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The Goldilocks Level of Teacher Support in Inquiry Learning

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Meta-Analysis of Inquiry-Based Learning: Effects of Guidance” by Ard Lazonder and Ruth Harmsen in Review of Educational Research,
September 2016 (Vol. 86, #3, p. 681-718).
“Psychologists and educational scientists seem to converge on the notion that student involvement is key to successful learning,” say Dutch researchers Ard Lazonder (University of Twente) and Ruth Harmsen (University of Groningen) in this article in Review of Educational Research. “Despite their appealing nature, controversy remains as to whether and when inquiry-based methods promote student learning.”
Lazonder and Harmsen did a meta-analysis of 72 studies to try to bring some clarity to the issue. Their research question: how much teacher guidance – and what type of guidance – is desirable as students of different ages engage in inquiry learning?
Their conclusion: Teacher guidance is essential to students’ success during inquiry learning and is also important to learning outcomes – and this is true for students of all ages. The type of teacher guidance, and how much, depends on the situation. Lazonder and Harmsen list some possibilities, ranging from the least to the most directive:
Process constraints – The teacher organizes the inquiry into a manageable series of subtasks but provides minimal guidance on how to proceed.
Status overviews – The teacher summarizes how students are doing and students decide whether to use the teacher’s information.
Prompts – The teacher (or the materials or software) will remind students to perform a particular action they might not carry out on their own.
Heuristics – These remind students to perform an action and point out possible ways to perform it. Heuristics might be given at the outset or during the inquiry process.
Scaffolds – The teacher explains, structures, or takes over the more-demanding parts of an inquiry when students are unsure or don’t remember what to do. Ideally scaffolding is gradually removed so students can perform independently.
Explanations – The teacher specifies exactly how to perform an action when students don’t know what to do. Explanations can be given before the inquiry begins or during the inquiry on a just-in-time basis.
The big question for teachers is how much support students should receive. “Adequate guidance is not the same as highly specific guidance,” say Lazonder and Harmsen. “Too much guidance inevitably challenges the inherent nature of the inquiry process.” The challenge is “to create guided learning environments that give learners enough freedom to examine a topic or perform a task on their own.”

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