One challenge for the teachers who dabble in the inquiry-approach is how to assess something that looks so very diverse, open-ended and fluid, in some ways. How does a teacher align the inquiry with standards and expectations, school-wide, provincial or national?
Although student-initiated and teacher-facilitated inquiry process seems to be a highly personalised experience, the teacher can build structure and measurable elements into it. This can be in the form of provocation that the teacher provides during the inquiry or the choice of resources. For instance while doing a unit on accessibility of water; the teacher can bring in resources, human or material, about the journey of water to our homes or those about the accessibility of water to different people in the world, depending on how narrow or broad a focus she wants in the unit. This focus in terms of content can be determined by the standards and expectations while the construction of meaning and understanding for that content can be harnessed by the inquiry approach.
The fair, valid and reliable assessment for inquiries or any aspect of student learning has to be both formative and summative. This ongoing nature of the assessment affords the teacher the opportunity to assess the process as well as the product. The inquiry cycle, for those who use it during the inquiry process, provides ample scope for assessment at almost every step. The feedback provided to the student to shape his learning, the students’ response to that feedback, the teacher using the feedback to inform teaching-learning in the classroom – all this forms crucial and realistic modes of learning.
Unlike a standardised test, inquiries can be best assessed by self, peer or teacher. This makes assessment a holistic and learning experience in itself. Teachers often build reflective tools into the inquiry cycle where the student reflects on the findings so far and next steps. This makes scaffolding not just a teacher regulated process but a deliberate exercise on part of the student. I cannot think of any traditional assessment strategy that, in itself, is so rich and reliable.
The product of inquiries, itself is very varied and complex to merit a simple letter grade or a mark. What helps in that case are descriptors in the form of rubric providing concrete and meaningful insights, to both the teacher and the student, as to what the student has understood and can do and what student hasn’t demonstrated in terms of understanding and skills. Although it sounds rather simplistic, making rubric to assess the outcome of inquiries can be a complex and interactive process. A letter grade or a mark pales in comparison to the complexity of the learning and is ambiguous, incomprehensible and therefore seems arbitrary.