Article Summary: Lazonder & Harmsen (2016) Meta-analysis of Inquiry-based Learning

Motivation: To explore the effect of different levels of guidance on the impact of inquiry-based learning. Lazonder and Harmsen offer a definition of inquiry-based learning, though they stipulate that there is little consensus on what factors define it. They define it as a method “in which students conduct experiments, make observations, or collect information in order to infer the principles underlying a topic or domain” (pp. 682). They emphasize that students act as scientists to achieve these goals.

Inquiry-based learning: Lazonder and Harmsen offer a definition of inquiry-based learning, though they stipulate that there is little consensus on what factors define it. They define it as a method “in which students conduct experiments, make observations, or collect information in order to infer the principles underlying a topic or domain” (pp. 682). They emphasize that students act as scientists to achieve these goals. The article offers a comprehensive review of the seminal and recent work done on inquiry-based learning.

Types of Guidance: The unique contribution of this meta-analysis is to explore the effect of type of guidance on the impact of inquiry-based learning. The article uses a framework from De Jong and Lazonder (2014) to define types of guidance. In order from least guided to most guided, the categories are

  • process constraints – reduce the problem solving space
  • status overviews – make progress visible
  • prompts – externally remind learners to do something
  • heuristics – general guidelines for completing the an action
  • scaffolds – complete parts of the problem solving process for the learner
  • explanations – state how to solve the problem

Results: Overall, guided inquiry was better than unguided inquiry (= .66, SE = .11), which is consistent with prior meta-analyses. For metrics of performance success (rather than learning outcomes more generally defines), more specific guidance had larger effects (= .53). Comparing each type of guidance to the others, they found that (starting from least guidance to most guidance)

process constraints > status overviews < prompts < heuristics = scaffolds < explanations

This means that heuristics and scaffolds, which provide a high level of guidance but not guidance that is specific to the problem at hand, did not improve performance as much as explanations, which provided both a high level of guidance and specific guidance. It is perhaps not surprising that specific guidance would help students to complete the task better. Based on my research, I would argue that less specific guidance would help students more in the long run by helping them to retain and transfer their knowledge to perform better on later tasks. In this analysis, no effect of type of guidance was found for general learning outcomes.

Why this is important: Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) argue that students can’t learn from unguided learning activities. Though inquiry-based learning is generally considered a minimally-guided learning activity compared to direct instruction, this analysis shows that inquiry-learning is much more effective when it has a higher level of guidance than a lower level. At the same time, inquiry-based learning allows students to be more engaged in the learning process, leading to active and constructive learning. During inquiry-based learning, students also build the skill of being a scientist – a skill that everyone can benefit from regardless of their career path. This article summarizes the work in the area and describes how to make inquiry-based learning work for students.

Lazonder, A. W., & Harmsen, R. (2016). Meta-analysis of inquiry-based learning: Effects of guidance. Review of Educational Research, 86(3), 681-718.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational psychologist41(2), 75-86.

For more information about the article summary series or more article summary posts, visit the article summary series introduction.

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One thought on “Article Summary: Lazonder & Harmsen (2016) Meta-analysis of Inquiry-based Learning

  1. Pingback: Article Summary: Series Introduction | Lauren Margulieux

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