Tool IC-2: Assessing inquiry learning

For this tool you will need the following resources:

  • IC-2 PowerPoint
  • Handout 1: Formative assessment and inquiry
  • Handout 2: Formative assessment of inquiry skills

60minA key question that many teachers ask is:download_powerpoint

“How do we assess student progress in inquiry classrooms?”

This tool addresses the question above and supports work with both mathematics and science teachers. The tool provides some insights into the outcomes of the SAILS project ( ) that researched Strategies for Assessment of Inquiry Learning in Science and also makes reference to other several projects that have contributed to a better understanding of the assessment of inquiry learning. Discussion will focus mainly on the formative assessment of inquiry learning but this will lead to a consideration of how the principles that emerge can be used to develop summative assessment practices.

classThe diagram below was developed by the PRIMAS (Promoting Inquiry in Mathematics and Science Education across Europe) project to summarise the many characteristics of an inquiry based learning classroom. This provides a glimpse into what is a very complex environment; perhaps considerably more so than might be found in a ‘traditional’ classroom where teaching might be considered as having a transmission orientation (Askew et al., 1997).

PRIMAS inquiry learning

(For more details of the PRIMAS project and of what inquiry learning involves then follow this link PRIMAS or consider the tool IA-1 Characterising an IBL classroom).

Firstly remind the group that this tool will, in the main, consider formative assessment of inquiry learning but this will lead to discussion about how the principles that emerge can be used to develop summative assessment practices.

teamworkAsk the teachers to work in pairs (or small groups) to discuss the following concepts and record notes that cladownload_handoutrify their understanding:

  1. Formative assessment
  2. Inquiry skills.

They should use Handout 1: Formative assessment and inquiry to record their notes.

classAs a group share and discuss responses. You may stimulate discussion further by referring to some of the research-based ideas that are shown on the following slides.

 Formative Assessment

We use the general term assessment to refer to all those activities undertaken by teachers—and by their students in assessing themselves—that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities. Such assessment becomes formative assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs. (Black & Wiliam, 1998, p.140)

Inquiry skills

Inquiry is the intentional process of diagnosing problems, critiquing experiments, and distinguishing alternatives, planning investigations, researching conjectures, searching for information, constructing models, debating with peers, and forming coherent arguments.

(SAILS Report on the assessment frameworks and instruments for IBSE skills- part B, quoting Linn and Davis, 2004).

More about inquiry learning can also be found in the tool IA-1 Characterising an IBL classroom.

The problem then becomes one of how we can assess learning in inquiry skills in a way that informs our judgements as teachers. The report of the SAILS project exemplified how we might assess four inquiry skills. Namely: planning investigations, developing hypotheses, debating with peers and forming coherent arguments.

The LEMA project ( and the SAILS project both identified a number of different levels of execution of each inquiry skill. In the case of SAILS these were described using a six-point scale and in the case of LEMA a four-point scale. At each point on the scale a brief description of likely behaviours was developed (usually just one or two sentences).


Now ask the group to work in pairs (or small groups of teachers) to devise a scale (working with maybe only three points on the scale to start with) for one particular inquiry skill.

Handout 2: Formative assessment of inquiry skills shows some examples of such scales. You may use this todownload_handout prompt thinking if it is required.

Part way through the discussions, ask teachers to think about:

  1. What questions they could use to move students from one level of progress in a particular skill to the next (more advanced) level.
  2. Whether it is better to develop statements that are task independent or necessary to have task specific statements? (Notice that Example 1 in Handout 1 refers to task specific criteria rather than generic criteria which are used in the other examples).

classFinally, as a group, discuss:

How might the criteria devised be used summatively to report ‘levels of progress’?

  • What is the potential of an assessment (of levels) such as this to provide scores that could be aggregated to give an overall ‘inquiry’ score?
  • If there is potential for this, how desirable would it be to produce such a score?

Finish off by bringing the group together to think about a research question they might want to pursue, such as – for example – the use of a ‘progression grid’ to support their formative assessment of inquiry skills. They may wish to also consider how to use their grid to assess written work in a summative sense.

nextstepsAsk the teachers to explore their agreed research question individually with a student group and be ready to report back to the group next time on how this worked.


Askew, M., Brown, M., Rhodes, V., Johnson, D., & Wiliam, D. (1997). Effective teachers of numeracy. London: Kings College.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139-148.