Inquiry-Based Learning

“Dr. Mason communicated course material with enthusiasm, knowledge, an open mind, and strong thematic organization. He helped forge connections among all readings we did for the entire term. […] I feel like I have come away from this course with the ability to make connections and critique in a way I couldn’t before.” – Student, ENGL 472

Sherry Lee Linkon’s brilliant Literary Learning: Teaching the English Major (2011) has had a substantial influence on my course design. In her book, Linkon questions the pedagogical usefulness of the “research essay,” a staple in most English classes. This assignment, Linkon argues, typically sees students cramming the bulk of their coursework into the final weeks of term without opportunities to meaningfully reflect on their progress in the course. As an alternative, Linkon proposes the inquiry project, a scaffolded term-long assignment that focuses on the acquisition of valuable strategic knowledge as opposed to the content knowledge focus of the research paper. The inquiry project also permits ongoing formative assessment (as opposed to end-of-term summative assessment), creating more opportunities for targeted feedback and, therefore, more potential for students to improve. Ambrose et al’s excellent How Learning Works (2010) has been especially helpful in reinforcing the importance of formative assessment and “goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback” to student learning, both of which are fundamental to the inquiry project (125). As a former ENGL 472 student wrote, in a course evaluation, about the inquiry structure:

“The distribution of coursework was unconventional, but I believe largely successful. The progression of assignments fed into one another, enabling opportunities for revisiting and expanding ideas.”

I have experimented with inquiry projects in three classes: ENGL 472 (Advanced Studies in Young Adult Literature), ENGL 607 and ENGL 523 (graduate and undergraduate versions of “The Virtual Child”). The inquiry project invites students to focus on a text or theme of their choice throughout the term, putting this text/theme into conversation with all other course material through a series of diverse assignments. For example, one ENGL 523 student chose to analyze the “alternate universe” subgenre of fanfiction; another looked at various adaptations of “Little Red Riding Hood”; a third contemplated the identity politics of digital avatar creation. At the end of the course, students synthesize these assignments and experiences to reflect on how their thinking about this text/theme has developed. As an example, in addition to class participation (10%), the five components of an ENGL 523 inquiry project include:

  1. A weekly online reading and research journal (20%), where students post short, informal, 250-500 word reflections on the week’s readings as they related to their chosen inquiry topic. Students also respond to one another’s entries, setting the stage for in-class discussion. This assignment allows me—and other students—to give ongoing feedback to and share resources with students as they work towards their inquiry synthesis and final exhibit. One essential learning outcome is that students cultivate a regular, habitual writing practice, recognizing its importance to the research process.
  2. Two “Let’s Play” video essays and reflections (2 x 10%). Inspired by research into video game literacy from Burwell and Miller (2016), this assignment requires students to record themselves playing a digital text of their choice and provide a voiceover narrative. In the first video, submitted at the beginning of term, students record their very first interaction with the text. In the second, submitted at the end of term after time for research and feedback, students provide “expert” theoretical commentary on the text. I designed this assignment to provide an assessment technique in line with the digital content of this course; the development of this assignment was funded in part by a Taylor Institute Scholarship of Teaching and Learning grant. In addition to learning how to analyze the form and content of a digital text (interpreting, for example, the role of gameplay mechanics), an important learning outcome of the “Let’s Play” assignment is that students gain valuable experience scripting, recording and editing digital content.
  3. A 1000-1250 word “Critical Text Overview” assignment (10%), submitted at mid-term. Students conduct initial research into their inquiry project topic, collecting and assessing two peer-reviewed articles of their choice. This assignment allows me to provide detailed, targeted feedback regarding the initial shape of their inquiry project and final exhibit. The learning outcomes of this assignment are geared toward the development of strategic knowledge required for the inquiry synthesis. As I write in the instructions, students learn to “engage thoughtfully and analytically with scholarly sources” and put multiple texts “into conversation with one another,” highlighting “key themes and issues” relevant to their inquiry project.
  4. A Digital Exhibit (15%), curated by the students, staged at the Taylor Institute at the end of term, and open to the entire university community. Each student creates an interactive exhibit (using the software Padlet and the TI’s video terminals) that foregrounds their most noteworthy findings from the term. A central learning outcome is that students demonstrate the ability to share their research in public-friendly, visually engaging, and clearly communicated ways.
  5. A 2500-word Inquiry Project Synthesis (25%), submitted at the end of term. As my instructions explain, this assignment asks students “to reflect on how your thinking about and approaches to your selected topic shifted throughout our term together, as we read and discussed a series of literary, theoretical, and digital texts.” Instead of evaluating students on their ability to produce a polished and sustained thesis, I assess them on their capacity to demonstrate the strategic knowledge associated with literary and cultural analysis—how, in other words, their thinking on their inquiry topic, in conversation with course texts and themes, has shifted and evolved after a term of research and writing. I ask them to consider: “What analytical strategies, developed through your research, proved most fruitful? Did you reach any conclusions about this topic, and/or hit any dead ends? How did your findings shape your approach to curating your exhibit? If you had the time, what other avenues of inquiry might you pursue?” I encourage students to incorporate and adapt material from their previous assignments, avoiding the condensed end-of-term labour demanded by standard research essays.

Most importantly, the inquiry project encourages students to think broadly across the course as a whole, drawing strategic, analytical connections between a variety of texts and themes. According to Linkon, this kind of high-level, intertextual thinking more closely approximates the “expert habits of mind” we, as instructors, often take for granted in our teaching—and it is the most important learning outcome of the inquiry synthesis. See, for example, the links one ENGL 523 student makes between and across course texts and assignments in her final paper:

“Making connections between our texts and this broader theoretical framework [of virtuality] also shaped the way I approached the other assignments. I decided that I would build my final exhibit around the idea of alternate universes after writing about fairytale AU [alternate universe] tropes found in certain versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood. And thinking about the mediation of self-identity in game spaces for my [journal] entry on In Real Life (2014) helped me narrow down which of the many possible aspects of Creatures Such as We would make the most compelling subject for my scripted Let’s Play.”

Here, the scaffolded structure of the inquiry project enables this student to build her repertoire of knowledge throughout the term—each assignment, as she illustrates, influences the way she approaches the next. In feedback, students flag the inquiry structure as both unique and valuable. An interview about my use of inquiry projects was also published on the Taylor Institute blog, “Principles and Practices of Student Assessment,” on July 25, 2018.

– Dr. Derritt Mason