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“If your goal is to engage students in critical thinking… you need to present interesting challenges to solve, rather than simply explaining how other smart people have already solved those challenges.” – Therese Huston

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) are both student-centered teaching pedagogies that encourage active learning and critical thinking through investigation. Both methods offer students interesting problems to consider. And research shows that both PBL and IBL are effective models of learning. 

So, what’s the difference between the two?


According to Banchi and Bell [4], there are four different levels of inquiry.

  1. Confirmation Inquiry: Students confirm a principle through an activity when the results are known in advance.
  2. Structured Inquiry: Students investigate a teacher-presented question through a prescribed procedure. 
  3. Guided Inquiry: Students investigate a teacher-presented question using student designed or selected procedures.
  4. Open Inquiry: Students investigate questions that are student formulated through student designed or selected procedures.

Most academics define Inquiry-Based-Learning as a pedagogy that is based on one of these levels. So IBL can be as methodical as guiding students through a procedure to discover a known result or as free-form as encouraging students to formulate original questions. For example, in a Physics laboratory, suppose the topic is Newton’s Second Law of Motion. The lab instructions could define a procedure to record the mass and impact force of various objects. Multiplying the mass by the acceleration due to gravity, the students should recover the force they recorded, thus confirming Newton’s Second Law.


Problem-Based-Learning can be classified as guided inquiry where the teacher-presented question is an unsolved, real-world problem. For example, in a Middle Eastern Studies course, the main problem posed by the instructor could be “Propose a solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.” This question will motivate the study of the history of the region, the theological differences between Judaism and Islam, and current events. At the end of the semester, students would be expected to present and justify their solution. 

Therefore, using the definition above, PBL is a type of IBL.


PBL is great because it motivates course content and maximizes learning via investigation, explanation, and resolution of real and meaningful problems. At any level, inquiry can be an effective method of learning because it is student-centered and encourages the development of practical skills and higher-level thinking. 

As you plan for your next class, I invite you to reflect on your method of content delivery. Is it motivated? How? Would your students benefit from a day based on inquiry?



  1. Inquiry Based Learning. University of Notre Dame Notes on Teaching and Learning. https://sites.nd.edu/kaneb/2014/11/10/inquiry-based-learning/.
  2. Problem-Based Learning. Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. https://teaching.cornell.edu/teaching-resources/engaging-students/problem-based-learning.
  3. Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E.; Duncan, Ravit Golan; Chinn, Clark A. (2007). “Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006)”. Educational Psychologist. 42 (2): 99–107. doi:10.1080/00461520701263368.
  4. Banchi, H., & Bell R. (2008). The many levels of inquiry. Science and Children.


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