An inquiry-based learning approach to teaching

Jones, Gareth J. F. (2009) An inquiry-based learning approach to teaching. Information Retrieval, 12 (2). pp. 148-161. ISSN 1386-4564, 1573-7659


The study of information retrieval (IR) has increased in interest and importance with the explosive growth of online information in recent years. Learning about IR within formal courses of study enables users of search engines to use them more knowledgeably and effectively, while providing the starting point for the explorations of new researchers into novel search technologies. Although IR can be taught in a traditional manner of formal classroom instruction with students being led through the details of the subject and expected to reproduce this in assessment, the nature of IR as a topic makes it an ideal subject for inquiry-based learning approaches to teaching. In an inquiry-based learning approach students are introduced to the principles of a subject and then encouraged to develop their understanding by solving structured or open problems. Working through solutions in subsequent class discussions enables students to appreciate the availability of alternative solutions as proposed by their classmates. Following this approach students not only learn the details of IR techniques, but significantly, naturally learn to apply them in solution of problems. In doing this they not only gain an appreciation of alternative solutions to a problem, but also how to assess their relative strengths and weaknesses. Developing confidence and skills in problem solving enables student assessment to be structured around solution of problems. Thus students can be assessed on the basis of their understanding and ability to apply techniques, rather simply their skill at reciting facts. This has the additional benefit of encouraging general problem solving skills which can be of benefit in other subjects. This approach to teaching IR was successfully implemented in an undergraduate module where students were assessed in a written examination exploring their knowledge and understanding of the principles of IR and their ability to apply them to solving problems, and a written assignment based on developing an individual research proposal.

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