Inquiry in the Classroom: 7 Simple Tools To Get You Started

We know certain characteristics can be encouraged, but not taught, like curiosity. But teachers who use an inquiry based approach can provide techniques that help students learn the questions to ask that may spark a natural interest.

Image from Flickr via David Woo

Image from Flickr via David Woo

Why Use the Inquiry Cycle?

Often used by science professionals to work through problems and research, an inquiry-based approach, or inquiry cycle, is also used in classrooms for scientific and non-scientific topics to encourage students during the learning process. The Center for Inspired Teaching, an organization that provides teacher training, explains that in an inquiry-based approach, teachers help students generate their own appropriate questions and guide the investigation.

The Center for Inspired Teaching says this approach helps create life-long learners by:

  • Teaching students to ask difficult questions
  • Fostering desire and techniques to get knowledge
  • Allowing students to take ownership of learning
  • Encouraging students to draw connections between academic lessons and their personal lives.

Steps of the Inquiry Cycle

An inquiry cycle, like the one shown it the graphic above, may start with the current state of mind—what do you know and what do you need to now about this subject—then include the following steps:

  1. Build from what is already known about the topic.
  2. Determine what questions to ask to start the investigation.
  3. Gather new information through research
  4. Organize and finish research, attending to differences.
  5. Share what was learned through presentations
  6. Reflect and make new inquiries
  7. Take action in new steps, or in applying the newfound learning elsewhere.

Technology to Help Students with Inquiry Cycle

As students process this new way of approaching projects, they and their teachers have numerous technological tools to make work easier, so more time can be spent with creative thinking, research and discussions, instead of with project paperwork.

We’ve picked some of the best tools named by Eduwebinar for the each stage of the inquiry cycle.

Step 1: Assessing what is already known. Teachers need to understand a student’s initial knowledge of a topic, and Socrative can help. This web-based smart student response system allows teachers to interact with students through games and exercises. Teachers can start quizzes or ask questions that let them assess each student’s knowledge and development.

Step 2: Knowing what questions to ask. Starting a research project can be overwhelming, and students may struggle just figuring out where to begin. Brainstorming is often a great way to start the thinking process. offers a mind mapping software to stimulate thoughts.

Step 3: Gather new information. A quick search of social media, such as YouTube, can give students a starting point for research based on the most current issues.

Step 4: Organize and finish research. After finding great information, the difficult part is keeping it in order. Citelighter helps students think critically about the project, structure their writing and keep track of citations.

Step 5: Share what is learned. Presentations are made simple through Haiku Deck, which is designed to easily create a visualization of ideas.

Step 6: Reflect and apply. Taking time for introspection allows students to really understand what they have learned. Writing a journal entry on a site like Blogger provides a student time to assess their progress.

In Short

To prepare today’s students for success in a knowledge-based economy, they must know how to ask questions and be determined to find answers. Although teachers can’t infuse students with desire to do this, you can give them the knowledge and skills to ignite a curiosity to learn more.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally written by Katie Lepi] and ran on September 30, 2013. A lot has changed since then, so we’ve had author Pamela DeLoatch update this piece with the latest techniques and innovations.



  1. Julie Keane

    May 17, 2015 at 8:39 am

    Thank you for reposting and updating this important and practical post to support inquiry in the classroom. My colleagues and I at VIF were just discussing the supports and strategies teachers need to successfully implement inquiry strategies into their classroom practice. It is a core component of our professional development as we help teachers integrate inquiry-based global investigations into their everyday standards-based curriculum.

    I am truly fortunate to work with many former teachers and recently they told me stories about their classroom teaching. The common thread – environments that support inquiry have students do most of the work! This requires a lot of careful and thoughtful upfront planning but the pay off is huge as you watch the students fly. That means setting up serious procedures in the first 2-3 weeks. The students knew the expectations, they knew they were going to be taken seriously, and they knew they were responsible for their learning. According to my colleagues, after these procedures were established, students had the freedom to take charge and behavior problems were almost non-existent.

    I would also add the following strategies to the effective tools you describe above:

    Teachers need to talk less and students need to talk more!

    Step 1a. I completely agree that we need to build background knowledge and connect that directly to students’ prior knowledge. We call it the activating stage to ensure that connections are made to prior knowledge because that can help prevent the common implementation of a banking model. Too often, we have observed students being drilled on new vocabulary or skills needed for the new activity or project without the prior step of activating prior experience with the topic. We recently had the privilege of visiting a collaborating school. We observed a wonderful example of a teacher providing everyday opportunities for her students to bring in personal stories into the classroom and then connect them directly to the curriculum. In our work, global inquiry is all about relevance and authenticity.

    Thank you for Step 2. I truly believe that the questioning stage is the MOST important part of the inquiry cycle.

    We would also add a Step 2a. Teachers are sometimes afraid of students’ questions. It is really important that we don’t give students the answers, and we don’t have the “right” answer already in our head. Questioning can truly support open exploration that can usually include serious sidetracking. We see how tough this can be be for teachers because of curriculum mandates. Everything is so rushed. I think school and district leaders can play a role here to support teachers in this critical practice.

    We really appreciate how Step 3 is phrased. Sometimes, we have observed busy work that is not always connected to a larger project and/or investigation. It is important to know the difference between busy work and purposeful research.

    We are committed to equity and often work in schools that have spent almost two decades focused on remedial education. The debilitating effects of low expectations can undermine attempts at building learning environments that support inquiry and rigorous investigation. Too often, inquiry is reserved for small populations of students. It is our belief that ALL students thrive when they can openly question, access relevant and authentic resources, and actively engage in problem solving.

    Thanks again for a great and helpful post!

  2. Pamela DeLoatch

    May 18, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    Julie– thank you so much for your comments, and for your suggestions of building a foundation for knowledge and of encouraging the asking of questions. Meet students where they are, and encourage them to go further!