Note the Possibilities for Inquiry Learning: Step 2 of the Searching for ANSWERS Inquiry Process

Learn more about the second step in the ANSWERS inquiry process to help students explore possibilities and develop their research plan.

Grades 3-12 14 min Resource by:
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In the first step of Searching for ANSWERS via inquiry learning, students generated their essential question. In this second step, students will use this question to do some preliminary research about their identified topic, problem, task, or situation. They will also explore the possibilities for their inquiry and start making a plan for conducting their research.

When students generated their initial questions in Step 1, they likely had limited knowledge about their topic. It is challenging to ask questions with limited context and experience. Therefore, it’s important that students continue to learn more about their topic before locking in on their final inquiry plan. As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” By starting with some preliminary research, students will gain background knowledge that will help them refine their question before they dive deeper into investigating the answers.

A well-educated mind will always have more questions than answers.

Helen Keller, American author

With stronger background knowledge, the gap between what students know and don’t know will be smaller, and they will be better able to absorb and comprehend new learning. According to Robert Marzano, author of Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools, the “research literature supports one compelling fact: what students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content.”

In Step 2 of this process, students will use their question to expand upon what they already know by doing some preliminary research. This initial search will help them gain basic background knowledge and a better understanding of their topic. Based on this research, they will hypothesize possible answers, outcomes, or solutions. They will also start identifying and locating other potential resources, methods, and materials needed to conduct the deeper investigation. To be sure that they meet the requirements for the inquiry learning experience, this is a good time for them to review and make sure that they understand the assignment requirements. At this point, they will be ready to start formulating a plan for conducting their inquiry.

By completing these tasks in Step 2, students will be better able to consider the possibilities for their inquiry and to refine their question into a quality thesis or hypothesis statement that they will then research to answer or prove. To help guide students through these steps, you can use this Note the Possibilities template. Feel free to make a copy to modify as needed for your learners.

Below are some strategies and digital tools that you can use as you guide students through noting the possibilities for their inquiry learning.

Hypothesize Possible Answers/Outcomes/Solutions

The objective of this phase is to gain background knowledge, explore possibilities related to the inquiry question, and develop a quality hypothesis or thesis statement that will drive their research. The following tips can help them during this process:

Conduct Preliminary Research

Students will do some preliminary research to learn more about the topic, problem, task, or situation.

Read, listen, view/observe.

If you have access to a library media specialist, they can help guide your students to accessing and using the building, district, and/or state subscriptions and databases. Students can also use the following resources as they conduct their preliminary research:

  • Reference resources
    • Encyclopedias can be a great resource for preliminary research, as they give a broad overview on a wide range of topics and can provide the background knowledge needed to dive deeper into the research.
      • Britannica is a freemium encyclopedia that has a long history of being accepted as a credible resource. It is helpful for students to start with a resource that they trust, where they can gain some insights that will help them recognize misinformation in other sources.
      • Wikipedia is community written and, therefore, should not be used or cited as a formal resource during the deeper investigation. However, it can be used by students to gain a general overview of a topic and identify key words and potential ways to narrow or broaden the scope of their research question. Students can also leverage the list of reference resources listed at the end of most articles to find more credible resources for their deeper investigation.
    • There are many free journal and research databases that your students can use. See 101 Free Online Journal and Research Databases for Academics on Scribendi for descriptions and links.
  • Class text and curriculum materials
  • Other trusted or required resources

Gather background information.

While exploring these sources, students should look for ideas and consider possibilities for their inquiry.

  • Because this is preliminary research, students should skim rather than deeply reading each resource. They can skim for ideas related to their question by using these strategies:
    • Review the table of contents, if available.
    • Scan the articles for the main headings and subheadings.
    • Read the first and last paragraph(s) of the article.
    • Read the first and last sentences of any relevant or intriguing paragraphs.
    • Fully read any paragraph that will help in better understanding the nature of the topic and inquiry question.
  • Students should note key words, potential subtopics, and any new or intriguing information.
    • While they skim these resources, students should be noting what is being said about their topic, considering potential ways that they can narrow or broaden the scope of their inquiry, and identifying key words that will help them in their deeper investigation. The goal is to find a specific and interesting aspect to their inquiry.
    • Students should be asking these key questions as they do this preliminary search:
      • What are the main ideas and subtopics related to the inquiry question?
      • What are the key words or phrases being used in relation to the topic?
      • What do you discover when you click on any embedded links?
      • Is there enough information to answer the question given the time available to complete the inquiry? Do you need to broaden or narrow the scope of your question?
      • Do you see new ideas that spark your interest?

