How Should we Assess Students in Inquiry-based Science?

science_waterThe school year has begun and science teachers are working hard to develop and enact their inquiry-based programs. They are mindful of the fact that they have to not only assess their students’ progress as they carry out the many activities – both of a hands-on and theoretical nature – but also have to prepare their students for end-of-year final exams. In some cases teachers prepare and administer their own exams, trying to be as faithful as possible to the curriculum and making the exam fair for their students. Those teachers unlucky enough to teach a course which has a final exam prepared by the Ministry of Education have the additional nerve-racking task of trying to outguess the exam preparers (usually teachers like themselves). They work with general guidelines but no specific details.

Science teachers face a major dilemma.   Nowadays teachers of science and technology are encouraged to take an inquiry-based approach in the classroom. As I described in an earlier post, students should “do” science, not just be told about it.  During my visits with teachers, consultants and principals, I was frequently told that teachers worried that they had to give up some constructivist activities they felt were too time-consuming so that they could concentrate on the content they felt would be part of the exam. They worried that the exam would not reflect the inquiry nature of their courses. To some, this forced an unwelcome change of their teaching methodology. Many teachers have told me that traditional final exams encourage memorization of the facts and discourage them from spending the required time on “doing” science. They know how important it is for their students to do well on the exams, so preparing them for that high-stakes science exam becomes their first priority.

The US National Research Council agrees that preparation for final exams in science is harmful for science learning. , “Much of the potentially useful information from assessments … is used in ways that undermine learning and educational improvement.” (NRC, 2001). In a 2012 special edition of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (JRST) Hickey et al summarized a widespread concern that “External achievement tests undermine the efforts of schools to focus on deeper conceptual understanding” (Hickey, D. T., Taasoobshirazi, G. and Cross, D. 2012).

So how should students be assessed in inquiry-based science programs? Is there a place for exams? If so, what should they look like? What about practical exams, projects, quizzes, interviews, observations, …? Should they “count” in the final marks? There is much literature written about the purposes of evaluation too. Should it be formative (to enhance the learning process) or summative (to see what the student knows)? Or both? Research seems to show that there is a place for many different assessment methods in a science teacher’s repertoire. In fact the greater variety of methods used, the more likely it is that the overall assessment of whether students have met the objectives will be valid.

According to Pellegrino, J. W. (2012), “We are moving beyond vague terms such as “know” and “understand” to more specific statements like analyze, compare, explain, argue, represent, predict, etc. in which the practices of science are wrapped around and integrated with core content.” He talks about 3 aspects of assessment that should be included: comprehensiveness (a wide variety of evidence), coherence (compatibility of teaching and testing), and continuity (measuring student progress over time). So showing knowledge of core content is not enough. We need to give students the opportunity to demonstrate those other inquiry skills. How? Here are some ideas which can help – both formatively and summatively:

Formative: Assessments should be used to enhance the learning throughout the year. This should include:

  • Observations of student work as well as interviews and continuous feedback.
  • Self-assessment and peer evaluation should be incorporated into this process.

Summative: The final grade (report card)

  • should reflect how well they have met the objectives (attained the competencies) at the time of the report (not how well they did, say, six months ago). Though we want to measure a student’s progress over time we must be careful not to penalize them for misunderstandings from the past – which may have been overcome since then.
  • should include a wide variety of pieces of evidence: performance tests (eg. lab exam), written tests, discussions which show student comprehension, project work, … in short, all evidence of student performance and understanding.


Thus multiple measures give students various ways and opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding and enhance the validity and fairness of the assessment process.

So how do you assess your students in science? Have you figured out how to assess their inquiry skills and still prepare them for their final exams?



Hickey, D. T., Taasoobshirazi, G. and Cross, D. (2012), Assessment as learning: Enhancing discourse, understanding, and achievement in innovative science curricula. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 49: 1240–1270. doi:10.1002/tea.21056

National Research Council. (2001). Classroom assessment and the national science education standards. Washington: National Academies Press.

Pellegrino, J. W. (2012), Assessment of science learning: Living in interesting times. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 49: 831–841. doi: 10.1002/tea.21032


History of Quebec and Canada – Planning for a new curriculum

Matt and student – photo by P.Rombough under license ICU

The 2015-2016 school year is here and I have the privilege of piloting the new History of Quebec and Canada program.  There are three other teachers piloting the secondary III program in the English sector, and about thirty teachers in total in the pilot project.

