No teacher today questions the importance of critical thinking as a focus for teaching. Likewise, problem-solving. No surprise then that problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning play an increasing role in the kinds of learning tasks that teachers set for their students. Yet it is only a small minority of the teachers I meet who feel confident about how to assess learning in these contexts. Why is this?
The answer, I believe, is related to issues of control and confidence. The most fruitful inquiries will stem from students’ questions, not questions posed by their teacher. However, this immediately raises the oft-heard question, “How can I assess their learning if all my students are inquiring into different questions?” The answer: assess the skills, not the content.
This highlights the importance of “backward design” as the only pedagogically sound way for teachers to approach program planning. Backward design involves three questions:
From a curriculum perspective, when a teacher engages her students in an inquiry, she is deciding that the skills of inquiry represent essential learning. These skills include:
There may, of course, be specific content that is also “essential learning”. For example, a teacher may want all of his students to acquire knowledge and understanding about the interdependence of plants and animals, as well as the fragility of the environments that support them. And so, while each student in the class has selected his or her own inquiry focus, all students are exploring this same issue.
But in addition to skills and content outcomes, inquiry involves dispositions such as curiosity, flexibility, empathy, perseverance, skepticism. These must be modeled and demonstrated by the teacher if they are to be acquired by her students. Which leads again to the question, “How do I assess students’ dispositions?” The answer: talk to your students.
The need for the teacher to understand deeply the concept of triangulating her assessment is crucial.
In fact, much of the learning that occurs as students engage in their own inquiries requires the teacher to observe and to listen. The need for the teacher to understand deeply the concept of triangulating her assessment is crucial. While the finished product associated with a student’s inquiry may take the form of an oral presentation accompanied by a visual display, or a typed report, the more useful evidence from a teaching and learning perspective needs to be gathered during the inquiry process. Hence the need for the teacher to be skilled in observing students and engaging them in conversation as they are working. Smartphones and tablets are invaluable tools to capture such learning “in the moment”.
Let’s walk through the various assessment opportunities that present themselves during an inquiry. And for each opportunity, the teacher needs to ask the following questions:
Jennifer is teaching science. She wants her students to pose their own inquiry questions to guide their individual inquiries so she employs the “INTU” model. (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1999) Students will learn how to formulate their own questions using the stem, “I need to understand…” Jennifer provides a set of examples of INTU questions (see 2 of these below) and, through an informal class discussion, assesses the extent to which her students understand the criteria that must be met in order to formulate a question that is rich enough to sustain in-depth inquiry.
Topic: Seasonal Change
INTU: I need to understand why it’s cold in Canada in winter, but much warmer in Florida.
Topic: Climate Change
INTU: I need to understand whether climate change is really happening
Criteria to be Met for INTU Questions:
Jennifer may make anecdotal notes as she listens to and observes the discussion. Or she may record the discussion using a tablet. Either way, she is capturing vital diagnostic assessment evidence that will enable her to answer the following kinds of instructional questions:
The first “product” that Jennifer assesses will be students’ final versions of their INTU questions. She will differentiate her instruction as necessary until all students have produced a question that meets the basic requirements since, without a workable question, students will not be able to pursue their inquiries. In this respect, she is assessing for mastery.
Depending on the maturity and skill levels demonstrated by her students, some or much of this formative assessment may be undertaken by students themselves as they work in pairs.
Over the next few days, Jennifer introduces, models, and has students practice the skills and strategies associated with locating sources of information, deciding which sources are relevant to their own INTU, and then extracting that information in ways that avoid the plagiarism trap. Her assessment throughout this stage of the inquiry process is formative i.e., her purpose is to improve each student’s learning, NOT to measure it. Hence, she provides descriptive feedback, pointing out what students are doing well, where students are having difficulty, and how to improve their work. Depending on the maturity and skill levels demonstrated by her students, some or much of this formative assessment may be undertaken by students themselves as they work in pairs. However, this demands sophisticated skills of classroom management, as well as plenty of “frontloading” so that students are clear about behavioral norms and expectations!
Jennifer continues working through each of the stages in the inquiry process with her students. Having initially taught them how to focus their inquiry using an INTU question, she teaches them how to locate sources, and how to decide what information is pertinent to their inquiry. She models how to analyze information, how to communicate their conclusions, and finally, how to reflect upon their learning. At each stage, she follows a learning cycle model:
Because Jennifer believes that a primary purpose of assessment is to enable students to gradually become reliable, independent monitors and assessors of their own work, she involves them directly in assessing their own learning by constantly requiring them to reflect on the work they are doing, determining where they are successful, where they are struggling, and what they need to do to improve their work. In other words, she believes profoundly in the power of assessment for and as learning.
In my own teaching through inquiry, I always required students to keep a daily learning log in which they answered 3 questions daily:
In order to develop their metacognitive skills, I taught students to refer to their log each time we had a conversation about their progress. I also collected their logs at the end of the inquiry as a “product” that detailed the learning “process.” Notice how the three methods of assessing learning—observations, conversations, and products—weave seamlessly throughout the entire inquiry-learning process.
Once students have completed their INTU inquiries, they usually can’t wait to share their findings and conclusions with their teacher and classmates. This, then, is the summative assessment component in which the “presentation” of their findings and conclusions represents the “final product”. These may involve a student-led seminar, a more formal oral presentation, or some other mode of sharing their work. I recommend allowing students the choice of the format they use to share their findings. Once again, however, while the nature of the final products will vary from student to student, the criteria that are assessed remain consistent. These include:
It is essential that summative assessment of students’ inquiries reflects the learning outcomes that were identified at the start. The sharing and communication of findings and conclusions should not in any way penalize students who lack confidence or public speaking skills. During my own classroom teaching, I often had students present their findings and conclusions to me, alone.
INTU projects and other forms of inquiry are engaging for students of all ages. They present the opportunity for students to immerse themselves in work that is truly their own—not something they do for their teacher. I hope that my comments have clarified some of the perplexing assessment questions that often deter teachers from using this powerful approach to teaching and learning.
FreshGrade Adviser, Damian Cooper is an independent education consultant who specializes in helping schools and school districts improve their instructional and assessment skills. In his varied career, Damian has been a secondary English, Special Education, and Drama teacher, a department head, a librarian, a school consultant and a curriculum developer. He has specialized in student assessment since 1986. Follow Damian on Twitter @cooperd1954