How Do I Assess Inquiry Based Learning?

Submitted by Damian Cooper, CAfLN Past President and Co-founder

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’ own 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 3 questions:

  1. What essential learning must students acquire?
  2. What assessment evidence do I need to gather as proof that my students have acquired this learning?
  3. What instructional sequence will lead students to success on these assessments and, thereby, acquisition of the essential learning?

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:

  • formulating a rich question
  • identifying multiple sources of information representing different perspectives
  • analyzing the quality and reliability of sources
  • formulating a position
  • communicating and defending a position
  • reflecting upon their learning

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, scepticism.  These must be modelled 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.

In fact, much of the learning that occurs as students engage in their own inquiries requires the teacher to observe and to listen.  So 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”.

So 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:

  1. What is the purpose of this assessment?
  2. Who is the primary user of the information being gathered?
  3. What kind of information is required, given the purpose and primary user?

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 Sample INTU…
Seasonal Change I need to understand why it’s cold in Canada in winter, but much warmer in Florida.
Climate Change I need to understand whether climate change is really happening


Criteria to be met for INTU Questions:

  • Is the question open-ended, with no simple, correct answer?
  • Does the question allow for multiple perspectives?
  • Is the question relevant to the student and to the topic?

Jennifer may simply 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:

  • Which students are ready to forge ahead, having already demonstrated their understanding of what an INTU question needs to be?
  • Which students will benefit from working with a peer to help them improve their initial INTU questions?
  • Which students do not presently understand the criteria for formulating a rich inquiry question and need to work with me in a small group?

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.

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 behavioural 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:

  • teach and model
  • check for student understanding
  • practice with support
  • assess & provide feedback
  • practice independently
  • assess

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:

  1. What work did I complete today on my INTU?
  2. What did I learn to help answer my INTU?
  3. What am I struggling with on my INTU?

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 3 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:

  • sources represent multiple perspectives
  • clarity of student’s conclusions
  • acknowledgement of counter arguments
  • ability to respond to questions
  • quality of supporting materials (slides, display, etc.)
  • conventions (spelling, grammar)


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.  It is my 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.


This post originally appeared on Fresh Grade‘s blog

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