Way2Go

Inquiry Instruction versus Direct Instruction

An experimental efficacy study of science achievement and attitude development amongst 8th grade urban students using an inquiry, integrated science-mathematics-engineering model of instruction

This research studies the efficacy of science inquiry instruction against direct instruction at the middle school grades. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation (2004-09; NSF/IERI #0437655) Inquiry teaching of science reflects the investigative attitudes and empirical techniques scientists use to construct new knowledge. In recent years, under the National Research Council, National Science Foundation and American Association for the Advancement of Science leadership, the United States has developed a national commitment to the teaching of science as inquiry across the K-12 grades. Almost all state frameworks for K-12 science education have an inquiry focus. The science education research community has overwhelmingly adopted an inquiry pedagogy perspective for science education. “Inquiry” is omni-present in the language of the science education community, and for many in the science community, inquiry teaching has become the sine qua non for all science teaching. Since the NSF-funded science curriculum projects of the 1960s, many teachers, researchers, curriculum writers, policymakers, and others have been interested in the effectiveness of inquiry-based curricula and inquiry instruction with respect to science concept achievement. Research and evaluation projects have been carried out and proponents of inquiry teaching claim that there is general support for the effectiveness of inquiry instruction. Critics, however, are quick to point out that very little of this research has been unconfounded and thus the research support for inquiry instruction is tenuous at best. Given the widespread adoption of inquiry methods for science teaching, the lack of unconfounded experimental research data in support of inquiry instruction effectiveness is cause for alarm. Our research addresses this gap.

Principle investigator

William W. Cobern
Mallinson Institute for Science Education

Project Summary

This research is to study the efficacy of science inquiry instruction at the middle school grades against direct instruction. Inquiry teaching of science reflects the investigative attitudes and empirical techniques scientists use to construct new knowledge. In recent years, under the National Research Council, National Science Foundation and American Association for the Advancement of Science leadership, the United States has developed a national commitment to the teaching of science as inquiry across the K-12 grades. Almost all state frameworks for K-12 science education have an inquiry focus. The science education research community has overwhelmingly adopted an inquiry pedagogy perspective for science education. “Inquiry” is omni-present in the language of the science education community, and for many in the science community, inquiry teaching has become the sine qua non for all science teaching. Since the NSF-funded science curriculum projects of the 1960s, many teachers, researchers, curriculum writers, policymakers, and others have been interested in the effectiveness of inquiry-based curricula and inquiry instruction with respect to science concept achievement. Research and evaluation projects have been carried out and proponents of inquiry teaching claim that there is general support for the effectiveness of inquiry instruction. Critics, however, are quick to point out that very little of this research has been unconfounded and thus the research support for inquiry instruction is tenuous at best. Given the widespread adoption of inquiry methods for science teaching, the lack of unconfounded experimental research data in support of inquiry instruction effectiveness is cause for alarm.

Project Goal

The goal of this research is to test the efficacy of an inquiry model of science instruction to show best practice or what the Institute for Education Sciences refers to as “what works.” The research asks what works with regard to science instruction for middle school students and under what circumstances. The subjects are 8th grade students from the southwest Michigan area schools. The research activities include:

  • Develop, adapt and revise science instructional practices according to the components of the Model.
  • Summer school program where Model practices are experimentally tested against expert direct instruction using the random assignment of subjects to treatment/control groups.
  • Regular school year implementation of the Model practices accompanied by quantitative and qualitative field research.

Intellectual merit

The intellectual merit of the proposed project rests on its theoretical background and research design. The rational argument for the teaching of science as inquiry and the seminal description of inquiry are found in the NCR National Standards for Science Education and Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning, respectively. Our research draws it's view of inquiry from this literature and is indeed intended to test the view of pedagogy advocated by this literature. Concepts for the research are complex involving mathematics yet appropriate at the 8th grade level and consistent with national frameworks, thus generalizable. Secondly, the research we propose utilizes a true experimental design with students randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. The specification of treatment is exact and repeatable. The control is appropriate and significant: a highly refined method of direct instruction that has support in the literature. Science conceptual achievement and science attitudes are measured as dependent variables using a double-blind format. The dependent measures are developed by an agent independent of the research team using an assessment format that is generalizable. Surveys and semi-structured qualitative interviews with students and teachers are used to augment experimental data.

Broader impact

Given the near universal advocacy of inquiry pedagogy, the proposed research will have an exceptionally broad impact regardless of its findings. It will either lend credible experimental support to what is now widely advocated practice, or will precipitate a serious reconsideration of what is considered to be appropriate science pedagogy at the school level. Moreover, given the urban setting of our research, the findings will support improved science education amongst the neediest of American students.

Research Instructional Units

Preliminary units  2005-06

Force and motion

  • Inquiry version
  • Direct version
  • Test

Acids and bases

  • Inquiry version
  • Direct version
  • Test

Final units  2007-10

It’s Dynamic

It’s Illuminating

Papers and Presentations

(preparing for submission) Schuster, D. G., Cobern, W., W., Adams, B., Undreiu, A., Skjold, B. (2016?). Learning of Core Disciplinary Ideas: Efficacy Comparison of Two Contrasting Modes of Science Instruction. Research in Science Education.

