7 Imagine | Question | Search | Synthesize

A case study in fostering intellectual curiosity with inquiry-based learning

Marta Samokishyn and Martha Attridge Bufton

“When students are curious and take ownership of their learning, they feel empowered to research their topics of inquiry and, in the process, can increase their understanding of core information literacy concepts and acquire new information literacy skills.”


“. . . people learn by confronting intriguing, beautiful, or important problems, authentic tasks that will challenge them to grapple with ideas, rethink their assumptions, and examine their mental models of reality” (Bain, 2004, p.18).


Students might perceive searching a database for peer-reviewed articles to be a bit boring, even tedious. Choose keywords, connect them with Boolean operators, maybe add quotation marks to a phrase—why would they bother with these steps when they can just throw some words into a search field and let algorithms work their magic to solve our information-seeking problems for them? But when students are on the hunt for information to help them understand the link between childhood trauma and anxiety or the impact of police brutality on people of colour, or the relationship between green urban spaces and mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic, then the process of “finding the right stuff” may not be so tiresome. Instead, when they are curious, intrigued, and eager to discover materials that might help solve a problem that matters to them, then constructing a well-structured search can be a task worth doing.


Information literacy programs can be designed to foster such intellectual curiosity and excitement. Following inquiry-based learning strategies, academic librarians can create individual sessions and courses that present students with authentic opportunities to solve complex problems that are meaningful to them and, in the process, teach them how to become better researchers (Hepworth & Walton, 2009). As teaching librarians, we have taught many traditional “one shot” sessions in our subject areas that focus on developing a single skill (e.g. searching) rather than addressing the complexity of information literacy skills and competencies. These sessions are typically one to three hours in length and embedded in discipline-based courses taught by other faculty. The content often consists of a demonstration of a library search tool or a “guest lecture” on a topic related to a specific assignment ​​(Nicholson, 2016).


However, many librarians and information science experts acknowledge this approach to teaching information literacy is inherently problematic (Bastone & Clement, 2022; Nicholson, 2016;  Pagowsky, 2021). A single session that is relatively short in length does not provide enough time for students to acquire relatively sophisticated searching and evaluation skills, let alone grapple with key threshold concepts, such as those identified in the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (ACRL, 2015). In addition, students are not typically required to complete graded assignments, so librarians have limited opportunities to assess student learning in these one-shot sessions. Our own experiences, as well as the recent report, entitled Academic skill deficiencies in four Ontario universities, suggest that, due to a lack of information literacy content in undergraduate curricula, Ontario students may be graduating without having acquired the core research skills (e.g., discovering and accessing academic materials) that both they and their professors consider critical to a successful undergraduate experience (Grayson et al., 2019).


Alternatively, a credit-bearing course grounded in inquiry-based learning could more effectively foster students’ intellectual curiosity (Zion & Sadeh, 2007), which, in turn, can positively impact student motivation and self-efficacy (Buchanan et al., 2016; Clark, 2017). A semester-long inquiry-based course allows students to engage more fully in the inquiry process and tackle multiple information-related skills. As a result, students acquire a useful set of information literacy skills, such as searching, evaluating, citing, and writing with integrity. The process of acquiring these skills is scaffolded throughout the course and thus enables students to develop an integrated set of research competencies through a series of activities and graded assignments.


In this chapter, we share the case of designing a credit-bearing semester-long course: Imagine | Question | Search | Synthesize: Critical foundations for undergraduate research. Over the past year, we have been part of an inter-institutional team of academic librarians that has developed this course for English-speaking students in Canadian universities that could also benefit those teaching in other North American post-secondary institutions. Using a “backwards design” approach to curriculum development and an inquiry-based learning approach, this 14-week course gives students the opportunity to research an “intriguing” problem, i.e., a problem that interests them. By completing a series of scaffolded assignments, culminating in a short narrative literature review, students explore the current scholarly conversations on an issue about which they are curious while learning and applying essential information literacy skills and competencies. To finish their summative assignment in this course, students must learn to find and evaluate sources as well as closely read and synthesize these materials and write a well-structured academic paper.