The purpose of this series is to give some insight into the process of teaching a whole new  curriculum from scratch – the successes and challenges that my students and I are facing as we go through this journey together.  


To begin, I decided that I was going to adopt the Understanding by Design framework for planning. For me, the Understanding by Design framework makes the most sense in setting up a new unit, or Learning and Evaluation Situation (LES).  Like in any subject, I began by unpacking the expectations of the two competencies – Characterizes a period in the history of Quebec and Canada, and Interprets a social phenomenon –  and tried to develop a number of enduring understandings and essential questions that went along with them:

Enduring Understandings Essential Questions
People move (migrate) for a variety of reasons Why do people move?
Geography and climate affect how people live. How does geography affect settlement?
Colonization involves many challenges. Why did some attempts at colonization succeed and some fail?
Different cultures interact by transforming themselves. What happens when cultures collide?

My goal was to develop understandings and essential questions that could be universal, but also lead towards specific historical knowledge in our curriculum.  We’ll have to see if the questions are too broad and need to be made more specific for my students.

After I had developed what I wanted my students to understand and the related essential questions, I went deeper into the knowledge to be acquired in order to map out the sequence of lessons that I planned to do.  I set up the lessons around an essential question or two, and developed learning intentions and corresponding success criteria.

For example, my first lesson(s) will centre on the arrival of the ancestors of the indigenous people of Canada.  The essential questions that I chose were: Why do people move? and How does geography affect settlement?

I set up the learning intentions and success criteria in a chart form that I’ve given to students so that they know exactly where we are going throughout the unit and what they need to do in order to be successful in the activities that we will do.  I included a check box so that they can physically check off that they have met the success criteria.

Learning Intentions Success Criteria
Know the Asian migration theory I can name the migration route of the First Occupants and indicate it on a map.
Know the different Aboriginal groups in the territory of Quebec. I can name the groups that belonged to the different language families and indicate them on a map.
Explain the way of life of different and social structures of native groups. I can explain the way of life and social structures and categorize artifacts belonging to different native groups.

Ideally, I’d like to build more complexity into the third (or fourth) learning intention. I think, however, that for an activity at the beginning of the year, categorizing the artifacts will get students to think critically about the ways of life,social structures, resources available, and geographical areas of the various groups.  

My next step was to plan the student assessment for the LES.  I used a table of specifications, which is also known as a blueprint, in order to make sure that I included all of the relevant knowledge, skills and competencies on the test.   The following table of specifications is one that I put together with a colleague for  Secondary I History and Citizenship .

Learning Outcomes Historical Thinking Skills Course Content/Topic % of class time on topic # items How it is assessed
Students will judge the extent that the Western Roman Empire continued into the beginning of the Middle Ages Continuity and Change (interwoven) 2 classes – presence of Christianity, use of Latin in the Church, divided territory, monastic orders, the papacy) 11% 2 Short Answer –Test
Students will compare the relationships between the individuals in feudal society Continuity and Change (progress, pace of change, periodization) 5 classes – Social, political and economic organization 29% 6 Short Answer – Test
Students will determine and distinguish elements of continuity and change in the Crusades Continuity and Change (turning point, progress and decline, pace of change, periodization) 11 classes –  Culture – Crusades, pilgrimages, effects of the Crusades 60% 12 7 Short Answer-Test5 – Performance Piece: Concept Map

The beauty of the table of specifications is that it allows you to see what emphasis that you are placing on a particular topic and you can contrast this to the amount of class time spent on the topic.  

For the unit on the native people, I realized that I had an imbalance on the test as I had two questions related to a topic that we were going to spend less time on than other topics. As well, it allowed me to see that at first I had too few lower order items on the test and that I needed to switch one of two with a higher order item.

I’ve found that these three tools have been really helpful in the planning process.  The enduring understandings and essential questions framed the learning intentions and the success criteria.  As well, the table of specifications aided to make sure that I stayed on track with my summative assessment and to balance the knowledge and skills that I wanted to evaluate.
In my next post, I’ll be discussing the advantages and disadvantages of flipping the classroom, as well on how I’m using formative assessment this year. Meanwhile, what method do you use to plan out content and how do you make sure that you stay coherent with evaluation?