Schuster, David, Adams, Betty, and Undreiu, Adriana (2012) "An Innovative Inquiry-Narrative Approach to Teaching Sunlight, Climate and Seasons" presented at NSTA 2012 National Conference on Science Education in Indianapolis, Indiana, March 29, 2012.

Schuster, D., Adams, B., (2011) “CSI: Climate Scene Investigation! Teaching Climate & Seasons as Scientific Mystery Stories”, Presentation at the Michigan Science Teachers Association (MSTA) 58th Annual Conference, Grand Rapids, MI, February 25-26.

Adams. B., Skjold, B., Schuster, D., Cobern, W. (2010) “An Experimental Comparison of Direct versus Inquiry Based Science Education”, Interactive Poster/Paper presented at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), Helsinki, Finland, August 25-27.

Cobern, W., Schuster, D., Adams, B., Skjold, B., Applegate, B., Loving, C., Gobert, J. (2010) “Inquiry Science Instruction or Direct?”, Presentation at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Denver, CO, April 20-May 4.

Cobern, W., Schuster, D., Adams, B., Undreiu, A., Skjold, B., Applegate, B., Loving, C., Gobert, J. (2010) “Teacher Effects in a Comparative Study of Direct and Inquiry Science Instruction Efficacy”, Presentation at the 2010 Annual Meeting of NARST, Philadelphia, PA, March 20-24.

Adams. B., Undreiu, A., Schuster, D., Cobern, W. (2010) “Lessons Designed to Test Relative Effectiveness of Inquiry vs. Direct Instruction”, Interactive Poster/Paper presented at the 2010 Annual Meeting of NARST, Philadelphia, PA, March 20-24.
 
Schuster, D., Adams, B., Skjold, B., Undreiu, A. (2010) “Behind the Scenes: Demonstrating an Inquiry Science "Meta-Lesson, Making PCK Visible,” Oral presentation at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), Philadelphia, PA, March 18-21.

Cobern, W., Schuster, D., Adams, B. (2010) “Experimental Comparison of Inquiry and Direct Instruction in Science”, Oral presentation at the 2010 Conference of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, Washington DC, March 4-6.

Cobern, William W., Schuster, David, Adams, Betty, Applegate, Brooks, Skjold, Brandy, Undreiu, Adriana, Loving, Cathleen C. & Gobert, Janice D. (2010) 'Experimental comparison of inquiry and direct instruction in science,' Research in Science & Technological Education, 28: 1, 81-96. [PDF]

Cobern, W., Schuster, D., Adams, B., Skjold, B., Applegate, B., Undreiu, A., Loving, C., Gobert, J. (2009). “Inquiry Science Instruction or Direct?  Experiment-based Answers as to What Practices Best Promote Conceptual Development of Significant Science Content,“ Paper and Oral presentation at the European Science Education Research Association (ESERA) Conference in Istanbul, Turkey, August 31-September 5, 2009.

Cobern, W., Schuster, D., Adams, B., Undreiu, A., Skjold, B., Applegate, B., Gobert, J., Loving, C. (2009). “Inquiry Science Instruction or Direct?  Experiment-based Answers as to What Practices Best Promote Conceptual Development of Significant Science Content,“ Symposium presented at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Garden Grove, CA, April 17-21, 2009.

Cobern, W., Schuster, D., Schwartz, R., Adams, B., Undreiu, A., Applegate, B., Gobert, J., Loving, C. (2009). “Inquiry Science Instruction or Direct?  Experiment-based Answers as to What Practices Best Promote Conceptual Development of Significant Science Content,“ Symposium presented at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Chicago, February, 12-16, 2009.

Adams, B., Undreiu, A., Schuster, D., & Cobern, W. W. (2008). Challenges in lesson design for testing relative effectiveness of inquiry vs. direct instruction. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. Baltimore, Maryland.

Schuster, D. G., Adams, B., & Undreiu, A. (2007). Inquiry and Direct Instructional Approaches to Conceptual Dynamics. Meeting of the Michigan Section of the AAPT (MIAAPT), Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Undreiu, A., Adams, B., & Schuster, D. (2007). “Conceptual Dynamics: Comparing Inquiry and Direct Instructional Designs,” Oral presentation at the AAPT Winter Meeting, Seattle.

Adams, B., Undreiu, A., & Schuster, D. G. (2007). Contrasting Inquiry and Direct Physics Instructional Designs: Examples from Dynamics. Poster presented at the winter meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). Seattle, Washington.

Adams, B., Undreiu, A., & Cobern, W. W. (2006). The presence of inquiry in science education: What do we know? ... and what don’t we know yet? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching.

Cobern, W. W. (2006). Implementation of Clinical Trials, Experimental Research in Science Education. Symposium organized for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Research team

Dr. William W. Cobern
Department of Biological Sciences and the Mallinson Institute for Science Education
Western Michigan University

Dr. David Schuster
Department of Physics and the Mallinson Institute for Science Education
Western Michigan University

Betty Adams
The Mallinson Institute for Science Education, Western Michigan University

Adriana Undreiu
Department of Natural Sciences, University of Virginia’s College at Wise

Dr. Brandy Skjold
The Mallinson Institute for Science Education, Western Michigan University

Dr. Brooks Applegate
Department of Education Leadership, Research, and Technology
Western Michigan University

Dr. Cathleen C. Loving
Department of Teaching, Learning & Culture, Texas A&M University