Theoretical foundations: intellectual curiosity and inquiry-based learning

Our curriculum for this credit-bearing course is informed by two key concepts: inquiry-based learning and intellectual curiosity. Before proceeding further with the curriculum design, it is important to lay theoretical foundations for these two concepts and share our understanding of their significance for creating and teaching effective information literacy programs.

Inquiry-based learning

Inquiry-based learning is a learner-centered pedagogical approach. It can be defined as engaging “in open-ended research,” often in the form of a “self-directed scholarly investigation”  (McKinney, 2014; McKinney & Levy, 2006). Inquiry-based learning values students’ prior knowledge and experiences, focuses on authentic and holistic knowledge driven by students’ interests and leverages “student motivation and engagement through grounding it in an authentic research problem” (Buchanan et al., 2016; Pagowsky & McElroy, 2016).


According to Hepworth and Walton (2009), inquiry-based learning in information literacy is associated with “deep learning.” Students can ask questions within a specific area of investigation, conduct searches, select sources, and report on their findings (Hepworth & Walton, 2009, p. 82). As a result, they become “researchers” and gain a sense of ownership and responsibility over their learning, both of which are essential for academic success (Hepworth & Walton, 2009; Pedaste et al., 2015). Thus, an inquiry-based approach to learning cultivates students’ sense of agency and self-efficacy while at the same time drawing upon and fostering the development of their intellectual curiosity.

Intellectual curiosity

Intellectual curiosity can be defined as a personality trait, i.e., a set of characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. More specifically, intellectual curiosity reflects the trait of openness or a willingness to engage with new ideas and in new experiences (Gatzka & Hell, 2018). Openness is one of the “big five” cluster of psychological traits that also includes conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (McCrae & John, 1992). While researchers have determined that conscientiousness is linked to academic performance, it can also be argued that openness is also a “pillar” of successful student learning (von Stumm et. al., 2011).


Given that this trait can be a predictor of academic performance, von Stumm et al. (2011) suggest that programs of higher education should be designed to ensure that “students’ intellectual curiosity is continuously stimulated and nurtured” (p. 582). Since intellectual curiosity is also closely related to intrinsic motivation (Gruber et al., 2014), this personality trait can also be an essential determining factor in the level(s) of student engagement as well as creativity, which is an essential element of inquiry-based learning (Hosier, 2022; Karwowski, 2012; Kashdan & Fincham, 2002). Teachers, including academic librarians, need to design programs, courses, and lessons that are learner-centred and feed “hungry minds”.

Using “backwards” curriculum design to create inquiry-based learning

Based on these two concepts, we used a “backwards design” approach to plan our curriculum for a 14-week information literacy course for undergraduate students. Increasingly, those teaching in higher education settings (including academic librarians) are adopting models of instructional design that are “backward” in nature (for example, ACRL, 2015; Mills et al., 2019). These backward or results-focused designs do not begin with the design of content and classroom activities but, instead, start with overarching learning goals that, in turn, determine forms of assessment before finishing with the design of content and interactions that will be integrated into a given lesson or class (Allen & Tanner, 2007; Fink, 2013). Content-focused curricula are more teacher-centred, whereas results-focused curricula are seen as more learner-centred because the emphasis is on deep understanding and the ability to transfer ideas and skills to different contexts (Junisbai, 2014, p. 333). 


The “backwards” instructional design model identifies three steps to the curriculum planning process (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). One, identify desired results (i.e., learning goals). These results can be informed by widely accepted standards. For those teaching in higher education, such standards may be informed by professional bodies or at a faculty and/or program level. However, for some disciplines or areas of teaching, high-level goals or standards may not be broadly articulated or enforced. For example, North American academic librarians are not required to teach a set of information literacy standards. However, Canadian and American librarians teaching in post-secondary institutions have developed models for teaching information literacy that can inform curricular design, such as the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, which articulates six “big ideas” or threshold concepts (ACRL 2015). These concepts can be used to inform learning goals.


