More Questions than Answers? A review of the effectiveness of inquiry based learning in Higher Education

Paper presented at the 2015 CLEA Conference in Glasgow

Cath Sylvester
University of Northumbria, UK

The importance of problem solving as part of expert knowledge and its role in the construction of knowledge has been recognised in Higher Education in a number of different disciplines. The constructivist approach to learning demands a move away from knowledge being passively received through the lecture or seminar to a range of teaching techniques broadly known as inquiry based learning.
In medical education, problem based learning has been used since 1950s when it was developed at McMaster University to address criticisms of existing approaches to medical education. The distinctive feature of the McMaster model was that the problem came first, students had no prior exposure to the subject area and the problem acted as a “query or puzzle which the learner wishes to solve” . Problem based learning has also been used in legal education, most notably by Maastricht University in the Netherlands and more recently by York University in the UK. Clinical Legal Education, which uses real life or simulated client problems, is widely used in legal education internationally. The skills and knowledge needed for use in the clinical setting may or may not have been introduced in prior learning but the use of the unstructured client problem requires students to develop their expertise as problem solvers and to use their knowledge in a flexible way based on the situation presented. As preparation for legal practice and for development of critical problem solving skills it is unsurprising that these and other inquiry based learning approaches are increasingly being adopted by legal educators.
Accommodating inquiry based learning within the law curriculum has substantial redesign and costs implications. As Albanese and Mitchell observed “ Stated bluntly, if problem based learning is simply another route to achieving the same product, why bother with the expense and effort of undertaking a painful curriculum revision?”. Over the years medical educators have hotly debated the effectiveness of problem based learning in its ability to develop discipline knowledge and knowledge application.
This paper seeks to review the literature on the effectiveness of a range of different inquiry based learning approaches across different disciplines and attempts to identify principles of good practice to inform its incorporation into the law curriculum and maximise their effectiveness in the classroom.

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