Comparison of guided and open inquiry methods

By Suzanne Perin - August 2011


Sadeh, I. & Zion, M. (2009). The development of dynamic inquiry performances within an open inquiry setting: A comparison to guided inquiry setting. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46, 1137–1160.

In this study, researchers compared two different forms of inquiry, guided and open. The authors found that open inquiry was more effective than guided inquiry in building students' understanding about scientific procedures. For example, students engaged in open inquiry gained insights into the ways that scientists need to adjust their studies as new information or problems arise. The findings of this research will be of interest to ISE educators who are integrating inquiry-based instruction into their programs.

Inquiry-based teaching approaches, which are advocated in most state and national science education frameworks, are intended to help students master the principles of science, learn how to do science and understand the nature of science. The authors of this paper identify three levels of inquiry that are characterized by increasing independence: structured, guided and open. In structured inquiry, students investigate a teacher-presented question through a prescribed procedure leading to a predetermined discovery. Guided inquiry involves teachers providing the questions but students investigating and coming to their own conclusions about the questions. The most complex and autonomous level is the open inquiry, where the teacher defines a framework and assists students in making choices throughout, but students not only formulate their own questions but also the means to answering them. Open inquiry helps students learn to negotiate the complexities of scientific inquiry by engaging in activities that come closest to doing real science. The authors argue that because of the complexity of teaching guided and open inquiry, it's essential for educators to better understand their respective benefits in order to make decisions about how and when to implement them in their teaching.

The study involved 4 teachers and 50 high school biology students over two years, half of whom were in a guided inquiry class and the other half in an open inquiry class. The students were interviewed and their papers, logbooks and reflections were analyzed. To categorize the students’ work, high-, medium- and low levels of involvement in four main criteria of dynamic inquiry learning processes were used. These include several additional subcategories, which may be of interest to ISE professionals when designing or evaluating inquiry programs.

The criteria and examples of what they characterized included:

No significant differences were found between the guided and open inquiry groups in the “learning as a process” and the “affective points of view” criteria. However, the authors did find that open inquiry fostered greater mastery of two criteria in particular: “changes occurring during inquiry” and “procedural understanding.” For example, according to the authors, open inquiry students learn how much the inquiry process does not proceed in a predetermined path and results that emerge are often unexpected, requiring making changes and solving different problems.

For further reading: 

Zion, M., Slezak, M., Shapira, D., Link, E., Bashan, N., Brumer, M., Orian, T., Nussinovitch, R., Court, D., Agrest, B., Mendelovici, R., & Valanides, N. (2004). Dynamic, open inquiry in biology learning. Science Education, 88, 728–753.