Two, based on these goals, identify the relevant evidence of student performance. Assessment can be for learning, i.e., evidence of how students are progressing through a lesson or course so that feedback can be provided and learning can be improved. Assessment can also be of learning, i.e., what students have learned at the end of a lesson or course. Both forms of assessment should include authentic performance tasks (i.e., tasks that require students to apply the knowledge and skills acquired in the course to problems that they will need to perform in their personal and/or professional lives) as well as other evidence of learning, such as participation in group discussions, reflections, and quizzes. Authentic tasks allow students to pursue those topics about which they are curious and demonstrate knowledge, skill, and understanding through the accomplishment of tasks that they can expect to perform after graduation (Buchanan, 2016).


Three, develop a learning plan to achieve learning outcomes. Instructors can take a variety of approaches to the design of this component. One approach that is widely taught to Canadian post-secondary instructors is the BOPPPS lesson plan (Instructional Skills Workshop Network, 2018). Developed in British Columbia in the 1970s, this lesson plan is flexible–it can be used to develop a “one shot” lecture or teaching session or used to build modules and an entire course–and encourages instructors to provide opportunities for participatory learning as well as assessment for and of learning.


Each lesson begins with a bridge (B) into the topic and the articulation of learning outcomes (O). Some pre-assessment (P) is done to identify the current level of student understanding before moving into participatory learning activities (P). At the end of the lesson, a post-assessment (P) of students’ learning is done before the content and activities are summarized (see our generic learning plan with integrated BOPPS in Appendix 1). By privileging participatory learning in a BOPPPS learning plan, instructors are encouraged to design lessons that are learner-centred and experiential in nature. For example, instructors can design activities that are informed by Kolb’s model of experiential learning, which fosters understanding through concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation (Kolb, 1984, p. 42). Participatory learning is central to inquiry-based learning, which encourages students to actively engage with content and activities, based on their own knowledge and interests (Conklin & Boulmasti, 2020).

Critical foundations in undergraduate research: A case study of designing an inquiry-based curriculum to foster intellectual curiosity

North American academic librarians have a “love-hate” relationship with one-shot information literacy sessions (Mery et al., 2012). On the one hand, we welcome the opportunity to work directly with undergraduate students because we believe that they need (and expect to acquire) core research skills in order to succeed in their academic program. On the other hand, as previously mentioned, we do not always have sufficient time to foster student curiosity or to encourage deep learning, i.e., the capacity to understand and transfer ideas and skills across a variety of contexts, both academic and professional (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). And while some Canadian and American academic librarians have developed and taught semester-long courses, this approach to teaching information is still uncommon (Frail & Severson, 2022; Sobel et al., 2018). Course development requires human and technical resources that are not always available to librarians. For example, librarians may face barriers to qualifying for grants that would support research into curriculum development (Carson et al., 2014).


Our solution to this conundrum was to find the resources to develop our own open-access credit-bearing course, a course which we could teach and share with colleagues not only in Ontario but also across North America.


In 2021, the authors were members of an inter-institutional research team that received a substantial provincial teaching grant to create an open-access credit-bearing information literacy course for first-year students. This team included:

  • Martha Attridge Bufton, Interdisciplinary Studies Librarian, Carleton University
  • Marta Samokishyn, Collection Development Librarian, Saint Paul University
  • David C Jackson, Teaching and Learning Librarian, Carleton University
  • Jennifer Dekker, Research Librarian for Arts, University of Ottawa
  • Anne Hemingway, Research Librarian for Arts, University of Ottawa
  • Catherine Lachaîne, Student Success Librarian, University of Ottawa

Based on individual teaching philosophies and experiences, in addition to the results of the recent report on Ontario university graduates, Academic skill deficiencies in four Ontario universities, the team identified the need for a first-year course that would teach students core research skills including the ability to identify good evidence, conduct effective online searches, and find scholarly sources (Grayson et al., 2015). The University of Ottawa team wrote and published a French-language course entitled Compétences informationnelles: Principes fondamentaux, which is available via the Open Library VLS Collection. The team members from Carleton University and Saint Paul University wrote and published an English language course entitled Imagine | Question | Search | Synthesize: Critical foundations for undergraduate research, which is also available via the Open Library VLS Collection.