Draft a concept or mind map.

As students conduct their preliminary research, have them create a concept or mind map, both to process the information that they are gathering and to consider potential ways to break down and organize their topic into subparts. These maps can help students think critically about their topic, while also helping them illustrate the connections that they are making between concepts related to their topic. Students can put their inquiry question from the Ask Questions step into the center of their map and branch off to include the subtopics and key words that they are finding in their preliminary research.

This is a draft of a concept map created in Mindomo


This visual representation also provides an opportunity for you to see what students are thinking so that you can provide feedback before they invest more time into their research.  According to Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church in The Power of Making Thinking Visible: Practices to Engage and Empower All Learners, “We want not only to get our students to think but also to understand that thinking process as it is unfolding, so that we can support it, prompt it, and grow it.” Concept maps can be a powerful way to accomplish this goal, and they can be created with digital mind mapping tools as well as digital whiteboards and drawing tools.

Write a hypothesis or thesis statement.

In this step, students write a hypothesis/thesis statement using the information and ideas that they gathered during their preliminary research as well as the question(s) they generated in the first step of the inquiry process. This statement will guide and drive their deep investigation as they conduct research to prove or test their claim.

Students can assess the quality of their hypothesis or thesis statement by using the SMART criteria that they used to assess the inquiry question they generated in Step 1: Ask Questions.

  • Specific
    • Is it clear and focused? Is it not too broad or too narrow in scope and complexity?
    • Is it not easily answered or solved with a simple Google search?
  • Manageable
    • Is it something that you can answer or solve?
    • Is it possible to answer or solve within the time frame and with the resources available?
  • Appropriate
    • Does it relate to the learning objectives?
    • Does it spark interest for you and your audience?
  • Researchable
    • Are there enough materials and resources available to answer or solve it?
  • Thought-Provoking
      • Does it require deep exploration and critical thinking to answer or solve?

While the steps of the Searching for ANSWERS inquiry process are laid out in a linear fashion, the process is rarely linear. For example, at this point, students will likely need to revisit and revise their original question so that it reflects what they learned during their preliminary research. They will also need to refine their concept or mind map to align to their final thesis or hypothesis. This map will be referenced often, as they conduct their research, take and organize data or notes, and design the product or presentation that will be used to communicate their findings with others.

Identify and Locate Resources, Methods, and Materials

Once students settle on a thesis or hypothesis statement for their inquiry, they need to make a plan for researching, answering/solving, and sharing their findings. Below are tasks that students can complete to prepare for their investigation:

Review Assignment Requirements

Before making their plan, students should review your requirements for ensuring that they conduct quality research. These may include:

  • Timeline: What is the time frame for completing this project?
  • Resources: Are there required materials or resources that must be used? How many primary and/or secondary resources are required?
  • Methods: What are the expectations for how to conduct the research?
  • Final Product: What are the requirements for communicating the findings?

Make a Research Plan

Based on the assignment requirements and their hypothesis/thesis statement, students should make their research plan. Depending upon the age and experience of your students, you will need to provide varying degrees of scaffolding and support for the development of this plan.

Regardless of the learner’s age, the more students can be given some voice and choice in the plan, the more empowered they will feel. When we empower our students, they will be more motivated to engage in (and complete) the inquiry project, especially during more complex inquiries. For example, students could generate the timeline together as a class, they could choose how they want to creatively communicate their learning with others, or they could create and submit their own research plan for you to review and approve.

Students should consider the following as they develop their research plan:

  • Tasks and Timeline: Identify tasks to be completed and create checklists using digital tools like Google Keep, Taskade, or Sticky Notes. Develop a timeline for completing each task and add these timeline dates to Google Calendar, Microsoft Outlook, or another calendar. Use notifications to remind you of upcoming deadlines.
  • Resources: List possible resources or materials that you will use to answer or test your thesis/hypothesis. Note where you can find these resources.
  • Methods: Identify how you will collect information and/or conduct the research. For example, you might use databases, search engines, surveys, interviews, experiments, etc.
  • Final Product/Presentation: Identify your potential audience(s) and determine how you can effectively communicate your findings to them.

As mentioned previously, the inquiry process is not completely linear. Students should be encouraged to continue to ask questions throughout the entire process. As they learn more, they will likely find that they need to revisit and revise these original plans.