Some useful links:

Quebec government hopes to improve ‘national history’ curriculum

Vers un nouveau cours d’histoire nationale au secondaire

ThenHier report on first (not final!) drafts of program: 

Consultation Document (November 2013)
For the Reinforcement of the Teaching of Québec History in Elementary and Secondary School
(en français à )

LCEEQ response:

GRUS response:

THE MEANING OF HISTORY  (Final report following the consultation)  (LE SENS DE L’HISTOIRE en français à )

Beyond the Textbook: Righting the Math Course




The lecture, textbook, worksheet, pop-quiz, test and exam cycle are the traditional delivery tools used in most schools to teach mathematics. It’s the way you and I were probably taught math. Teachers, at the helm of this tightly run ship, lead their crew through the abstract terrain of formulas, equations, rules and processes in a very linear flow, with a strict time frame decided by the publishing company and the curriculum. We’re told that it has ‘worked’ for years. But what does this method do for the joy of sailing, for the exploring of unchartered territory, for discovering new lands?

Teachers report a lack of engagement in the wonder of problem solving on the part of many of their students. This valuable application skill of math has caused a parting of the seas of sorts, whereby those few students that “get it”  sail off into the abstract, while the majority who need more interactive measures are thrown to the sharks!

To encourage students to be more patient and resilient problem solvers, there has to be a better trajectory for mathematics instruction, with varied and exciting techniques and strategies that are more intuitive and applicable to the real world. Much research has been done over the years to get students to love and succeed in math, but our industrial model for mathematical instruction runs deep and teachers are wary of what they see as flavour of the month strategies that so often disappoint.

Provincial exams don’t help in righting the course, often contributing to the “drill and kill” mentality which in turn shackles educators to a rigid curriculum that revolves around textbooks, workbooks, practice sheets written by publishing houses intent on providing teachers with a direct line to mathematics instruction, taking the soul and wonder out of its’ sails.

Can we right this ship?


Lost at sea: Student anxiety

This sense of being lost at sea is discussed by Matthew A. Brenner in his essay The Four Pillars Upon Which the Failure of Math Education Rests (and what to do about them). Math instruction suffers from “the long-term, chronic frustration and shame inflicted on countless millions of students for years on end in the name of math education.” In elementary school, students start to experience a sense of being lost, overwhelmed, confused and flounder in the tidal wave of math when taught in a rote manner. Math anxiety even has its own Wikipedia entry! Brenner believes understanding must be front and centre for “where there is not understanding there can only be the most shallow learning: mindlessly memorizing facts and procedures… all that remains are bits of unconnected specific information: the multiplication table, a formula for variance, another for standard deviation, etc.”

The following table illustrates how educators might begin to right this ship.

Math Curriculum



A focus on understanding

Understanding is paramount to the development of math competency. For example, learning fractions without knowing that a fraction is a piece of one whole thing is a waste of time, and confusing. What is memorized is not learned. How big can the pieces of your birthday cake be if you have eight guests? Hmmmm. Deep learning requires a lot of varied input and cognitive engagement from baby steps in recognition until the concept is learned. Far too often math textbooks present abstract and disconnected topics in a constricted time frame with examples that don’t inspire our students to want to learn more. Teachers worried about falling behind, skip crucial steps to understanding due to perceived time constraints.

Bewildered students end up fearing what lies ahead as they struggle to memorize disconnected bits. Heads down, they see the mop swabbing the deck, bits of rope and sail, and do not notice the sea, sunsets and seaspray on their skin.

If understanding and connecting topics is what we truly seek for our learners, then instruction must involve a variety of practical resources, hands-on experiences, meaningful discussion about math that cause students to engage and reflect on concepts, to use understanding to build new understanding. Equipped with basic understanding of math concepts, and ongoing collaboration opportunities with peers and of course fun, problem-solving strategies will evolve naturally…

…information is an undigested burden unless it is understood. It is knowledge only as its material is comprehended. And understanding, comprehension, means that the various parts of the information acquired are grasped in their relation to one another—a result that is attained only when acquisition is accompanied by constant reflection upon the meaning of what is studied.  – John Dewey (1933)

We must stop teaching math the way we learned math. There is enough data that shows that how we learned math did not work for the majority of our students. If cumulative understanding is our ultimate goal, our curriculum needs a gutting. Concepts have to be understood first, no matter how long that takes, nor how many different ways to that goal are needed! Thus acquired learning can be built upon, with the big picture always guiding our course!