The curriculum for the English course is informed by inquiry-based learning, and the course learning goals and outcomes are mapped to the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (ACRL, 2015). The ACRL Framework identifies six frames or themes that represent the threshold concepts that are central to ways of thinking about, creating, and using information. Each frame includes a definition of the overarching idea as well as the dispositions (feelings, thoughts, values) and practices (skills, actions) of learners, and the frames can be used by academic librarians (and other instructors) to develop their learning plans (ACRL, 2015; Dubicki, 2019). Based on this framework, the overarching theme for the course is Research as inquiry, and the curriculum is divided into modules that reflect the remaining five frames:

  • Searching as strategic exploration
  • Information creation as process
  • Authority is constructed
  • Information has value
  • Scholarship as conversation

The course maps these ACRL frames to the elements of the research process and the development of the core skills throughout the semester  (see Figure 1. Elements of the research process as mapped to the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education).


Figure 1.

pie chart
Elements of the research process as mapped to the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.

Stage one: Desired results

Each of the five modules reflects the given ACRL threshold concept. The learning goals are derived from the fundamental ideas embedded in each frame and the measurable learning outcomes are informed by the knowledge practices for each frame.


For example, the ACRL Framework offers the following definition of the concept of “Research as Inquiry”: “Research is iterative and depends upon asking increasingly complex or new questions whose answers, in turn, develop additional questions or lines of inquiry in any field” (ACRL, 2015).


In the learning plan for Module 1 of our course, we have adapted this definition as follows to create an overarching learning goal for the course:

Research as inquiry

Students will understand that disciplinary research is an interactive process of exploring and engaging with information by asking questions, finding answers, and suggesting new questions.

Students will be able to transfer (independently use) their learning to … use the inquiry processes to find appropriate sources and successfully complete assignments during their degree program.

The “transfer” statement in this learning goal is critical because, ultimately, we want students to be able to use core information literacy concepts and skills to solve problems in a wide variety of contexts (Wiggins & McTigue, 2005).

Stage two: Assessment evidence


Grounded in measurable learning outcomes, assessment “is a learning tool that helps students understand course content and think critically about it, all the while improving chances at retention” (Anderson, 2016). As Oakleaf (2009) argues, “the overriding goal of assessment is to make changes that increase student learning or improve the assessment processes” (p. 87). Typically, assessment is categorized as summative and formative. Summative assessment is focused on the final evaluation of students’ learning, while formative assessment is usually ungraded assignments whose goal is to help students in their learning process (Dolin et al., 2018).


When designing summative assessments, librarians can incorporate learner-centered pedagogy, such as inquiry-based learning and/or problem-based learning, in order to engage students in real-life issues as well as spark their intellectual curiosity. Such an approach allows students to choose their own topic of inquiry and bring their own prior knowledge and interests into their academic work. Formative assessment can be used to measure students’ understanding of the subject in order to help them improve their knowledge as a course unfolds and prepare them for the summative assessment. According to McMillan (2007), the formative assessment allows students to “see the connections and clarify meaning in small, successive steps as new knowledge is related to existing understandings” (p. 1).


Librarians have been able to include formative and summative assessments in credit-bearing information literacy courses and embedded information literacy education through collaboration with course instructors. They have often developed assignments based on the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education and design assignments to foster students’ “greater role and responsibility in creating new knowledge, in understanding the contours and the changing dynamics of the world of information” (ACRL, 2015).


