Introduction to POGIL

David M. Hanson, Stony Brook University and Richard S. Moog, Franklin and Marshall College


Process-oriented guided-inquiry learning (POGIL, rhymes with "mogul") is both a philosophy and a strategy for teaching and learning. It is a philosophy because it encompasses specific ideas about the nature of the learning process and the expected outcomes. It is a strategy because it provides a student-centered methodology and structure that are consistent with the way people learn and achieve these outcomes. The goal of POGIL is to help students simultaneously master discipline content and develop essential learning skills. This module explains the relationship between three primary components of POGIL: cooperative learning, guided inquiry, and metacognition. It also offers advice on implementing POGIL in the classroom and provides evidence that POGIL instruction produces better understanding and higher grades compared with traditional lecture-style methods.

Research Basis

Studies reveal that traditional teaching methods in higher education are no longer meeting studentsí educational needs. This has led to several reform initiatives. Some of these initiatives focus on changing the curriculum and course content; others seek to utilize computer-based multimedia technology for instruction; and some promote more student involvement in class in order to engage students in learning.

Several key ideas about learning have emerged from current research in the cognitive sciences (Bransford, Brown and Cocking). This research documents that people learn by

POGIL is built on this research base, sharing the key premise that most students learn best when they are actively engaged in analyzing data, models, or examples and when they are discussing ideas; when they are working together in self-managed teams to understand concepts and solve problems; when they are reflecting on what they have learned and thinking about how to improve performance; and when they are interacting with an instructor who serves as a guide or facilitator of learning rather than as a source of information. To support this research-based learning environment, POGIL utilizes self-managed learning teams, guided-inquiry materials based on the learning cycle, and metacognition (Hanson).

Role of Cooperative Learning

Learning environments can be competitive, individualized, or cooperative. Research has documented that relative to the other situations, students learn more, understand more, and remember more when they work together. They feel better about themselves and their classmates, and they have more positive attitudes regarding the subject area, course, and instructors. Students working in a team environment are also more likely to acquire essential process skills such as critical and analytical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and communication. (Johnson, Johnson and Smith).

It should not be surprising that group learning environments are successful; individuals working alone in competitive or individualized instructional modes do not have the opportunity for intellectual challenge found in a learning team. As a learning team becomes involved in a lesson, the differences in various team membersí information, perceptions, opinions, reasoning processes, theories, and conclusions will inevitably lead to disagreement. When managed constructively using appropriate interpersonal, social, and collaborative skills, such controversy promotes questioning, an active search for more information, and finally a restructuring of knowledge. This process results in greater mastery and retention of material and more frequent use of critical thinking and higher-level reasoning compared with the outcomes gained through learning in competitive and individualized modes (Johnson, Johnson and Smith; Cooper; Hanson; Millis and Cottell).

Role of Guided-Inquiry

Much research documents that, in order to achieve real understanding and learning, learners must actively restructure the information they absorb. To restructure new knowledge, learners must integrate it with previous knowledge and beliefs, identify and resolve contradictions, generalize, make inferences, and pose and solve problems. Thus, knowledge is personal and is constructed in the mind of the learner (Johnson, Johnson and Smith; Herron; Cracolice; Bransford, Brown and Cocking; Johnstone; Bodner). A POGIL learning activity engages students and prompts them to restructure information and knowledge; guided-inquiry activities help students develop understanding by employing the learning cycle. This learning cycle consists of three stages or phases: exploration, concept invention or formation, and application (Abraham).

In the "exploration" phase of the learning cycle, students develop their understanding of a concept by responding to a series of questions that guide them through the process of exploring a model or executing a task. Almost any type of information can be processed in this way: a diagram, a graph, a table of data, one or more equations, a methodology, some prose, a computer simulation, a demonstration, or any combination of these things. In this exploration phase, students attempt to explain or understand the material that is presented by proposing, questioning, and testing hypotheses.

