Assessing inquiry learning

Table of Contents

This is the latest issue in a well-designed and informative series on inquiry learning. I would encourage secondary teachers to read these issues of Science and Children, especially if you’re new to the idea of inquiry learning or want to see what younger students are capable of. Many of the ideas can be adapted for older students.
Assessment is often an afterthought or something that happens at the end of a unit. As the editor suggests, every assignment can provide evidence of what (and how) students are learning. A formal “test” is not the only tool in your assessment toolkit, and none of the articles here describe how to improve standardized test scores. Rather, they focus on authentic observations, using feedback to choose instructional strategies, and providing useful and appropriate feedback to students. (For example, see Formative Assessment Probes: With a Purpose to differentiate between assessment of learning and assessment for learning.)
As the guest editorial The Changing Landscape of Assessment suggests, “Children, even before kindergarten, are more capable than we ever thought—capable when accessible contexts are used and the classroom environment is geared toward the critique and communication of ideas and information.” What may appear to be play could actually be children’s attempts to explore the world around them.  Measuring Learning includes an activity for younger students to explore temperature changes  [SciLinks: Systems of Measurement, How Can Heat Be Measured? How Can Matter Be Measured?]
You may have read that traditional “cookbook” labs can be revised into inquiry-based ones. Shifting to an Inquiry-Based Experience provides some suggestions for how to do this, along with a sample investigation in electricity. The authors note that the steps can be implemented gradually as students (and the teacher) become more familiar with inquiry. What causes a charge to move from one substance to another? provides background information for teachers. [SciLinks: Electric Current, Current Electricity, Static ElectricityWhooo Knew? shows how a commonly used activity such as dissecting owl pellets can become an interesting, differentiated project. [SciLinks: Food Chains, Food Webs, Predator/Prey]

Teachers of young children will identify with the author of Capitalizing on Curiosity. He describes his experiences in using what he thought was “chaos” (and haven’t we all had that feeling) to realize that learning was still going on—just not exactly what he thought would happen. By reflecting on the “feedback” from observing and talking with students he gained a better understanding of how they can be involved in inquiry. (Young children seem eager to explore “what would happen if …” I wonder what happens as they get older?) [SciLinks: Buoyancy]
Scientists on a Mission illustrates how studying isopods (aka pillbugs) can be kicked up a few inquiry notches to engage students in making observations, posing questions, and designing an investigation. This could be a good introduction at the beginning of the year to assess students’ previous experiences with inquiry. If the closest your students come to lobsters is at a restaurant, you may have to think of other topics for research as your read The Case of Lobster Shell Disease. The authors provide examples of how they worked on projects with students to investigate a topic of local interest, and they share their tools, rubrics, and advice, including “Assessment of student progress is essential throughout the course of the project, not only to determine what methods work best and ensure that students grasped the concepts but also to continually incorporate student inquiries into the lesson material. [SciLinks: Arthropods]
Don’t be mislead by the title of the article Museum Connections. Although the author is a museum educator, the “connections” she’s making relate to how classroom design can facilitate inquiry learning, curiosity, and independence in young students. The self-assessment checklist (see the Connections) can be used to assess how inquiry-friendly your classroom is. (I’m already thinking of how it could be adapted for classrooms in secondary schools.) The article also describes how several teachers used the checklists to redesign their classroom spaces to accommodate various types of learning experiences
Feed Up, Feedback, Feed Forward  may sound confusing, but all three processes were used in a kindergarten lesson on conservation, with a focus on composting. The authors define and describe the terms. Feed up—what’s our purpose? Feedback—how are we doing? Feed forward—where do we go from here. The sample rubric is very student-friendly and could be adapted to other projects [SciLinks: What Is ConservationComposting, Decomposers]
And check out more Connections  for this issue (July 2011). Even if the article does not quite fit with your lesson agenda, there are ideas for handouts, background information sheets, data sheets, rubrics, and other resources.
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