Facilitating Inquiry-based Learning: Reflections of a Rookie

Core Picsby Sandra Johnstone, Teaching Faculty, Faculty of Science and Technology, VIU

My inspiration

This semester is the first time that I have designed and facilitated a course that centres on a semester-long collaborative research project. The course was a third-year earth science course in Geochemistry, with ten students enrolled. The project was based on 162 metres of diamond drill core that was donated by a local consulting geologist. Along with the core came a suite of geochemical analyses, including whole rock and trace elements, and some lingering questions that hadn’t been addressed in any previous studies of the rocks.


The project design

Originally I envisioned the project to happen in three phases: 1) Background Research, 2) Geological Context, and 3) Geochemical Data processing. I provided the class with the research question (“What is the style of mineralization at the Jasper Property?”), but then challenged them to brainstorm what they did and didn’t know so that they would generate their own scientific predictions. The writing for the project was all to be collaborative, and completed on a Wikispaces site that I set up for the course. All of the work written by the participants was available to be reviewed by everyone in the class. In Wikispaces I could track all edits and review past versions of the documents. In making the writing “public” I was hoping that participants would be motivated to achieve a higher level of writing. The end goal of the project was to showcase the results in a poster presentation at VIU’s CREATE conference, March 25-27, 2014.

The things that worked

Surprisingly, some of the project actually rolled out as I had imagined it.
  • THEY BOUGHT IN. They were consistently engaged and asked thoughtful questions throughout the process. Much of the work that they produced was excellent quality. I felt really proud of how hard they worked.
  • LOTS OF FEEDBACK. The process involved many opportunities for me to comment on the work that they had produced and for them to edit that work. In general they were responsive to my constructive criticisms, and the level of their work improved significantly throughout the process.
  • TEACHABLE MOMENTS. Through the course of the project they had to wrestle with ideas within the structure of the scientific method, and contend with ambiguous results. They explored the geology and geochemistry of the core from the Jasper Property, considered ideas authored by other researchers, and had to summarize their research  group to a deadline.
  • IMPRESSIVE RESULTS. And it’s not just me saying this! One poster took the meritorious first prize at the CREATE conference1.

The surprises and problems

There were so many things that I didn’t anticipate before this project began. The list below is just the most obvious ones:
  • TIME. I had no idea how much time and guidance this project would take. In the end, the class time we allotted to this project was at least 200% more than I had planned for. Every class felt like a race against the clock – there was never enough time to accomplish everything that we wanted. I ended up cancelling another planned assignment because there just wasn’t time, if we wanted to give this project it’s due. I also ended up having to break up the procedure into much smaller pieces than the original three that I had planned.
  • COMPLEXITY OF EVALUATING COLLABORATIVE WRITING & EDITING. There was a peer-editing process, but it didn’t turn out to be as straightforward as I’d planned. People continued to edit their work after the deadlines. People contributed to other sections that weren’t the ones to which they were assigned. I encouraged all the collaboration and sharing of ideas because I didn’t want to dampen the enthusiasm, but I was left with a rats nest of contributions to untangle to assign the marks. I also found I had to really stretch myself to provide prompt feedback, so that the students could stick to their deadlines.
  • COLLABORATION VS. DIVISION. We ended up deciding to divide the workload for creating the final posters into two teams, since we’d amassed too much information to summarize on one poster. I didn’t like how this created an “us and them” mentality between the teams, when the development of the data and ideas was collaborative. The students were artificially forced into one silo or another, and some lost sight of the big picture and the collaborative nature of the project. This was exacerbated when one team was awarded the big prize.
  • AMBIGUOUS RESULTS. As sometimes happens, the results of our research were not conclusive. I didn’t know what the results would be in advance – It would have been nice to be able to draw some firm conclusions, but instead we ended up with lots of questions!

Some general conclusions

I’m still processing all of the experiences that facilitating this project provided, and the above summary just scratches the surface of my thoughts on the project. Overall, I think it was an excellent experience for both me and the students, and worth the time that we spent on it. I now have a much better idea how much time and energy is required to facilitate a collaborative inquiry-based learning project: a lot! But the learning experience is richer and more realistic than many alternatives.
1. Calder, K., Madsen, T., Robillard, D., Schachtel, P., Taylor, C., Anderson, J., Broda, C., Chapdelaine, L., Lee-Tuck, E., and Tomkinson, R., (2014). Exploring the Potential for Volcanogenic Massive Sulphide Mineralization at the Jasper Property, Vancouver Island. Technical Poster. CREATE Conference, Vancouver Island University, March 25-27, 2014.