What is POGIL?

A recent editorial in Nature1  cited POGIL as the “prime example” of an effective pedagogical innovation that engages students in “cooperative hands-on learning activities.”

Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) is an instructional strategy based on research on how students learn best.2  In a POGIL classroom, students work in self-managed teams of three or four during most of the time that the instructor would otherwise be lecturing. The instructor moves around the class acting as a facilitator of learning: monitoring group progress, asking and answering questions, and leading whole-class discussion. The focus of student group work is a specially designed POGIL activity that employs a structure called a Learning Cycle.3,4  This consists of data (the “Model”) and leading questions that meticulously guide students toward discovery of a concept, followed by testing or reinforcement of this concept. (More information at www.pogil.org)

Does POGIL Work?  The goals of a POGIL classroom experience are not only to develop content knowledge, but also to develop skills such as information processing, critical thinking, teamwork, and metacognition (i.e., learning how to learn). These are the lasting goals of effective undergraduate education and the tools of the lifelong learner. Student achievement data,5,6  analyses of student group interactions,7,8  and student opinion data9  indicate that POGIL is significantly more effective than traditional methods at building both understanding and skills. Furthermore, the deeper understanding observed in a POGIL course is persistent and extends into subsequent courses. In one study10 at the University of Washington the grades of 374 students enrolled in a traditional, lecture-based Organic Chemistry II course were analyzed according to what type of instruction (POGIL or lecture) the students received in Organic Chemistry I, the previous quarter. The 200 students who had received POGIL instruction in Organic Chemistry I received an average grade of 3.0/4.0 in the Organic Chemistry II course, while the 174 students in the control group received an average grade of 2.5/4.0 in this same course (mean difference = 0.5/4.0, p < 0.001, effect size = 0.52). These head-to-head results emphasize the power of POGIL to not only build content knowledge, but to build the skills necessary to successfully complete subsequent courses (including traditional lecture courses) toward a science major and pursuit of a STEM career.

Why POGIL Works  The content of a POGIL activity is the same as what you would find in a traditional lecture or textbook chapter. Only the structure is different. Consider a topic such as instantaneous rates of change (from Calculus 1). A traditional treatment might begin by giving a few examples followed by a definition of instantaneous rate of change (or vice versa). Many students, rather than closely examining the examples, will simply memorize the definition, and because it was presented by an authority, many students will not question where it comes from or think about how it fits with their prior understanding. Even if the lecturer takes care to point out the power and importance of this concept, students who simply memorized the definition may not see any relevance to them beyond the problems they must solve on the upcoming exam.

In contrast, the POGIL activity on this topic guides students to discover this concept using data, prior understanding, and inference based on the Learning Cycle structure. The activity begins by guiding students to the relatively familiar concept of average velocity over a time interval, and then asking them to think creatively and consider different time intervals. Quickly they discover that shorter time intervals give increasingly better estimates of instantaneous velocity. By drawing graphs of position versus time, analyzing other such graphs presented in the Model and, most importantly, discussing what they mean, students discover how instantaneous rate of change is related to the slope of the tangent line. The extra time they take to understand this pays off in the next section where student groups build on their experience and consider smaller and smaller intervals leading to a recapitulation of Newton’s formulation of the key concept of the derivative.

The learning cycle structure of exploration, concept development, and application infuses a POGIL activity with the power and excitement of scientific discovery, and invites students into the learning process by leaving room for their thought and creativity. This is in stark contrast to the impression students too often get from traditional lectures: that science and math are an uncreative tabulation of immutable truths, handed down from on high—to be memorized—and then forgotten after the exam.

The Aha! Moment At the core of any successful learning experience are a series of events that might be called “Aha! Moments.” A POGIL classroom is rife with these. Consider a student who at first struggles with a concept, but–through a combination of answering guiding questions, analyzing the Model, discussion with group mates, and (as needed) instructor facilitation–the concept finally “clicks”. The culmination of this dissonance-resolution process is often marked by an utterance: “Aha!” or “I get it!” This student arrives at her understanding flushed with the excitement of having figured out something difficult, and now begins to help her group mates see what she has just discovered, capping her experience with an opportunity to deepen her understanding through the power of learning by teaching. But perhaps the most lasting outcome of the frequent “Aha Moments” in a POGIL classroom is that the next time the student described above encounters frustration in her studies, she is less likely to give up, isolate herself, or resort to memorization. Knowing what it feels like to have figured out and eventually owned (and even explained) a challenging concept will give her confidence to face each new challenge using all available resources, especially discussion with others. The pathway to understanding provided by a POGIL learning environment appears to rewire many young learners’ natural fear of the new and challenging—and transform it into the hallmark of a lifelong learner: the confidence that not understanding is just an exciting (though dissonant) prelude to the satisfaction of understanding.

  1. Education ambivalence. Nature 2010, 465, (7298), 525-526.
  2. Bransford, J. D.; Brown, A. L.; Cocking, R. R., How People Learn. National Academy Press: Washington, DC, 1999.
  3. Karplus, R., Science Teaching and the Development of Reasoning. J. Res. Sci. Teach. 1977, 14, 169-175.
  4. Abraham, M. R., Inquiry and the Learning Cycle Approach. In Chemists Guide to Effective Teaching, Pienta, N. J.; Cooper, M. M.; Greenbowe, T. J., Eds. Pearson Education, Inc.: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2005.
  5. Farrell, J. J.; Moog, R. S.; Spencer, J. N., A guided inquiry general chemistry course. J. Chem. Educ. 1999, 76, 570-574.
  6. Lewis, J. E.; Lewis, S. E., Departing from lectures: An evaluation of a peer-led guided inquiry alternative. J. Chem. Educ. 2005, 82, (1), 135-139.
  7. Kulatunga, U.; Lewis, J. E., Level of Argumentation in General Chemisry I. Peer Led Sessions. Science Education, submittted.
  8. Daubenmire, P. L.; Bunce, D. M., What Do Students Experience During POGIL Instruction? In Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning, Moog, R. S.; Spencer, J. N., Eds. American Chemical Society: Washington DC, 2008.
  9. Straumanis, A.; Simons, E. A., A Multiinstitutional Assessment of the Use of POGIL in Organic Chemistry. In Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning, Moog, R. S.; Spencer, J. N., Eds. American Chemical Society: Washington DC, 2008.
  10. Straumanis, A., unpublished results.

A site supporting POGIL instruction