Active and inquiry-based approaches to learning place the student at the centre of the learning experience.

They also support the development of Victoria University’s Graduate Capabilities.

Following are some common types of active and inquiry based learning, along with some further resources.

Active learning

Active learning has been defined as ‘anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening and taking notes’ (Felder & Brent, 2009, p. 2).

Active learning approaches can be incorporated into traditional lecture, seminar and tutorial classes. Some examples include:

  • ‘one-minute papers’, 
  • asking students to respond to a discussion question in pairs, and
  • using interactive technology to get immediate responses from students (for example the use of clickers or similar audience response technology).

Inquiry-based learning is a more structured approach to developmental learning. Students operate within a framework supported by a driving question or problematic scenario.

As a curriculum approach, inquiry-based learning builds from a natural process of inquiry in which students experience a ‘need to know’ that motivates and deepens learning. Inquiry-based learning requires guidance from the teacher in the role of facilitator: providing structure and support for students as appropriate to their developmental stage.

In short, inquiry-based learning approaches are characterised by:

  • motivating learning through a sense of purpose and authenticity to ‘real world’ tasks and issues,
  • encouraging students to become co-creators of their learning, 
  • developing student skills in self-direction, research, critical thinking and problem solving, and
  • developing discipline knowledge and skills.

Three curriculum types that encompass active and inquiry-based learning pedagogies are project based learning, problem based learning and the use of case studies. Although each approach has a slightly different orientation, with different levels of engagement by the learner and teacher, there are many similarities between them.

Project based learning

Project based learning involves students, either individually or in groups, undertaking an investigation and development of a product. Products can take a range of forms, including reports, physical artefacts and presentations. Traditionally this approach has been used in art, design and technology related disciplines; however it is increasingly used across all disciplines because of its capacity to engage students in the development of self-directed learning skills. Projects may be focused on topics relevant to academic, personal or industry problems, may involve external stakeholders as clients or partners, and can vary enormously in scale and type.

Characteristics of project based learning include:

  • being organised around an open-ended question or challenge
  • creating a need to know essential content and skills
  • requiring inquiry to learn and/or create something new
  • requiring planning, research, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and various forms of communication
  • allowing some degree of student decision-making about how to approach the issue or problem
  • incorporating feedback and revision with students making improvements to their work over time.

(adapted from The Sam Houston State University)

Problem-based learning

Problem based learning (PBL) is similar to project based learning, in that it is a student focussed approach to learning based on solving open-ended problems, but tends to be more knowledge focused and to operate in loops of inquiry, analysis and articulation. In this approach students are presented with an unfamiliar problem, situation or task and are asked either individually or in groups to solve it.

Teachers provide guidance through this process but determining how the problem will be solved is a student responsibility. Traditionally, problem-based learning has a series of steps that commence with the presentation of an issue, student research, presentation of understandings and gaps in knowledge, further research, and collaborative resolution of the challenge through discussion, usually culminating in a report and/or presentation.

Characteristics of PBL generally include:

  • ‘ill-structured’ problems that do not necessarily have one solution
  • the problems drive the curriculum, and students develop learning skills through the process
  • self-directed student learning is applied back to stages of problem presentation, analysis, resolution and discussion in iterations of development
  • students must have the responsibility for their own learning.

Case studies

Using case studies or scenarios in teaching enables teachers to draw on real experiences to engage students in their learning in a structured way. Students are presented with a problem or scenario that is presented as a case study and are required to use the skills and knowledge they have learned through their unit to respond to the case study question(s) or problem.

A case-study is generally based on real situations (names and facts can sometimes be changed to ensure anonymity). Many case studies also include supporting data and documentation. Most case-study tasks require the student to answer an open-ended question or develop a solution(s). The teacher has an active role in shaping questions that will guide students in their learning.


  • What active learning strategies/activities are you using in your teaching?
  • What is your role in these activities?
  • How do you encourage your students to be more independent learners?
  • What discipline examples of active learning including project and problem based learning and case studies are you aware of?

Additional resources

English, M. C. & Kitsantas, A. 2013. Supporting Student Self-Regulated Learning in Problem- and Project-Based Learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 7(2). 

Ertmer, P. A. 2015. Essential Readings in Problem-Based Learning: Exploring and Extending the Legacy of Howard S. Barrows. Purdue University Press.

Felder, R.M. & Brent, R. 2009. Active learning: An introduction. ASQ Higher Education Brief, 2(4). 

MERLOT Pedagogy Portal

The capstone curriculum website