As identified above, in this course the primary learning goal is that students will understand that disciplinary research is an interactive process of exploring and engaging with information by asking questions, finding answers, and suggesting new questions. When this goal is achieved, students will be able to transfer (i.e. independently use) their learning to use the inquiry processes to find appropriate sources and successfully complete assignments during their degree program. In addition to mastery of course content, successful completion of assignments requires core writing and citing skills.


As a result, integrated performance evidence includes seven scaffolded assignments, culminating in a short, traditional thematic literature review. These assignments or assessments are authentic tasks for a course in research skills. Finding, evaluating, synthesizing and presenting the results of a research project are tasks that are found across disciplines and that students will be expected to perform throughout their undergraduate programs as well as in many work environments. In addition, overall, conducting a literature review allows students to harness their intellectual curiosity by allowing them to explore key issues and write and share their results based on a topic of interest to them. Evidence is scaffolded in order to build core understandings and skills, where core understandings are related to their roles as information consumers and producers.


For example, the first graded activity is the Individual visitor-resident typology mapping activity. In this activity, students are required to create a typology map of the information sources that they use to find information when they are searching.


This map is a visual representation of their information landscapes. By understanding their current information-seeking behaviors, students are laying the foundation for adopting the more sophisticated search strategies that they will need to conduct a literature review.

Stage three: Lesson plans

The BOPPPS framework is used to ensure that individual classes/lessons are participatory/experiential in nature, giving students multiple opportunities to take responsibility for their learning and support their peers. Embedded in these lesson plans are both pre- and post-assessments of student learning that are designed for learning, i.e., are formative in nature.


For example, each class includes small and large group work. Small group work enables students to lead discussions and help each other understand the big ideas of each class. Large group work is an opportunity to share their understandings and also for the instructor to intervene and guide discussions to ensure that learning is productive.


Any of these lessons could be repurposed for one-shot presentations, although they are designed to be scaffolds for learning across weeks and modules (see the course for learning plans that include BOPPPS lesson plans).


“Curiosity begets curiosity” and, in the classroom, inquiry-based learning fosters curiosity by ensuring that students can “conduct research as a way to follow … personal, professional, creative, scientific, or scholarly curiosity” (Hosier, 2022, p. 32). Moreover, this pedagogical approach also fosters student agency. When students are curious and take ownership of their learning, they feel empowered to research their topics of inquiry and, in the process, can increase their understanding of core information literacy concepts and acquire new information literacy skills. An inquiry-based approach to teaching information literacy can create student-centered learning environments that put students in the center of the inquiry process and “can have a transformative effect” (Reale, 2019 p. 41).


Certainly, our own experience in designing this open-access credit-bearing information literacy course has been transformative. We have had the opportunity to think more deeply about how to engage and motivate students in acquiring core research skills that can be used in many contexts. We have also been able to use key frameworks for curricular design and information literacy to inform our teaching practices and develop a course that provides students with the time and attention they need to learn deeply.


What’s next? The final version of the course is available via the eCampus Ontario Open Library VLS Collection for other librarians to access, modify, and teach. This version also includes a reading guide to the weekly readings, entitled Imagine | Question | Search | Synthesize: Critical foundations for undergraduate research: A reading guide, which has published in Pressbooks (see Attridge Bufton & Samokishyn, 2022). Marta has adapted core course content to a 12-week labs, attached to the first-year undergraduate course Critical Analysis, Reading, and Writing Academic Works  that she teaches at Saint Paul University. Initial results from this lab suggest that students benefit from the semester-long labs and appreciate the knowledge and information literacy skills they are acquiring through their process of inquiry. Martha and David will be teaching the course to first-year students at Carleton University in the fall 2023 term. This course will be open to all students at Carleton, regardless of their program or faculty.


