What is IBL?

`IBL´ describes 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.

IBL is an empowering, engaging approach with benefits for subject learning as well as for the development of a wide range of attributes and skills in areas including initiative, critical judgment, openness, creativity and independence of mind. Successful IBL arises out of enthusiastic, questioning, purposeful, imaginative engagement with well-designed inquiry tasks, in a challenging but supportive learning environment. The starting-point might, among other possibilities, be an intriguing fieldwork or design problem, a complex case scenario, or an important research question. Often, inquiry tasks are used to engage students with real-world problems in applied subject areas, exploring the relation between theory and practice. Students may be encouraged to share the results of their inquiries with each other and wider audiences, including through peer-reviewed publication where appropriate.

IBL is a flexible approach that can take a variety of forms. It can be used to foster acquisition of clearly-defined, `certain´ knowledge such as the conceptual foundations of a scientific discipline. Alternatively it can be used to engage students with uncertainty, multiple perspectives and contestation through exploration of open-ended questions and problems to which single right answers do not exist. So, from one perspective, IBL is a form of active learning in which students carry out `research-like´ activities to explore and master an existing knowledge-base. From another perspective, IBL extends student learning towards and well into the realms of `real´ research, positioning students as engaged producers or authors of knowledge with potential to generate original intellectual and creative outcomes of value to their wider academic, professional or social communities. The Sheffield view of IBL is inclusive of both these perspectives.

This broad view of IBL also sees it as encompassing related approaches such as problem-based learning (PBL), project-based learning, case-based learning and problem-solving. The terms IBL and PBL sometimes are used synonymously. However, `IBL´ often is used in particular to describe approaches that offer students considerable freedom in defining and directing their inquiries, are oriented towards open-endedness of questions and problems, and have a clear focus on teaching students the research approaches and techniques of their disciplines.

What's different about IBL?

Is IBL unnecessary jargon for fairly standard educational practice in university teaching? After all, inquiry and research, broadly defined, are aspects of many university students' experiences in the UK and elsewhere. Students are expected to develop initiative as learners and an independent, critical approach; at more advanced levels, research projects are common. However, on many courses inquiry and research play a secondary role and learning and teaching is organized around the communication of curriculum subject-matter as the stimulus for student activity. In contrast, IBL organizes learning and teaching around questions and problems, and all teaching strategies - tasks, resources, guidance, feedback, assessments - are designed to support the inquiry process. This process is firmly to the fore.

IBL is an especially powerful approach to `research-led teaching´, being based on students doing research rather than solely on the communication of research knowledge by staff to students. By making the link between learning and research explicit, IBL opens up possibilities for strengthening the links between research and teaching in universities, inviting students to participate in the knowledge-building communities of their academic or professional disciplines and allowing for productive staff-student partnerships. IBL that is oriented towards open-ended questions and problems offers particular potential for close integration between teaching and research, for example when students get involved in exploring questions that relate to the research and scholarship of their academic tutors.

In IBL, students:

  • Learn through a process of inquiry, often co-operatively with peers and using digital technologies and information,
  • Apply principles and practices of academic or professional inquiry, scholarship or research,
  • Engage with questions and problems that often are open-ended,
  • Explore a knowledge-base actively, critically and creatively,
  • Participate in building new meaning and knowledge,
  • Develop ‘process’ knowledge and skills in inquiry methods and in other areas including information literacy, critical thinking, reflection and group-work,
  • Gain opportunities to share their results of their inquiries with each other and with wider audiences.