How Do You Assess Students in an Inquiry-based Learning Environment?
In an inquiry-based classroom, the teacher relies upon his or her extensive documentation of each student's questions and emerging ideas as the foundation for assessment, evaluation, and reporting. This approach acknowledges that "virtually all classroom activities, whether formal or informal, provide teachers with information that can be used to monitor learning progress" (Fostaty Young & Wilson, 2000). On a daily and hourly basis, teachers make assessment decisions that have a profound effect on individual students and groups of students (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010a). Assessment is an ongoing process embedded in everyday classroom life throughout an entire inquiry, not just at the end. Examples of embedded assessment are interwoven throughout the classroom stories in the latter half of this resource.
Inquiry-based assessment, evaluation, and reporting is as student-centred as the inquiry-based learning process itself, and can be characterized as follows:
Multiple sources of assessment
In an inquiry-based classroom, the teacher assesses student progress on a continuous basis throughout the school year, collecting and using a wide range of information to provide an informed and comprehensive picture of the student's learning. Enabling students to express their understanding in differentiated ways is crucial for many reasons, but especially for the following:
Some examples of varied and authentic assessment sources include, but are not limited to:
By documenting and revisiting students' questions, teachers not only collect data that will inform the direction an inquiry may take and what resources to procure; they also gain insight into the learner's place along a developmental growth continuum. A student's questions can provide teachers with information about a student's understanding of the content area at hand, as well as his or her level of critical thinking (See Table 5). This is one important reason why teachers seeking to foster an inquiry-based learning environment make a concerted effort to record students' questions that arise during Knowledge Building Circles.
Implications for English language learnersEnglish language learners possess just as much curiosity as students for whom English is a first language. In fact, students who are new to Canada may have even more questions about their new surroundings than their English-speaking peers. By eliciting questions from English language learners, teachers can foster an inclusive classroom environment while also collecting valuable assessment information about their students' prior knowledge and interests.
"Inviting students to [share their questions] in their first language as well as in English enables them to draw on their strengths, including their existing academic, linguistic, and cultural knowledge. This approach also enriches the class environment by exposing English-speaking students to the advantages of knowing more than one language and of cultural diversity in general" (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005a, p.15).
Here are a couple of ways that teachers can encourage question asking among their English language learners while welcoming the use of their first language:
Inquiry Lab Books and portfolios
Inquiry Lab Books are often used as a central repository for learners to record the following information related to their inquiry:
Each entry in an Inquiry Lab Book is dated, which as a whole,creates a portfolio of a learner's thinking and research processes over time. By reflecting on the qualitative nature of a learner's entries, the teacher gains a picture of his or her developmental growth. Conversely, a test completed in isolation and under time restrictions, although a more straightforward process of quantitative data collection, represents only a fragmented picture, a mere slice of a learner's knowledge, which may be distorted by the restraints and pressures of a test situation (For examples, see Carol's Story; Robin's Story; Ben's Story; and Cathy's Story).
Drawings and other forms of visual art
Student drawings, or any visual mode of expression, provide teachers with valuable assessment opportunities, especially during, but not limited to, the early or primary years. Providing opportunities for students to show what they know in a visual form also respects the needs of learners who find it challenging to express their understanding through words alone. A student who has yet to come into his or her writing skills (i.e., Kindergarten or Early Primary), or who experiences particular difficulty with written expression at any grade level, may be able to provide more information about his or her knowledge in a drawing. The fact that a student may not possess particularly strong writing skills does not mean that he or she is devoid of ideas or knowledge. An important role of the teacher is to find alternative or supplementary access points to those ideas. This strategy is consistent with the Ontario Ministry of Education's policy document, Growing Success (2010a), which states that assessment practices should "support all students, including those with special education needs, those who are learning the language of instruction (English or French), and those who are First Nation, Métis, or Inuit" (p. 6).
In Julie Comay's JK class, the students were studying the development of a chicken, from egg to hatchling. Notice the knowledge and vocabulary that was revealed through this JK student's drawing of a chicken's development from "a little dot" to "growed up." (See Photo 4).