Designing an information literacy curriculum that pays special attention to learners is a challenging task. Librarians need to know their students well and understand how to foster their intellectual curiosity so that curricula benefit student learning. In particular, teaching librarians need to design both formative and summative assessments that give students clear guidance and allow them to pursue topics that are of interest to them. When designing information courses using inquiry-based learning, librarians have a unique opportunity to encourage students to be curious and engage in the iterative process of research by asking more complex questions.


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Figure 1 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. The Understanding by Design template has been used to construct the learning plan (See the learning plans in the course here Open Library VLS Collection).


Stage 1  Goals (desired results)
(G) Relevant goals ( ACRL frame)

Students will be able to independently use (transfer) their learning to …

(U) Understandings

Students will understand that:

  • Big ideas
  • Identifiable misunderstandings
(Q) Key questions

What questions will foster inquiry, understand, and transfer?

(K) Knowledge

Students will know (key facts, ideas):

(S) Skills

Students will do/be able to:

Measurable learning outcomes based on K & S





Stage 2   Assessment evidence
(T) Performance tasks

  • Authentic performance tasks to demonstrate understanding(s)
    • Formative and/or summative
  • Criteria for assessing performance
(OE) Other evidence

●       Quizzes, academic prompts, readings)

●       Reflections on learning




Stage 3   Lesson plan (BOPPPS)
B  (Bridge In)

Timing range
A story, an interesting fact related to your content, an icebreaker, or link to previous session (if applicable).


O  Outcomes [learning])

Timing range

What do you want students to learn (the purpose of the learning session)





P  (Pre-assessment)

Timing range

A question or survey/quiz to determine what students already know as well as what they want to know (can provide a self-assessment worksheet)


P  (Participatory learning activity)

Timing range

Activity planned as per learning goals and assessment evidence


P  (Post-assessment)

Timing range

A question, quiz, verbal “check in” on how they will use/transfer what they’ve learned


S  (Summary)

Timing range

Restated learning outcomes and highlighted key points of the learning session


 Resources needed for the session

About the Authors

Marta Samokishyn is a Collection Development and Liaison Librarian at Saint Paul University. She holds her MIS from the University of Ottawa and is currently in the process of finishing her MA in Learning and Technologies from Royal Roads University, B.C. She has over 12 years of experience in teaching information literacy, including 5 years of teaching credit-bearing information literacy courses. Marta currently holds a position of Research Fellow at BC Campus, where she works on the topic of algorithmic literacy in academic libraries. She is a member of Scholarly Communication Lab and Critical Big Data and Algorithmic Literacy Network.  Her research interests include instructional design in academic libraries, educational technologies, critical digital pedagogy, and algorithmic literacy.

Marta can be reached at msamokishyn@ustpaul.ca

Martha Attridge Bufton is the Interdisciplinary Studies Librarian at the Carleton University Library. She has a MA in history from Carleton (2014) and an MLIS from the University of Alberta (2017), where her research interests include information literacy and game-based learning. Martha supports a number of programs in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, including Digital Humanities. With Prof. Pamela Walker, Martha won the inaugural Brilliancy Prize for Reacting (2019) for the creation of an embedded librarian character (Maud Malone) in the Reacting game Greenwich Village 1913. Her master’s thesis, Solidarity by Association: The Unionization of Faculty, Academic Librarians and Support Staff at Carleton University (1973-1976), won the Eugene A. Forsey Prize for the best thesis on labour history, awarded by the Canadian Historical Association. Her published works included a chapter on unionism in In Solidarity: Academic Librarian Labour Activism and Union Participation in Canada and “Play Your Cards Right: An Information Literacy Card Game for Undergrads” in the ALA edited volume 52 Ready-to-Use Gaming Programs for Libraries. As a documentary filmmaker, Martha has co-produced Women at the bargaining table. White collar unionization at Carleton University, a short documentary film about union activism at Carleton University in the mid-1970s.

Martha can be reached at MarthaAttridgeBufton@Cunet.Carleton.Ca


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Intellectual Curiosity and the Role of Libraries Copyright © by Marta Samokishyn and Martha Attridge Bufton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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