The second phase may involve either "concept invention" or "concept formation." When the second phase involves concept invention, the exploration phase does not present the concept explicitly. Learners are effectively guided and encouraged to explore, then to draw conclusions and make predictions. Once learners have engaged in this phase, additional information and the name of the concept can be introduced. Instructors may be the ones to introduce the concept name (to ensure that standard language is used), but it is the students themselves who discover the patterns. Other activities are designed with a second phase that involves concept formation. In these activities, some representation of the concept is presented explicitly at the beginning. Students work through questions which lead them to explore the representation, develop an understanding of it, and identify its relevance and significance.

Once the concept is identified and understood, it is reinforced and extended in the "application" phase. In the application phase, learners use the new knowledge in exercises, problems, and even research situations. "Exercises" give learners the opportunity to build confidence in simple situations and familiar contexts. "Problems" require learners to analyze complex situations, to transfer the new knowledge to unfamiliar contexts, to synthesize it with other knowledge, and to use it in new and different ways. "Research" questions identify opportunities for learners to extend learning by raising new issues, questions, or hypotheses.

The Role of Metacognition

"Metacognition" literally means "thinking about thinking." It includes self-management and self-regulation, reflection on learning, and assessment of oneís own performance. POGIL requires students to use metacognition to help them realize that they are in charge of their own learning and that they need to monitor it (self-management and self-regulation), that they need to reflect on what they have learned and what they don't yet understand (reflection on learning), and that they need to think about their performance and how it can be improved (self-assessment) (Bransford, Brown and Cocking).

Metacognition produces an environment for continual improvement. Students can be asked to assess their own work and that of each other. Instructors monitor the teams and, when appropriate, provide feedback to individuals, teams, and the class in order to improve studentsí skills and to help them identify needed improvements. It is possible to establish an atmosphere in which such assessments are safe, positive, and valued by all by making a distinction between assessment and evaluation. "Assessment" is the process of measuring a performance, work product, or skill and giving feedback to document strengths and growth and to provide directives for improving future performance. "Evaluation" is the process of making a judgment or determination concerning the quality of a performance, work product, or use of skills against a set of standards (Distinctions between Assessment and Evaluation). Assessments are nonjudgmental and are designed and intended to be helpful and to produce improvement. Evaluations, on the other hand, are judgmental and are designed and intended to document the level of achievement that has been attained. Feedback provided during daily learning experiences is given in the form of an assessment, while course examinations provide the evaluation. The situation is similar in athletics: coaching during weekly practices and scrimmages is given in the form of an assessment; the big game on Saturday is an evaluation.

Metacognition has been shown to be especially effective in improving problem-solving skills. When students were trained in a five-step self-explanation self-regulation methodology, they were deemed to be more successful at solving problems. After encountering new material students were asked to identify the important concepts, to elaborate on and identify connections between the concepts, to examine a sample problem and to identify the steps needed to solve it, to identify the reason for and meaning of each step, and to relate the concepts presented in the initial material to the steps in the sample problem (Bielaczyc, Pirolli and Brown). This methodology helps students construct the large mental structures that are essential for success in problem solving: those linking conceptual and procedural knowledge (Bransford, Brown and Cocking).

Implementing POGIL

There are a variety of ways to implement POGIL to suit the instructor, the class size, the classroom structure, and the local culture. In some successful implementations, all lectures have been replaced with POGIL sessions (Farrell, Moog and Spencer). In some, one lecture per week has been replaced with a POGIL session (Lewis and Lewis). At a large university, standard recitation sessions have been converted to POGIL sessions (Hanson and Wolfskill). And at several institutions with 100 to 500 students in a lecture hall, POGIL activities are being used with electronic student response systems for all or part of each session. All of these implementations typically employ the learning cycle: students work together in small groups on activities that have been carefully designed to guide them in constructing understanding and in applying this understanding to solve problems. In the POGIL classroom the instructor is not the expert provider of knowledge; he or she is a coach or facilitator who guides students in the process of learning, helping them to develop process skills and conceptual understanding, and to apply this understanding in solving problems. In this context, the instructor has four roles to play: leader, monitor/assessor, facilitator, and evaluator.