Students' drawings also allow the teacher to consider a student's attention to detail, especially when his or her drawing is intended to represent an observation. If a student is having difficulty reflecting, positing new theories, or asking new questions after making an observation, it may be that he or she has not thoroughly looked at all aspects of the experiment. A drawing illuminates the student's perspective. By what is included or excluded, a teacher may identify which elements of an experiment that a student finds most relevant, or that he or she may be overlooking (See Photo 5 and Ben's Story for another example). Analyzing and interpreting evidence of student learning in this manner is an essential step in the assessment process (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010a).
Documenting anecdotal observations
Student-Student Small Group InteractionsIn inquiry-based classrooms, teachers also consider the interactions that occur between students during small-group work, as these can also reveal students' developing understanding. In junior grades, especially, when students have enough independence to investigate their questions in pairs or small groups, it is helpful to casually walk around the class to observe and listen to student interactions, while informally recording notable student remarks, questions, or observations. In this way, the teacher can assess the extent to which a student has internalized newly-acquired concepts. The manner in which a student naturally draws upon newly-acquired concepts within the group makes this evident, and is often the truest sign of a student's understanding (or misunderstanding).
Mini-ConferencesHolding mini-conferences with research groups that are investigating a question or problem of understanding is also a valuable assessment opportunity. Talking with each group for just 10 minutes about what they are grappling with can provide a detailed sense of each student's level of understanding, as well as the kind of learning skills and work habits that are necessary for student success, and emphasized on all provincial report cards (See Table 6). However, it is important that these conferences remain informal, so that students continue to feel emotionally secure rather than judged.
Experiential Learning ActivitiesA non-threatening way to gain insight about students' understanding is to ask them probing questions while they are in the midst of focused experiential activities.
For instance, during an inquiry about Structures, Rhiannon, Grade 2/3 teacher at The Grove Community School, gave her students an opportunity to build their own structures using a variety of materials including wood blocks, unifix cubes, legos, and base-ten blocks. After allowing 10 minutes to explore the materials and begin building, she casually approached each child and asked gentle but probing questions about their structures. These questions were informative, providing new insights about the students' initial understandings, as summarized in Table 7.
In these types of situations, the simple act of jotting down students' comments can provide teachers with worthwhile qualitative information. As an inquiry progresses, teachers can periodically revisit this activity to reflect on how student's structures and responses develop over time. A simple chart, such as the one shown in Figure 5, can be used to record and keep track of students' ideas. Similar kinds of record-keeping charts can be used for observing and recording small-group student interactions, and after holding mini-conferences with research groups.
Discourse in Knowledge Building (KB) CirclesKnowledge Building Discourse is a central part of the inquiry process, one that provides teachers with rich opportunities to observe how students use what they know to solve problems of understanding. In particular, KB Circles not only reveal the skills and content knowledge that students accumulate, but also the manner in which they think about, interact with, and communicate their ideas.
When a student contributes an idea to help the group resolve a question or problem of understanding, that student is providing the teacher with an opportunity to assess the manner in which he or she learns, and the depth of his or her understanding. Assessment opportunities during KB Circles include:
There are various methods for recording Knowledge Building Circle questions, ideas, and theories that can help teachers ensure this information is readily available for assessment purposes. For example:
Revisiting the questions later in the inquiry
Revisiting the same question or set of questions throughout the course of an inquiry unit is a common and simple strategy to gauge the growth of student learning. Students can express their understanding in writing, orally, artistically, or using all three forms. This strategy allows teachers to
ascertain, over a period of time, whether students are incorporating new information or experiences into their growing understanding, and if so, what they are learning and how they are learning it. This strategy also fosters self-assessment opportunities, making the assessment process transparent and less threatening for the student. When students are able to revisit earlier work, their self-confidence increases because they can see concrete evidence of their own growth: Their current understanding is being compared to their early understanding, regardless of whether that starting point was far ahead, far behind, or on par with others in the same class (Fostaty-Young and Wilson, 2000). When teachers ask students to reflect on the progress of their work over time, they invite students into the meta-cognitive process of critically analyzing their own learning (i.e., ).
Consider Photos 6 and 7: two drawings made by the same child in Carol Stephenson's SK class. The drawing in Photo 6 was created on September 14, when Carol asked the class to show in a drawing everything they knew about bees. This initial drawing revealed this child's preliminary prior-knowledge about bees, which he described orally, as Carol scribed. The drawing in Photo 7, created on October 10, revealed clear growth in this child's understanding. His fine-motor control had not improved significantly, but he clearly had much more knowledge about bees to include and communicate through his drawing.