Open Inquiry: A Guide to Getting Started

Open Inquiry: A Guide to Getting Started

Student-led inquiry is one of the best ways for students to learn and retain content, and for them to learn how to learn on their own in the future. The Beagle Open Inquiry Question Cycle, which we use in our inquiry classes, breaks down the research and team-sharing process into steps students find comprehensible and are able to follow. Below is an instructional video and how-to guide for how you can use an open inquiry model in your course.

Open Inquiry Learning Online: Here's How We Do It

Student-led inquiry learning online: Here's how we do it

Start with a Goal Question for your course

Start your class by setting, either on your own, or, ideally with the students, a Goal Question for the course.

For online asynchronous courses, students might, with your support, each select their own Goal Question.

This question should be too broad and too interdisciplinary to be fully answered during your course (or, maybe, ever), but it should also be intriguing and motivating.


Example Goal Questions:

Some that have worked for us in college classes:

  • What will the Moon look like after humans have settled it?
  • What is the future of theater in the time of COVID?
  • How will we find extraterrestrial life and what should we do once we find it?
  • What is the meaning and benefit of failure?

Students form their first Natural Next Question

Students immediately enter the “learn” part of the cycle; this is the part we call the Question Cycle.

Together or individually, students create their Natural Next Question (NNQ).

This is a question not about what they know already, but instead, a research question that takes them one right-sized step from what they know toward their Goal Question.

Example Natural Next Questions:

Some examples of NNQs that can be at least partially answered by reading one source include:

  • What motivations do people have to settle the Moon?
  • How is theater now affected by new public laws been written around the world in the time of COVID?
  • How do we define “failure” in the classroom?

Students find information

Once that NNQ is set, students have completed the “form a question” part of the question cycle.

Now, following whatever guidelines the instructor lays out, the students themselves find a piece of content that helps to answer their NNQ.

Depending on the age of the students and the resources at hand, the content may constitute a variety of things; examples are a peer-reviewed academic journal article, a newspaper article, or a conversation with an expert.

Students summarize the information they found

Students now summarize what they have learned. We recommend having each student follow a single page template that encourages them to extract the main conclusions of the content and write down how those conclusions are supported by the author of the content.

All of this opens the door to assessing the reliability and bias of sources, and to writing correctly and concisely, and to understand the nature of support for a conclusion.

Students share and reflect their summaries

Students should then share their main findings with each other, and help each other tune up the next NNQ. Then, the cycle starts again.


Students distill their learning

After two, three, or more Question Cycles, students will need to consolidate their learning to date, organize it mentally and graphically or in writing or presentation, and thus be ready to leap into a new set of Question Cycles from a firm foundation.

These distillations may be group exercises in drawing infographics, or they may be group or individual presentations, or podcasts, or speeches…many activities will fulfill the need to synthesize learning to date. (Giving a multiple-choice test, for instance, isn't calling for a student-distillation of knowledge.) After distilling, have students select a new NNQ, and off they go into the Question cycles again.

A semester-long course may consist of three week-long Question cycles, a week of distillation, and then repeat that pattern twice more before ending with a distillation of the whole course.

Planning Your Open Inquiry Course

For more details on planning your open inquiry course, check out my recent post: "Four Steps to Preparing an Open Inquiry Course." It provides detailed examples of students' weekly schedules, handouts, and videos.

Where does the Beagle Open Inquiry Question Cycle Fit?

Inquiry-based learning is suitable for any subject and any age group. The steps that I’ve shared on this type of open inquiry-based learning fit well for most academic disciplines, projects, or research experiences. If you have specific questions about how this type of inquiry fits for you please reach out to us at We’d love to share free resources and materials to help you in your education journey.