Assessing Inquiry-based Learning

After our meeting there was a lot of discussion around the tools and processes we are using to assess our students. Since many of us are in the process of exploring inquiry-based learning in our own classrooms, we have several questions about how to assess this complex process of learning.

Inquiry-based learning is a multi-layered process where students formulate questions, investigate to find answers, collaborate with their peers, build new understandings, meanings and knowledge, and then communicate their learning to others.  In classrooms where teachers emphasize inquiry-based learning, students are actively involved in solving authentic (real-life) problems within the context of the curriculum and/or community.  These powerful learning experiences engage students deeply. So how do we asses these powerful learning experiences?

In an inquiry-based classroom, as seen in the FDK 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. On a daily and 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.

Inquiry-based assessment, evaluation, and reporting is as student-centred as the inquiry-based learning process itself, and can be characterized as follows:

  • focuses on the developmental growth of each student over time, instead of comparing where he or she stands relative to other students
  • strives to make students’ thinking processes explicit and visible
  • strives to embed assessment into everyday classroom life throughout the entire inquiry unit, beyond diagnostic, formative, and summative boundaries
  • designed to highlight the qualitative development of a student’s learning skills and higher-order thinking skills, more so than a student’s accumulation of information in strictly quantitative terms
  • aims to be as helpful and transparent for students and families as it is for the teacher
  • based on ongoing, and varied sources of student expression; teachers encourage students to demonstrate their emerging understanding in a variety of ways in order to respect and support the diverse learning modalities, interests, needs, and experiences of all learners (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010a)
  • geared toward developing “students’ self assessment skills to enable them to assess their own learning, set specific goals, and plan next steps …” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010a)

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:

  • The teachers’ ability to differentiate instruction and assessment as a means of helping students understand how they can improve is closely related to the feelings that students have about themselves as learners specifically, and about learning in general (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010a).
  • “Using multiple sources of evidence increases the reliability and validity of the evaluation of student learning” Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010a).

Some examples of varied and authentic assessment sources include, but are not limited to:

  • student questions*
  • inquiry journals
  • “I Wonder” collaborative walls or boards
  • creative visual art
  • blogs
  • portfolios
  • anecdotal observations

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 throughout the day.

Near the end of our discussion our group revisited the Achievement Charts found in all Ministry of Education curriculum documents. There was some discussion about revisiting these charts as a standard guide for us to use when we plan, assess and evaluate our students’ inquiries. Thoughts?

My intention is that this post will be the beginning of our discussion around assessment as we work through this inquiry-based learning process together. Please reply directly to this post with your ideas, strategies, questions, assessment tools, work samples, and comments!

Leigh Cassell



Earl, L. (2004). Classroom Assessment for Deep Understanding. In K. Leithwood, P. McAdie, N. Bascia, & A. Rodrigue (Eds.), Teaching for deep understanding: Towards the Ontario Curriculum That We Need (pp. 94-99), Toronto, ON: Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT).

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. (2011) Natural Curiousity: A Resource for Teachers. Retrieved from

National Science Foundation. (2001). Inquiry: Thoughts, views, and strategies for the K-5 classroom – Foundations: A Monograph for Professionals in Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education. Vol 2. Washington D.C.: Author. Retrieved from

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010a). Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools. Retrieved from

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010b) The Full-Day Early Learning – Kindergarten Program 2010-2011, Draft Version. Ontario: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2004). Framework for 21st Century Learning. In Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Retrieved August 22, 2010, from


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