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5 Tools to Help Students Learn How to Learn

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Helping students learn how to learn: That's what most educators strive for, and that's the goal of inquiry learning. That skill transfers to other academic subject areas and even to the workplace where employers have consistently said that they want creative, innovative and adaptive thinkers. Inquiry learning is an integrated approach that includes kinds of learning: content, literacy, information literacy, learning how to learn, and social or collaborative skills. Students think about the choices they make throughout the process and the way they feel as they learn. Those observations are as important as the content they learn or the projects they create.

“We want students thinking about their thinking,” said Leslie Maniotes a teacher effectiveness coach in the Denver Public Schools and one of the authors of Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century. “We want them reflecting on the process and the content.” Inquiry learning works best on longer, deep dive projects when students have to create something of their own out of what they've found.


A good example is a long term research project. There are several common stages in longer projects and researchers have studied how students feel, think and act around the different stages. Students initiate the project, select a topic, explore it further, begin to formulate an approach, collect specific materials relevant to a focus and finally present on their findings.

During the process, students will go through different stages of emotions. They might feel uncertainty as they begin, optimism when they select a project, then confusion or frustration when they've gathered a lot of information and don’t know where to go with it. As they begin to sift through the information, they gain a sense of clarity and direction and begin formulating and executing the project. By the end of the process, they'll have a sense of satisfaction or disappointment on the outcome of their presentation.

[RELATED READING: Creating Classrooms We Need: 8 Ways Into Inquiry Learning]

Understanding how students may feel as they move through the stages of inquiry offers educators the opportunity to intervene at critical moments when frustration threatens to derail them. Research shows that letting students spend longer time exploring a topic before choosing helps them choose something worthy of inquiry. “Jumping right into identifying a question leads to low level learning,” said Maniotes. She offers specific and simple tools to help guide the inquiry learning process.


  1.  An Inquiry Community is the class itself. Each member is exploring a topic related to the same class unit and students can help one another clarify ideas. “All of this is set within the social context of an inquiry community,” said Maniotes. “We value that community and we’re using all these other tools to inform the level of conversation we might have within that community.”
  2. An Inquiry Circle is a small group where students can talk to one another around a specific topic that fits within the umbrella of the broader class unit. Inquiry circles are a place for students to talk out all their wild ideas and work best when instructors leave them alone.
  3. The Inquiry Journal is one of the most powerful tools in the inquiry learning repertoire and should be utilized throughout the process. It’s a place for students to reflect on both the process and the content they discover as they go along. It’s important to emphasize to students that the journals should be used to reflect on how he or she learns best and what feelings come up at different points in the process. It’s meant to give them a moment to stop and think about what they've read and why it’s important. The journal can also be a good bridge between the student and instructor.
  4. The Inquiry Log helps students to keep track of the learning journey and every choice, change in direction or exciting moment along the way. “When they are able to see where they came from and where they got to it is very powerful for them,” said Maniotes.
  5. The Inquiry Chart is a great tool to help students identify a central question. They can chart, brainstorm and map their ideas in many ways. Getting them down on paper can help visualize what areas of research are well fleshed out and would make good focus points and which are tangential. Part of inquiry learning is teaching students how to make good academic decisions on resources and content, as well as recognizing when persistence is needed to dig deeper.

Taken together these five tools, which are deceptively simple, can give students the experience of deeper inquiry, insight into their own learning habits and preferences, as well as the experience of working through emotions that arise during the process. All these experiences help them to encounter the next challenge effectively, even when not being asked to follow a rigid process.

[RELATED READING: How to Fuel Students' Learning Through Their Interests]

Inquiry learning should also be a social and language-based process. “Inquiry tools support English language use,” said Maniotes. “Students are able to use authentic language and they are constantly speaking, reading, writing, and viewing throughout the process.” It also helps to set clear expectations for the project and to routinely use the tools so students recognize their function. When instructors reflect on how the tools are used at various points, modeling meta-cognitive processing about how the tools support the inquiry process, students do more of that too. “If students hear that kind of talk then they know how to do it themselves,” said Maniotes.


The tools also give instructors a way to assess student learning along the way. This type of formative assessment gives teachers a chance to intervene and shape the inquiry process or offer encouragement. The journal and log especially tell a teacher a lot about the process each student went through to arrive at a final presentation, offering far more data points for assessment.

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