In partnership with the Society of Biology, Royal Society of Chemistry, and Institute of Physics

Quick start guide


What is model-based inquiry?

Practical work is used as a method of teaching for a range of purposes (e.g. skill development, application of concepts). Model-based inquiry is based on the generating, testing and revising of scientific models, with the aim of developing evidence-based explanations of the way the natural world works. This is the way in which many scientists work (Windschitl et al., 2008), so model-based inquiry is both a teaching approach and an authentic representation of how science produces explanations (see Figure 1).


Model-based inquiry is different to typical school science investigations, in that it is centred round a collaborative and co-operative style of learning and places emphasis on the explanatory model. In a model-based inquiry students are expected to:

  • Use knowledge of a model to predict the outcomes of experiments, and explain their reasoning.
  • Test predictions against evidence collected by observation and experiment.
  • Engage in questioning and discussion about how the data they have collected can be explained in terms of the model.
  • Develop explanations of scientific phenomena from models.

For school science, model-based inquiry provides a framework for engaging students with the science content and ideas behind a practical activity. This kind of ‘minds on’ activity is critical to enhance students’ learning of scientific knowledge and insight into how scientists work (Abrahams and Millar, 2009)..

Models in science

Models are a mentally visualisable way of linking theory with experiment. They enable predictions to be formulated and tested by experiment (Gilbert, 1998).

There are many different types of model. These include;

  • Consensus model – a model which is widely accepted by the scientific community. For example the Bohr model of an atom, or a mathematical relationship between variables.
  • Historical model – a previous consensus model which has been replaced by a new, more useful model. For example the plum pudding model of an atom.
  • Mental model – an individual’s internal representation (in the mind) of information in a form which is useful for solving problems. For example a flow diagram of an ecosystem.
  • Teaching model – a model which has been specifically produced to teach a difficult concept. For example, ripple tanks used to teach about waves.  

Introducing models

See the PowerPoint presentation: 'Scientific models?'

What does model-based inquiry look like in the classroom?

The summary below has been prepared using a range of literature on the subject, and is designed to introduce you to the different elements of a model-based inquiry lesson and how these might be structured together.

Further reading

The following sections build on this basic model - showing how to execute specific areas essential to using the model-based inquiry approach successfully. 

1. An 'authentic' approach to learning science

2. How is model-based inquiry different to the way investigations are typically carried out?

3. The Practical Work for Learning resources and transferring the approach

4. Research findings

References for the introduction to model-based inquiry

Download the full introduction to model-based inquiry

A research summary in the area of model-based inquiry was produced to inform this development of these resources.


Page last updated on 30 April 2013