IBL Guide for Social Work in Higher Education

Inquiry-Based Learning Guide for Social Work in Higher Education

This manual provides a guide for getting started with IBL. Its purpose is not to provide a prescriptive formula for facilitating IBL, but rather to provide insight into how one might go about implementing this approach in social work education. The goal is to promote the use of this approach and to welcome ongoing experimentation and conversation with best and promising practices in IBL. It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to do IBL; indeed, every IBL classroom looks a little different. We agree with Robyn Mueller at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning who says, “I think it’s important to emphasize that IBL cannot be “planned” as a conventional lecture can be and that the students in the room are the primary influencers with respect to how the process rolls out.” 

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Team at work

Team at work

Design meaningful experiential learning experiences that actively engage students, and encourage collaboration between students, instructors and often community partners

"Because you’re talking to people that are living it and you’re seeing in their expressions what they describe…Instead of it being a theoretical conversation, you’re seeing what that looks like on a day-to-day for people (MSW, 2-week Group Study Program, 2017, taken from manuscript)."

          In Fall 2015, SOWK 627, Practice with Organizations and Communities, students were tasked with learning a specific skill, how to do a community assessment. Through our field trip to East Village, students followed an assessment structure in their assigned groups to assess the community. After drafting their initial assessment, they returned to the community to share their impressions and receive feedback from residents and people working in the neighborhood. Following this assessment task, students then participated in an in-class structured controversy to further develop their critical thinking skills and challenge their prior knowledge, values, and beliefs. Active learning activities can be stressful and challenging for students, particularly Foundation year when they have yet to discover what is social work practice. I have used the student feedback (further choice and independent learning direction), to develop inquiry-based learning teaching strategies.

         As a further example of meaningful experiential learning experiences, I used student feedback from the 2016 Group Study Program (noted above) to create a subsequent Group Study Program (GSP) for the UK in 2017. This allowed me to engage in greater support for student learning of the IBL process at the beginning of the course creating an IBL module to supplement readings, conversations, activities, and assessment tasks. Throughout the GSP course, students engaged peers, students, faculty, community partners, researchers, and service users from the UK. Their inquiry was shaped by these varied sources of knowledge as they reported on their inquiry through blog posts and engaged with peers and instructors by responding to peer blog posts. Below is an example of a student quotes of their inquiry-based and experiential learning experiences.

"We visited Queens University (Belfast) where they were holding a conference on intergenerational trauma and the risk, resilience, and impact on children, families, and communities due to The Troubles in Northern Ireland that lasted from approximately 1968-1998. We later heard from service users from the Wave Trauma Center…about their experiences of trauma during The Troubles and the impact on their lives, as well as the impact on the lives of other intergenerational family members.  These were just a glimpse into the stops made on this Group Study Program that contributed to my learning, the discussions with locals, other service providers, service users, students, and others all had a part to play as well in my inquiry-based learning journey. (MSW, 2-week Group Study Program, 2017, taken from manuscript)"


Archer-Kuhn, B., Wiedeman, D., & Chalifoux, J. (2020). Student engagement and deep learning in social work education: Reflections on inquiry-based learning on our group study program course in the UK. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 24(2), 107-122. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1267741.pdf


2017 GSP in UK


Student Feed back from GSP in UK

           After returning from GSP #2 to the UK GSP in 2017, one of these students, Margaret Abrams, continued to work with me on a shared project comparing service user participation in social work education between Canada and the UK. She then presented her work and was awarded first prize in the FSW Research Symposium for her work on this project in the winter of 2018.

  • "I almost wish I could go back to school for another year to apply my new way of researching. Learning in this way creates a space for a more intense and thoughtful university career and student work-life balance. I now know there is no separation between learning and working, possibly the most vital lesson to use in my career (BSW student on GSP and RA, 2017)"
  • "Because you’re talking to people that are living it and you’re seeing in their expressions what they describe…Instead of it being a theoretical conversation, you’re seeing what that looks like on a day-to-day for people (MSW, 2-week Group Study Program, 2017, taken from manuscript)."
  • "You definitely have to put in a lot more effort in IBL because it’s not something that you can learn just from a literature review. You actually have to go out there and talk to people who have experience and you need to make those relationships, those connections to be able to get information regarding your inquiry question. It’s just really you have to put more effort (MSW, 6-week course, 2016, taken from manuscript)."

  • "As a social scientist and a researcher, and a social worker student, the guiding principles of Inquiry-based learning have echoed my critical reflections on the conventional relationship between 'teacher' and 'student'. Rather than having the teacher teaches, inquiry-based learning creates a platform where everyone can participate and enrich one another's learning, it also empowers people to own their learning. I am very encouraged and fascinated by the participants' feedback in this project (RA, 2017-18)."

  • "Rather than acquiring knowledge from instruction, the inquiry-based learning experience offered a way to construct new knowledge into a topic area of interest through dialog with professionals, service users, and the community at large.  With the ability to go into the community and exchange dialog face-to-face, new information lead to new lines of questioning. This is what the inquiry experience offers. (MSW 2-week, Group Study Program, 2016, taken from manuscript)."

  • "What I enjoyed about working in a group was the time allotted for informal group processing regarding peer assessment. The peer feedback forms that were filled out by group members gave me lists of strengths and improvements while working within the group. These forms assisted in my identification of what I could change to become a more effective and accountable group member. I appreciated the constructive criticism given to me by my peers throughout the assignment as I believe that this portion of the assignment enhanced my learning in a way that a textbook or lecture would not be able to. As an emerging social worker, peer feedback and constructive criticism can be a helpful tool in the development of professional use of self within practice. (BSW student, 13-week course, 2019, taken from final reflection)"

  • "One of the beautiful pieces of IBL is that the professor is in the trenches with us doing the learning with us and reflecting questions back to us when we are asking question. Instead of being the knowledge keeper they are being a knowledge translator. They are in the process with us, so I really felt like we were all moving through the process like maybe different places on the continuum but we were all moving through it together, and they weren’t sort of standing on the pool deck directing us, the instructor is in the pool with us (BSW, 13-week course, 2016, taken from manuscript)."

2017 GSP in UK

2017 GSP 2017

Set clear goals and expectations for integrating real-work learning experiences in courses and individual learning activities

  • "I think it is the intention. This is what I want to learn and making sure I get the answers. If there are no answers then looking for more questions…It’s more, what’s your intention, what do you hope to get from this process? Knowing there is a focus. Rather than just being in class because you have to be in class (BSW, 13-week course, 2017, taken from the manuscript)."

In 2017, fourth-year students enrolled in SOWK 395, Social Work Practice with Groups, learned the skills of leading groups through experiential activities such as observing Task Groups and facilitating Task Groups. As part of the course activities, students formed groups where they worked through the creation of a therapeutic group during class time. To learn about task groups, students were to attend and observe a task group, either on campus or in the community at a social service organization and respond in writing to specific questions about how task groups function. Next, they were to facilitate a task group so I arranged for them to attend a student-led IBL research symposium that I helped to organize with students who had previously participated in IBL, either as a student in a course or a research assistant on IBL studies.  Thirty-five students attended the IBL conference and participated in the facilitation of multiple task groups as an experiential learning experience.

Archer-Kuhn, B., Lee, Y., Finnessey, S., & Liu, J. (2020). Inquiry-based learning as a facilitator to student engagement in higher education. Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 8(1).  https://dx.doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.8.1.x