Expert Dive: Empowering Students Through Inquiry-Guided Learning

By Jeffery Galle

Redesigning a course to incorporate an exciting pedagogy like inquiry-guided learning can kindle tremendous enthusiasm for a course taught for many years, and such courses can fuel students’ curiosity.

Virginia Lee, an inquiry-guided learning consultant, defines inquiry as “increasingly, independent investigation of questions and problems for which there are no single answer.”

When Emory’s Oxford College, where I served as director of the teaching center, began a curricular exploration of inquiry-guided learning, I wanted to participate. There, the focus is on the first two years of undergraduate study, and I had taught many graduate courses at a previous institution. I wondered if I could redesign the literary criticism course I had offered to masters students using inquiry-guided learning.

Course redesign

A literary criticism course offered in the traditional manner typically focuses on a chronology of successive schools of literary interpretation, beginning with interpretive essays of the late 19th century and continuing with the tenets and terms of a myriad of theoretical approaches. An intoxicating temptation in such courses is to plunge into the theories of interpretive strategies to the neglect of students’ actual critical development. The course can become more a history of thought, not a course in writing literary interpretations. Recasting literary criticism as an inquiry course challenged my students to stretch their critical capacity and to learn more theory than ever.

First, the theory book gave way to a volume of classic short stories. The daily assignment was to read a story and write a set of questions the story raised. From these questions, we created an elementary taxonomy—questions of fact, of character, of motivation/cause, of impact and resulting significance. To answer the most difficult questions, students examined theoretical essays outside of class and brought their ‘discoveries’ to class for discussion. In a series of staged writing assignments, students joined questions to terms with 1-page short applications and up to 6-page analyses.

Students learned to become literary critics by doing interpretation—reading, identifying the puzzles a story presented by raising questions (and refining them each day), and then writing short papers which gave way to full-length essays. After we finished the book of classic short stories, students picked up the second required book, a collection of short stories recently published. In working with the new short stories, students literally wrote original interpretive essays for stories without any critical history.


The project also involved many setbacks; in fact, challenges to independent inquiry became quickly apparent. First, with too little support of the theoretical and course content, students have nothing to reason with or to apply. Second, with too much support, faculty can enervate the inquiry spirit that is so innate to curiosity. Hence, the degree of support which we call scaffolding and the timing of the scaffolding in a just-in-time approach are inquiry teaching skills that faculty often pick up with trial and error.

Key takeaways and recommendations

For those interested in incorporating inquiry-guided learning into their courses:

  • Start small. Begin by modifying one or two assignments to include an inquiry element rather than trying to revise a full course.
  • Frame the assignments around a problem that sparks curiosity.
  • Scaffold students’ learning of course content as they develop ways to solve the problem.

Challenges notwithstanding, this pedagogy enhances student learning. In fact, two published collections of essays emerged from this effort, and faculty from nearly every discipline contributed essays to the books. Conversations with faculty from many institutions and across the disciplines at the college institute, the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts, sparked faculty interest in pursuing publication of their classroom experiments. I wrote a book proposal with my colleague Rebecca Harrison, who attended several institutes, and the accepted proposals turned into two books. If ever again I teach literary criticism to graduate students, I will retain the inquiry design of the course. Indeed, Paolo Freire’s idea of the liberating power of education can be enacted when students undertake the work of the disciplines in creatively designed courses and assignments.

Jeffery Galle serves as Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs in the University System of Georgia. Coming to the USG after 10 years with Emory’s Oxford College, he has led a number of faculty development initiatives, including the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts (IPLA), which a number of faculty from Georgia institutions have attended. He is the coauthor of How to Be a ‘HIP’ Campus: Maximizing Learning in Undergraduate Education (Rogers & Galle, 2015) and the coeditor and contributing author of two volumes of essays that emerged from the IPLA—Teaching, Pedagogy, and Learning (Galle & Harrison, 2017) and Revitalizing Classrooms (Galle & Harrison, 2017). Very interested in scholarship associated with place, he is also the coeditor and contributing author to Pedagogy and Place: From the Abstract to the Quotidian (Shannon & Galle, 2017).

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