Part 2: EBL in practice

The six step EBL cycle

The six step EBL cycle enables facilitators to guide students through an enquiry. It is based on Phillipa Levy's approach.

Clarify and define the enquiry problem or task As a small EBL team, clarify terms and concepts in the problem description. What are the facts? Distinguish facts from assumptions team members are making List the phenomena to be explained
Free enquiry & brainstorm Investigate and analyse the problem through free enquiry: Brainstormand produce as many different explanations for the phenomenon as you can. Use prior knowledge and common sense.
Define the issue/problem(s), then make an action plan: Identify what is already known that is relevant to the enquiry. Find the limits of existing knowledge within the group. Discuss the explanations proposed and produce a coherent description of the processes that, according to the group, underlie the phenomena. Formulate the issue or problem(s) and identify the critical questions from stages 1 and 2. As a group, identify the key issues and allocate specific tasks to team members for self-directed learning by making an action plan.
Investigate and Explore: Fill in the gaps in your knowledge through self-study: Each team member follows up one or more key issue, to report back to the team at the next workshop. This step is repeated each week until the enquiry is fully resolved Team members explore evidence, examine texts, investigate the problem from a range of sources.
Peer teaching and knowledge integration Share your findings with your group through peer teaching arising from the action plan. Students reflect, discuss, critique, analyse, conceptualise, synthesis, create, receive feedback. The group integrates their knowledge recently acquired into a comprehensive explanation of the phenomena.
  • Start with each team member taking turns to teach the others the most important points from their follow-up from the action plan. Focus on the issues critical to the enquiry task, so relevant knowledge and ideas are shared by the team
  • Integrate findings and build shared knowledge through cycles of identifying key issues, finding sources or data, and peer teaching.
  • Prepare a presentation or report to capture knowledge integration, leading to a resolution of the enquiry.
Apply and share results: Present, report or publish Communicate and share results of your enquiry; focus on the integration of knowledge and resolving the enquiry.

This is similar to other enquiry cycles, for example, the Seven jump approachused by McMaster University and Maastricht University, or the (CEEBL) cycle from Manchester University described by Goldring and Wood (2007) in open resource below.


De Graaff, E. & Kolmos, A. (2007). History of Problem-Based and Project-Based Learning. In Erik de Graaff & Anette Kolmos, A. (eds) (2007). Management of Change: Implementation of Problem-Based and Project Based Learning in Engineering. Sense Publishers, Rotterdam

Open Resource

Goldring, L. & Wood, J. (2009) A Guide to the Facilitation of Enquiry-Based Learning for Graduate Students, 2nd edition, Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-Based Learning

Case Studies

Management Simulation, Case Study 2B. Case Study video examples, University of Birmingham.Case study, Embedding Inquiry Based Learning within the Management Accounting Curriculum, University of Sheffield.

Case study, Embedding Inquiry Based Learning within the Management Accounting Curriculum, University of Sheffield.

Enabling EBL through learning technologies

Activity Considerations Tools

Web Conference/Synchronous web cast

Do you require any sychronous online activity to support your EBL design or can it be replaced by asynchronous events and activities affording more flexibility in your subject


Video and Podcast

Record your own instructions, scenarios or introductions to problems. Consider  your requirements: guest lecture, interview, desktop recording, audio, video, high or low production and time frame.

Echo Personal Capture
One Button Studio
LTLT video production (Strategic projects)
LTLT Tech Lending Library
Mobile phone

Online Interactive Module

An interactive module can be used to present case studies or branching scenarios in EBL

Moodle Lesson
Moodle Book
Moodle Quiz
Adobe Captivate*


Use or create OER to present case studies or scenarios.

Open education resources are not just videos but wholly online courses and modules.  You can also produce OER resources and make them freely available or use an open platform that allows you to collaborate with another institution to produce resources.

Open Culture, SnagFIlms
Internet Archive, TED Talks
ABC Archives
197 YouTube Channels you should know about iTunes U
Academic Earth University of Washington Streaming Video Guide
The Age TV
Radio Lab

This American Life
ACMI Generator

Group or individual Assignments

Student work in groups on projects in wikis, on video collaboration and presentation sites. 

Moodle OU Wiki
Moodle Assignment
Youtube* / Vimeo*
We Video*
Office Mix

Group Project Management

Groups manage their groupwork and files through project management applications.


Group Curation

Students work in groups in collaborative knowledge construction activities. 

Moodle Glossary

Group meetings

Students organize synchronous or asynchronous meetings to discuss project progress and requirements.

Google Hangouts*
Moodle Forum


Tambouris et al. (2012) Enabling Problem Based Learning through Web 2.0 Technologies: PBL 2.0. Educational Technology & Society, 15 (4), 238–251.

Please note: Applications indicated by * are web applications that may involve a cost or licensing and the university may not be able to provide technical support in the use of these applications. Many however are simple to use and provide good online support and resources. Where you are considering using these applications you should consider:

  • What additional functionality does this application provide to University applications?
  • What alternative will be provided/developed?
  • What are the implications for accessibility?
  • Where are your students going to get technical support?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

John Hannon, Sue O'Keefe, David Walker Linda Wannan-Edgar, Kurt Ambrose.

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