Inquiry-Based Problem-Solving Tasks

Use inquiry-based problem solving tasks to support learners to generate questions, identify key ideas, and problem solve about a topic
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Inquiry-Based Problem-Solving Tasks

About This Strategy

During inquiry-based problem solving tasks, students must solve a "mystery," or a series of tasks and questions, that introduces a concept that they will learn. The goal of the task is to have students generate questions, identify key ideas, and orient themselves to the the topic. For example, students can have an allotted number of days to collaboratively (with their detective partner) discover the clues and work their way to a potential solution (solve the crime).  This generates a desire to problem solve and pushes students during the following lessons to learn the skills they need to solve the mystery and return to the terms and questions that were generated. The engaging nature of this strategy supports students to take risks and try different strategies in order to solve a complex task.

Implementation Steps

60 minutes
  1. To create an inquiry-based task, start at your unit or standards level and ask yourself, "What are the big ideas and skills that students need in order to master the skills?" Then, develop a mystery problem for students to explore.

  2. Determine the amount of time that students should have to solve the problem (one day, one week, etc.) and the allotted time of day that students will have to engage in this task.

  3. Determine what success looks like. Ask yourself, "What does a 'solved problem' look like?"

  4. Before introducing a larger inquiry-based problem solving task to students, create spaces early on for guided inquiry: to pre-assess or activate prior knowledge, or to introduce a topic in smaller, shorter tasks. Give students time to reflect on these tasks to think about what made them successful in solving the problem.

  5. When your students are ready, create a question-based task, and have students leverage their prior knowledge to try and answer what they think it might be before engaging in the task.

  6. Have students identify places that are challenging, or what potential gaps exist, and record them.

  7. Monitor students' progress throughout the inquiry task by checking in with students or groups frequently, and/or having students report out on their progress.

  8. Use this experience in teaching the skills that unit, and return back to the same questions over time and see if newly learned skills help breakthrough challenges.

Special Education Modification

Nedra Massenburg
Special Education Specialist

Inquiry-based problem-solving tasks or "mystery/puzzle" tasks are excellent avenues to help engage students with disabilities who may struggle with traditional classroom learning strategies.  The engaging nature of a mystery or puzzle can provide these students with new ways to take risks and try different strategies in order to solve a complex task.

The open-ended and complex nature of inquiry-based problem-solving tasks requires developed reading comprehension skills, writing skills, verbal communication skills, and executive functioning skills (task initiation, prioritization, working memory, etc.).  In order to support students with disabilities who have difficulty in these areas consider the following modifications:


  1. Use visual timers and verbal reminders during the problem-solving process to help students with task initiation and task completion. As an example, a teacher may say, “Now you will have five minutes with your group to share out what you think your next steps should be during tomorrow’s group time.  After the timer for five minutes goes off, I will ask one person in your group to summarize your next steps to the class.” 

  2.  Consider giving students with disabilities more structured methods to record their thoughts and observations during inquiry-based tasks. Intervene to push these students to refer to these methods when they are stuck or confused on next steps. See the "I Notice I Wonder" article in the resource section below.

  3.  If multiple teachers are present in a setting, consider having one teacher work in a small group of students with disabilities to provide them both more scaffolded modeling of how to engage with inquiry-based tasks but also more frequent feedback on their completion of tasks.

  4.  The first several inquiry-based tasks students are asked to engage with should end with specific verbal and written feedback from the teacher to the whole class on the quality of task engagement.  This will ensure all students, and especially students with disabilities, have strong examples of exemplar problem-solving skills. As an example, a teacher may say “I loved that group number one first took time to decide on their roles for completing today’s problem.  They decided one person will read aloud all parts of the tasks, a different person is the recorder of data, and the last group member is responsible for performing all of the demonstrations. Clear roles in the group have allowed them to complete their tasks efficiently and be able to use the feedback they are given quickly.  In the next three minutes, I want all other groups to make a decision about how they want to assign roles for the rest of this task. ”

EL Modification

Shannon Coyle
English Learner Specialist

Inquiry-Based Problem-Solving Tasks are a rich way to engage English learners in group work and taking academic risks. Learners at all proficiency levels will benefit from the structures and scaffolds this strategy provides. Using this strategy also allows for English learners to leverage their prior knowledge which builds confidence. 

This task requires English learners to connect to their prior knowledge and convey that knowledge to a group through speaking and writing. Learners are also required to conduct research by reading. In order to support English Learners consider the following modifications:


  1. Put English learners in heterogeneous groups that will be most supportive. Consider social dynamics as well as language skills to ensure all learners’ ideas will be included. Consider assigning roles to individual learners. Consider anchoring learners at lower levels of proficiency with learners who speak the same home language to allow for idea generation in the home language. See the "How should ELLs be grouped for instruction?" article in the resource section below for more information.
  2. Post strong questions stems visibly on the wall. Give English learners a personal copy to reference when they are generating questions. When checking on the progress of groups, reference and encourage the use of the question stems. Consider practicing the question stems chorally with the whole class. See the "Academic Language Functions Toolkit" in the resource section below.
  3. Explicitly teach or pre-teach content specific vocabulary learners will encounter during their exploration. Have learners reference their vocabulary sheets when working on tasks. 

  4. Provide comprehensible research content. English learners at all proficiency levels will require text or other media in a form they can understand in order to apply the skill. Curating a list of sources that you know will contain information that is written or spoken in language English learners can decipher will allow them to focus on the task. Consider providing video content in particular for English learners at lower levels of proficiency. Consider partnering with English learners’ specialists for sources designed for speakers of other languages and/or creating space in ESL class for research. See the "Research and Bilingual Content Resources for English Learners" resource in the resource section below.