Inquiry-based learning has been regularly criticized by scholars who favor direct instruction. The authors in this paper push back on this sentiment by reviewing the evidence and arguing that a more complete interpretation of the literature demonstrates that inquiry-based instruction produces better overall results for acquiring conceptual knowledge than does direct instruction in a science/STEAM setting.

Definitions of Direct Instruction and Inquiry-Based Learning

The authors note the difficulty of providing a precise definition of direct instruction and inquiry-based learning as there are many different derivative uses and definitions by researchers. 

Direct instruction is defined as instruction that, at its core, conveys information directly—for example, by lecturing and by giving a leading role to the teacher or system (e.g., textbook). Direct instruction admittedly contains a passive component (lecturing, text presentation in books), but students can also be active in making sense of the information offered (note taking, practice), and use experimentation to confirm already learned theories.

Inquiry-based learning is thought of as a way to construct conceptual knowledge. Students may be asked to invent, construct, or discover any of the critical practices, concepts, or principles on their own.

Analyzing the Effectiveness of Inquiry-Based and Direct Instruction on Three Research Areas

The authors reviewed evidence from the literature that bears on the relative effectiveness of inquiry-based and direct instruction in three research areas: controlled studies, correlational work, and program-based studies. 

  • Controlled Studies: Found that guided inquiries that may include some elements of direct instruction were more effective than inquiries that had little to no guidance.
  • Correlation Work: Successful instructional approaches can include student investigations as long as adequate guidance, possibly including direct instruction, is given for designated aspects of  the inquiry process
  • Program-based Studies: Compared the effectiveness of two curriculums, one that was based on inquiry principles and another that was “business as usual”. The evidence from these studies certainly does not show the overall superiority of the direct instruction approach.

Inquiry-Based and Direct Instruction Can Both Be Used in the Classroom in a Complementary Way

Overall, the literature shows the benefits of inquiry-based instruction over direct instruction for acquiring conceptual knowledge. While the authors have mainly focused on conceptual domain knowledge as the outcome of the learning process, inquiry-based instruction may have some additional learning outcomes that are worthwhile for students, such as knowledge of the nature of science. Inquiry learning is also associated with higher interest in and enjoyment of science and higher self-efficacy. Being involved in inquiry learning may also be better preparation for future learning than following direct instruction. Finally, inquiry learning is very naturally situated in a collaborative community setting in this way helping students to develop valuable collaboration.

It was also noted that direction instruction and inquiry learning can be complementary to each other. When direct instruction precedes inquiry learning it can equip students with the required prior knowledge and skills. It can also expose them to a different view of the domain before exploring it. The authors also elucidated that telling before inquiry can be important when the domain includes multiple latent entities having complex interplay.

Notable Quotes: 

“Not every topic worth learning lends itself well to inquiry learning.”

“Above and beyond subject-matter characteristics, teachers and curriculum designers should align their instructional and assessment methods with the kind of learning outcomes they expect from students.”

“Another insight that can be gleaned from early instructional design theories is that students’ initial knowledge is an important condition for productive inquiry-based learning.”

Personal Takeaway: 

This article contained some really good ideas about the best application of inquiry-based learning including how direct instruction can be used with it in a complimentary way. It helped me better understand the philosophical principles of inquiry learning and how that can be translated on a practical level. It was interesting to see that prior knowledge was mentioned as a critical factor in the success of inquiry learning.—Matt Browne

de Jong, T., Lazonder, A. W., Chinn, C. A., Fischer, F., Gobert, J., Hmelo-Silver, C. E., … & Zacharia, Z. C. (2023). Let’s talk evidence–The case for combining inquiry-based and direct instruction. Educational Research Review, 100536.

Key Takeaway

Over the past decade, we’ve seen a general increase in science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics (STEAM) education as well as making it more inclusive by supporting students with learning disabilities (LD) and/or emotional behavioral disorder (EBD). There are a number of tools and resources available for teachers for maximizing remote instruction to make sure that all students are given equitable opportunities in STEAM education. Teachers can ensure that all of their students are able to participate in remote STEAM instruction by intentionally looking at strategies and frameworks that cater to students with LD or EBD. —Jay Lingo 

On top of that, learning structures have been expanded, adapting to different platforms of remote or face-to-face instruction each with a variety of instructional modes, including synchronous and asynchronous learning. These resources require a deliberate focus on framework and strategies.


STEAM and universal design for learning (UDL) frameworks go hand-in-hand to help ground practice to support all students. “There are seven tenets of STEAM integrated Framework (1) real-world context/authentic problem (2) science/content inquiry (3) mathematical problem-solving (4) engineered hands-on activity (5) incorporation of the arts (6) use of technology (7) general conclusion for the real world.” While “UDL can be applied as an overlay to existing curricula as a way to promote access to the content by reducing the barriers to learning,” the UDL framework is designed to provide teachers and students with support that encourages individualization of the teaching and learning process. It appears that STEAM and UDL frameworks are complementary and provide a solid foundation for STEAM education to students with LD or EBD regardless of environment or setting. 


Inquiry-based instruction

Scaffolded inquiry-based instruction finds more success for science and math learning outcomes. Using the three types of framing questions below will explicitly frame a topic to structure the discussion. 

  • Prelude – used to focus on a student’s previous knowledge as an advance organizer.
  • Outline – visually represented questions and subquestions.
  • Summary – concluding questions to connect concepts.


Students are first given the opportunity to manipulate concrete or physical objects to navigate a problem; they then progress to the representational stage, where they solve the problem by replacing those manipulatives with drawings on paper. Finally, they use the appropriate numbers, operational symbols, and notations based on the concept built from the previous stage. 

Graphic organizers 

These are visual supports that students can use to assist in organizing information to improve the understanding of content and concepts. It is often categorized by purpose: cause and effect, classifying, comparing and contrasting, describing, and sequencing. There are also multiple ways to access visual supports in remote instruction by using web-based programs such as Inspiration and Kidspiration, Mind Map, or Google Drawings where students can be guided whether in a synchronous or asynchronous setup. 

Overall, with proper support and resources available, teachers can help ensure all of their students participate in remote STEAM instruction with the inclusion of strategies and a framework that caters to students with LD or EBD. 

Summarized Article:

Taylor, J. C., & Hwang, J. (2021). Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics Remote Instruction for Students With Disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 10534512211001858.

Summary by: Jay Lingo – Jay believes the MARIO Framework is providing structure and common meaning to learning support programs across the globe. Backed up with current research on the best practices in inclusion and general education, we can reimagine education…together.

Researcher Jonté C. Taylor was involved in the final version of this summary.