My Favorite Guided Inquiry Activity for the First Week of Class: Inside and Outside the Body

We’ve all seen this image, or something quite similar, in chapter 1 of any anatomy & physiology textbook identifying the various barriers, tubes, and cavities of the human body. Although the image is part of the usual collection of introductory topics covered within the first week, courses typically pay it only cursory attention. Over the past few years, I’ve taken this often underappreciated image and used guided inquiry to deepen students’ understanding of what is inside or outside the body.

Model 1. Cavities and Tubes in Humans

What is guided inquiry? Guided inquiry lessons involve two essential components: curricular materials and teaching methods. Curricular materials extend beyond the textbook and must support students in “figuring out” a concept, such as how to determine what is inside or outside the body. Guided inquiry teaching methods are complex and include organizing students into small, cooperative working groups and using questioning to facilitate instruction. Asking students questions guides conversations, promotes deeper thinking, and fosters more accurate understanding (Jensen, 2016.) From an outsider’s perspective, guided inquiry lessons in classrooms may appear chaotic and confusing. It may seem that the students are going down cognitive rabbit holes that are potentially fruitful, but not initially correct. In response, instructors who are new to guided inquiry may want to jump in and correct students as they discuss questions and ideas. However, with experience in these teaching practices, they learn when to step back, let students struggle a bit, and figure things out for themselves, rather than simply telling them the correct answer. Within these moments of struggle exist the true power of guided inquiry as students construct their learning rather than memorizing information provided by an instructor and/or textbook.

Several years ago, while I was lecturing in a junior/senior-level physiology class, my instruction included statements such as “The air in the lungs is outside the body,” and “The contents of your intestines are outside of your body.” Simple stuff, right? Well, no. In fact, several students came up to me after class and said, “We don’t understand this inside and outside stuff. How can the contents of the intestines be outside the body?”

To address these important student misconceptions, the next day I had the class work through a guided inquiry using the “Inside and Outside the Body Activity.” (See the links below for the lesson plan.) In this activity, students examined the inside and outside body model closely to see that the “skin” is not continuous, but rather has breaks or openings for the urinary system, digestive system, etc. While they inspected the model and discussed their ideas with their group members, I guided their inquiry by encouraging them to look very closely at the model and answered student questions with still more questions. As a result, several “a-ha” moments occurred as the students proclaimed, “Now we get it!” and “We should have learned this when we were freshmen!”

These “ah-ha” moments still fascinate me today as an instructor. Recently, I used this guided inquiry lesson in an entry-level physiology class which included quite a few engineering majors. One of the engineering students was so perplexed by this activity that he had to get out of his chair and walk around the room a couple times, repeating, “No way! This cannot be right.” After a bit of thinking and walking, he approached me and asked, “OK, with this definition in place, you can never be inside your house, correct?” What a creative thought!  (And no, I won’t tell you how I answered. I’ll let you engage in that bit of inquiry yourself!)

Ready to try out this inquiry in your classroom? Over the past 10 years, there have been several versions of the “Inside and Outside the Body” guided inquiry activity made available. The first was published in a special edition of the HAPS Educator while a second one was published in CourseSource, both great sources for classroom activities including guided inquiry curricular materials. Considerable background information for this activity can be found in both of those publications. While the current version is newer, it is not necessarily better. Instructors who have worked with guided inquiry for several years frequently have their favorite versions.

I typically use this guided inquiry lesson during the first day of class to facilitate learning inside and outside body concepts. But of course, it could easily be adapted to units on the integumentary, digestive, respiratory systems, and even immunology. Feel free to use, adapt, and share this activity as you wish. As always, if you have suggestions for improvements or would like more guided inquiry activities, please send me an email at

Note: The enclosed version of this activity is not endorsed by any professional organization. 


Jensen, M. (2016).  The HAPS Educator, Summer, 2016, 98-101.  Instructional Strategies for the Active Learning Classroom:  doi: 10.21692/haps.2016.021

Dr. Murray Jensen is a Professor of Biology Teaching and Learning at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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