What is Scientific Inquiry?

The term “Scientific Inquiry” can have different meanings with the definition itself and how it plays out in the classroom. According to Top Hot Glossary, “Scientific Inquiry has two primary functions. First, it provides a description of how scientific inquiry is conducted in practice. Second, it explains why scientific inquiry is successful in arriving at knowledge at the end of its process. Scientific inquiry extends beyond development of process skills such as observing, inferring, classifying, predicting, measuring, questioning, interpreting, and analyzing data, which must occur in that order for proper scientific inquiry to happen” (Top Hat).

As far as the definition itself, as related to science, Top Hat states, “Scientific Inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Scientific inquiry includes the traditional science processes, but also refers to the combining of these processes with scientific knowledge, critical thinking, and scientific reasoning to develop scientific knowledge” (Top Hat). Thus, this inquiry is the step beyond items in the Scientific Method and basically takes all those elements and explains more about the process. Through inquiry, scientists explore the world and conduct investigations for new discoveries.

In the classroom, “Scientific Inquiry” is reflective of the definition above, to benefit the learning of students. According to Robyn Gillies from the Smithsonian Science Education Center, “Inquiry-based science adopts an investigative approach to teaching and learning where students are provided with opportunities to investigate a problem, search for possible solutions, make observations, ask questions, test out ideas, and think creatively use their intuition. In this sense, inquiry-based science involves students doing science where they have opportunities to explore possible solutions, develop explanations for the phenomena under investigation, elaborate on concepts and processes, and evaluate or assess their understandings in the light of available evidence. This approach to teaching relies on teacher recognizing the importance of presenting problems to students that will challenge their current conceptual understandings, so they are forced to reconcile anomalous thinking and construct new understandings” (Gillies, 2021). In this model of learning, students explore and are essentially their own facilitators of learning. As described, teachers take on the role in which they guide students, but they do not explicitly instruct. In this model, students can construct their own understanding and connections among science processes. This model is extremely prevalent in the elementary classrooms.

How does Scientific Inquiry Benefit Students?

This model benefits students because it presents a challenge for them which pushes them to grow. Through this, students are actively engaged in investigating scientific questions where they make discoveries, provide evidence and explanations when appropriate, and learn to synthesize their own thinking, ideas, and newly constructed knowledge. Thus, students grow in their communication, collaboration, and critical-thinking skills. This model is somewhat “outside the box” and helps students to extend their thinking continuously throughout.

What are the Levels of Scientific Inquiry?

Inquiry can be divided into different categories or “levels” based on the level of guidance and involvement from the teacher. Students begin and explore on the first two levels typically before they can independently and move into the other two phases. Just like with other things, progression plays a key part in this. Students do not move rapidly from each level. It takes some time to do so. Now, of course, perhaps gifted students could advance more quickly than others, but for the most part, it takes some time for students.


The first level is exploration. In this beginning level, students are given the question and instructions about how to go about answering the question. Students already know the answer to the question being asked, as they are very familiar with the concepts. Essentially, this level can serve as part of the anticipatory set for teachers to tap into students’ prior knowledge about the concepts. Additionally, in this level students may become more curious and ask more questions. (Lederman, n.d.)

Direct Inquiry

The second level is direct inquiry. In this level, the problem and procedure are given, but the students are left to reach their own conclusions. This creates an open-ended challenge for them. Thus, students investigate a problem presented by the teacher and use a given procedure as well. Through understanding the problem and procedure, students can analyze data they get and arrive at their own evidence-based conclusions. This is a little step up from exploration. (Lederman, n.d)

Guided Inquiry

The third level is guided inquiry. In this level, the research problem or question is provided, but students are left to devise their own methods and solutions. Students take more responsibility during this level as independent inquiry-based learners. They may choose their materials, data organization, and approach to analysis. They apply their analytical skills and support their evidence-based conclusions. (Lederman, n.d)

Open-Ended Inquiry

The fourth level is open-ended inquiry. At this level of inquiry, problems as well as methods and solutions are left open. The goal is for students to take full responsibility for all aspects of the investigation. These activities involve students in formulating their own research questions, developing procedures to answer these research questions, collecting, and analyzing data, and using evidence to reach their own conclusions. (Lederman, n.d)

Ways to Facilitate Scientific Inquiry In and Out of School

There are many ways to facilitate Scientific Inquiry in the classroom. Some of these ways include asking open-ended questions, using time properly, using wait time when asking questions, responding to students by paraphrasing what they have said, adhering to student focus and motivation and maintaining a disciplined classroom.

Open-ended questions create an opportunity for students to discover in their learning without being told directly what the answers are to questions. Additionally, use of time for instructional purposes and using wait time for questions allows for students to think more to create their own answers while having ample time for full instruction.

Adhering to student focus and motivation is a huge factor with facilitating any type of inquiry learning in the classroom. If students are more interested in a topic, they are more likely to immerse themselves to discover and learn more, thus providing more evidence and scientific knowledge during the process.


Lederman, Judith Sweeney. (n.d). “Levels of Inquiry and the 5 E’s Learning Cycle Model.” Best Practices in Science Education. Retrieved from SCL22-0407A_SCI_AM_Lederman_lores.pdf.
How to Implement Inquiry in Science Teaching