The primary purpose of assessment within a discipline-based inquiry is to improve students’ learning and teachers’ teaching as both respond to the information it provides.
John Hattie found that the most powerful single influence enhancing achievement is feedback (Hattie, 2009, p.12). Teachers need to be aware of what each and every student is thinking and knowing to construct meaning and meaningful experiences in light of this knowledge, and have proficient knowledge and understanding of their content to provide meaningful and appropriate feedback such that each student moves progressively through the curriculum levels (Hattie, 2009, p.239).
Assessment that occurs during the learning process informing next learning and teaching steps by providing feedback to both is known as formative assessment.
An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have to make in the absence of that evidence (Wiliam, 2011, p.43).
- Formative assessment is designed to promote students’ learning. Students need to know what success looks like (an understanding of the desired goal), where their learning is at (evidence about their present position in relation to that goal), and what they need to do to close the gap between where they are and the next step towards success (guidance on the way to close the gap between the two).
- Formative assessment is designed to inform teachers’ next instructional steps, while students are in the process of learning. Teaching effectively in a discipline-based inquiry way means using the information the students are providing while they are engaged in learning. Remember, assessment isn’t something that takes place only after all the work is complete. Discipline-based inquiry studies provide ongoing rich opportunities to assess student learning and work products, as well as at the end of the study.
When teachers teach within discipline-based inquiry studies, the challenge is to figure out how to design formative assessment to ensure student understanding and learning are maximized.
Figuring out what your students really understand and are learning involves:
- Understanding how students learn;
- Understanding disciplinary core concepts and connections contained in the inquiry;
- Understanding the curricular outcomes;
- Ensuring the task, activities and assignments within the inquiry are aligned with the formative assessment;
- Ensuring students have a clear understanding of the desired goal;
- Ensuring students have evidence about their present position in relation to the goal;
- Ensuring instruction is directed at closing the gap between the goal and the present position; and
- Ensuring students have access to and revisit the assessment criteria throughout the study and receive ongoing, specific feedback from a variety of sources and in a variety of different ways.
A note on “improvement” as a form of assessment:
In knowledge building, a feature of a discipline-based inquiry, idea improvement is an explicit principle, something that guides the efforts of students and teachers, rather than something that remains implicit and the related learning activities (Scardamalia, 2002). The direct pursuit of idea improvement brings schooling into much closer alignment with creative knowledge work as carried on at professional levels. Generating ideas appears to come naturally to people, especially children, but sustained effort to improve ideas does not. Developing a disposition to work at idea improvement should be a major objective in the education of scholars, scientists and designers, for without such disposition the likelihood of a productive career is slight (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006).
Discipline-based inquiry studies provide opportunities for several forms of assessment:
- Self assessment – Ultimately, students need to be able to determine their own strengths and weaknesses, and make plans for improvement. They should have a very clear picture of what understanding and good work looks like. And they should be able to discuss with confidence the degree to which their work meets established criteria. When teachers have involved students at every stage of the inquiry, students have a clear understanding of what they are doing—and why. And if teachers have worked with them to develop rubrics and other assessment measures, students will know exactly what good work looks like.
- Peer assessment – Teachers need to help students become effective at giving feedback to others. They can’t assume students know how to give and receive helpful feedback. Teachers must work with students to understand how you can help others improve. And even more important, teachers should help students understand how good feedback is an essential part of improving any idea. It is teachers who help the class see that each person’s ideas and contributions make the whole inquiry stronger, and help students develop a confident sense of responsibility to one another and to the work.
- Public performance as assessment – When people outside the school look at the work, what do they see? When parents are invited in for student directed conferences, how do they get to see and hear what their child knows? When students take positions on public issues and enter into community debates and problem solving, how robust and helpful is their contribution? When the community is invited into the school to celebrate student learning, how do the students get meaningful feedback on what the invited guests see as the strengths and weaknesses of their work? When students post their work online, or participate in global projects, how do they know their learning really matters to someone else?Remember, The end of the study isn’t where assessment begins – it’s where ongoing assessment concludes. The conclusion of a great study is a time for celebration. The students are proud of their work, they understand how it will be assessed, and they want to share it with others beyond the classroom.
- Teacher assessment – Ongoing assessment practices gives teachers the confidence that students are building the knowledge, skills, understanding and attributes (competencies) needed to complete a great study. It also provides teachers with opportunities to focus their teaching where it will have the biggest impact. Teachers can use a variety of assessment strategies to:
- Uncover gaps in understanding while there is still time to do something about them,
- Construct their next lessons to ensure gaps are addressed,
- Target mini-lessons to assist individuals or groups of students who have a specific need, and/or
- Plan direct and intentional instruction for students who have misunderstandings.
As teachers work with groups and individuals during the course of a day, or as teachers observe students working in a variety of situations, it is important to jot down things they see: breakthroughs; demonstrations of understanding; misconceptions. Teachers need to talk to each student often about how, exactly, they are doing.