Dr Christopher Justice
Co-Director Inquiry in Higher Education Research Project Centre for Leadership in Learning
Assistant Professor Department of Public Health Sciences University of Toronto
1323 Governors Rd
Canada L9H 5E3
McMaster University has been running a first year course for social sciences based on inquiry (Inquiry 1SS3) since the late 1990s. This case study discusses this award-winning course as it evolved over the first five years (see Justice et al. 2002; in press a), since then other instructors have taken on the course and is taught to reflect their interests. It was typically taught in sections of no more than twenty-five students assigned to an instructor. All of the sections had the same curriculum, reading material, process of assessment, and goals that were outlined in a detailed compendium. The classes met for twelve three-hour concurrent sessions. Class time consisted of a combination of exercises and tasks for building the students’ critical abilities and time for students to share ideas about their individual inquiries with other students. Much of class time involved groups of four or five students assisting each other in such things as clarifying understandings or planning research strategies.
All students investigated aspects of a broad social science theme, such as ‘self identity’ and addressed a common inquiry question, such as: ‘Why do images of ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, age, class, or abilities help to create aspects of personal and community identity?’ Students had to propose their own inquiry question, such as: ‘Why do some children apparently become violent after watching violent cartoons while others seem to be unaffected?’ They had to justify why the question was important in relation to existing literature. They then investigated the question through a process which involved developing and testing hypotheses using secondary sources. The course emphasized the development of skills, including critical reading and thinking, independent and collaborative learning, information searching and evaluation, analysis and synthesis, oral and written communication, and self and peer evaluation.
Analysis of five years of data (Justice et al. in press b), comparing students who took the Inquiry course with comparable students who did not, shows that it has had a significant impact on how well students perform during their academic careers. The findings allow for initial differences between the two samples. Taking the Inquiry course is associated with statistically significant positive differences in obtaining passing grades, achieving Honours, staying on the Dean’s honour list, and remaining in university.
Current research is investigating in what way(s) Inquiry 1SS3 students changed that might explain their long-term enhanced performance at university. A quasi-experimental study (Justice et al., 2005) compares a randomly selected group of 54 students who took Inquiry 1SS3 in their first semester with 71 comparable students who did not. The research goes beyond self-reports of learning and directly measures abilities and performance. Though not yet published, it seems taking Inquiry 1SS3 is associated with meaningfully higher scores in actual performance tests of many intellectual and academic skills and that often the magnitude and significance of the difference between groups is comparable to that between upper- and lower-level students (~2 years of university).
Justice, C, Warry, W, Cuneo, C, Inglis, S, Miller, S, Rice, J, Sammon, S (2002) A grammar for inquiry: linking goals and methods in a collaboratively taught social sciences inquiry course, The Alan Blizzard Award Paper: The Award Winning Papers, Special Publication of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Windsor
Justice, C, Rice, J, Warry, W, and Laurie, I (2005) “Why Inquiry makes a difference: evaluative research on learning outcomes and teaching practice”, Paper delivered at 2nd Annual Conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL), Vancouver
Justice, C, Rice, J, Warry, W, Inglis, S, Miller, S and Sammon S (in press a) Inquiry in higher education: reflections and directions on course design and teaching methods, Innovative Higher Education
Justice, C, Rice, J, Warry, W and Laurie, I (in press b) Taking inquiry makes a difference - a comparative analysis of student learning, Journal of Excellence in College Teaching
This case study is also available as a pdf: ImpactIBL.pdf