As a leader, the instructor creates the learning environment: he or she develops and explains the lesson and defines the objectives (both content objectives and process skill objectives), criteria for success, and expected behaviors. He or she also establishes the structure of the environment (i.e. the goal/reward structure, the team structure, the class structure, the room structure, and the time structure) (Overview of Creating a Quality Learning Environment).

As a monitor/assessor, the instructor circulates through the class monitoring and assessing individual and team performance and acquiring information on student understanding, misconceptions, and difficulties in collaboration. The instructor uses this information as a facilitator to improve performance.

As a facilitator, the instructor intervenes when appropriate and asks timely critical-thinking questions to help teams understand why they may be having difficulty and to think about what they need to do to improve and make progress. Facilitators should intervene on process issues, not content issues, and they should provide the kind of input that encourages deeper thought. Questions posed by the facilitator should help the team identify why they are having difficulty. The first questions should be open-ended and general; further questions should be more directed and specific as needed. At the end of the intervention, the team should be asked to reflect on the process: What was the source of the difficulty? How did you resolve it? How might you avoid this difficulty in similar situations in the future? What generalizations can you make to help you in new situations?

As an evaluator, the instructor provides closure to the lesson by asking team members to report answers, to summarize the major points, and to explain the strategies, actions, and results of the teamís work. Individuals and teams are evaluated on their performance, achievement, and effectiveness; general issues are shared with the class.

Case Studies

POGIL has been evaluated for its effectiveness in various courses over a wide range of institutions. In addition to formal published studies (Farrell, Moog and Spencer; Hanson and Wolfskill; Lewis and Lewis), a number of more informal and unpublished evaluations also have been conducted. In general, similar results are obtained regardless of the type of institution, the course, and the size of course. Student attrition from POGIL courses is lower than that for courses using traditional methods ("attrition" in this case is defined as earning a grade of D or F or withdrawing from the course). Student mastery of content is at least as high or higher than that gained through traditional instruction. Students also generally prefer the POGIL approach over traditional methods, they have more positive attitudes about the course and their instructors, and their learning skills appear to improve over the semester.

For example, one study of a full POGIL implementation in general chemistry at Franklin and Marshall College compares the performance of over 400 students taught using the POGIL approach over a four-year period to a similar number taught in previous years using a traditional approach by the same instructors (Farrell, Moog and Spencer). The attrition rate decreased from 22 % (traditional) to 10% (POGIL). The percentage of students earning an A or B rose from 52% to 64%.

Similar results have been obtained when POGIL has been used as a component of large lecture classes. In general chemistry classes at Stony Brook University, graduate teaching assistants used a POGIL approach to facilitate the recitation sessions. Students performed better on examinations.

These gains were exhibited uniformly in the performance of low through high-achieving students (Hanson and Wolfskill). Another study conducted at a large urban university examined the effect of replacing one of three general chemistry lectures each week with a peer-led team learning session using POGIL materials (Lewis and Lewis). They found that the students who had attended the group-learning sessions generally performed better on common examinations.

Concluding Remarks

When they first hear about POGIL, many instructors are intrigued by the approach and can see its advantages, but they are concerned that the pace at which the material is covered will be significantly slower in a POGIL course than for a lecture-based course. Our experience is that this is not a problem. One way to measure this is to compare the standardized exam performance of students who learned using POGIL instruction, comparing the average outcomes against those of students from the same institution who experienced a traditional approach. Such comparisions show that students experiencing POGIL instructions scored higher on these examinations than students in traditional classes in both general chemistry and organic chemistry. It is inspiring that in evaluating POGIL at Stony Brook, instructors said, This is the way to teach! and many students responded, More time for workshops and less time for lectures!


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