For such deep understanding to happen, using worked examples and their solutions (clearly laid out examples that are relevant and applicable in a context that the students can relate to, like birthday cake and sunsets) when introducing new material helps. This will lower the cognitive load on the student and provide a foundation of procedures for solving situational problems for the future. Take the following example from a grade 9 textbook;

In a bicycle race, Lionel gives Robert a 500 m advantage. Also, Lionel agrees to start 15 min after Robert. If Lionel bikes at 17 km/h and Robert at 14 km/h, how long will it take Lionel after he starts biking to overtake Robert? (Brown, Dolciani, Sorgenfrey, & Kane, 2000, p.53, problem 20).

Why give a lead in a race? Where’s the finish line? What about hills? Adrenaline in the bikers? Traffic lights? Truly void of reality, context, logic… we ask our students to make sense out of nonsense.

Encouraging students to use past understanding to build new understanding is essential in all assignments. Meaning is what is remembered, not specific detail: “New concepts and techniques should be well-grounded in concrete contexts, until they are well understood and practiced, at which point it is appropriate to discuss and apply them in more abstract and decontextualized ways.” (Brenner, 79) Thus problems like the one above can be exciting as an application of our understanding, like crossword puzzles or sudoku… exercise for the brain. Unengaged students, students who lack basic understanding of mathematical concepts will get no satisfaction, feel stupid or unhappy and jump ship… missing out on a wonderful journey from which they will not easily recover.

Cognitive and metacognitive thinking is inherent in all mathematical activity. Brenner explains it best as, “recalling information and ideas that may be helpful in solving a problem is a cognitive activity, while monitoring the progress and managing the process of solving a problem are metacognitive activity” (Brenner, 60). Students need to develop their deep processing skills in math, which can only be done by doing it. Keep the math language simple and consistent. Avoid using elaborate terms, sentence structures and complex language.

Murky math seas can be calmed if teachers’ ultimate aim is understanding, with a keen eye on the big picture. The more we understand, the more sense the world makes. So all aboard, let’s leave our old ports for seas of deep blue understanding! And cake and sunsets.


Brenner, M. (2011, July 20). The Four Pillars Upon Which the Failure or Math Education Rests (and what to do about them). Retrieved June 11, 2015, from

Dolciani, M. (1986). Algebra and trigonometry: Structure and method (Vol. II). Boston, Massachussets: Houston Mufflin.

Onward and Upward: Fostering a growth mindset

kids_gardenWelcome back, learners!

I am honoured, for the fifth year in a row, to write the official back-to-school post on the LEARN blog.  How do I always come up with something fresh(ish) and new(ish) to write about?  Believe me, every September I struggle and I do feel a certain amount of stress. Despite those feelings,  I accepted the request of our blog editor when she asked me in August if I would uphold my “first post of the school year” tradition.  My response:  “I don’t have any ideas for this year…YET!”

That one word, yet, is very powerful!  What does it signify?  For me related to this blog post, it meant that even though in mid-August, I didn’t know something, I had faith that “not knowing” was a temporary state.  I wasn’t giving up after coming up blank on topics for thirty seconds, or even a few days.  I had the belief that, by putting in several days of thought, and planning a professional learning day for the online teachers, I would find a good topic.  By putting in the time, reflection, effort, research, and discussion with colleagues, I knew that the topic would come to me.  Happily, I have a GROWTH mindset.

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

For those of you who are familiar with the work of Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, growth mindset is not new to you.

According to Dweck’s definitions, “In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.”

“In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

Or, to use that word yet,

  • With a fixed mindset, a learner might think, “I can’t do that!” and stop trying.
  • A learner with a growth mindset, would instead think, “I can’t do that YET,” and put in place all available strategies to tackle the problem.

Looking at one study in Dweck’s research, students were asked to complete a puzzle.  After completing the puzzle, all of the participants were praised.  One group of students was told they must be very smart and talented to have completed the puzzle.  The other group was praised for the hard work and effort put into the puzzle.  As teachers, when we use praise, our intent is to encourage students and instill them with confidence and self-esteem.  All good, right?  That’s not what the study found.  It turns out, not all praise is necessarily good praise.

After being praised, the participants were offered a choice in the puzzle they would work on next.  When given the choice between puzzles described as being within their comfort zone (they would certainly succeed) or puzzles that would challenge them (they would make mistakes but learn), most students who had been praised for their intelligence selected the easier puzzle, whereas the majority of the students praised for hard work selected the more challenging one.

The study was repeated several times with the same results. You can read more about Dweck’s fascinating and revealing research by following the links below, but what I really want to consider is how her findings might impact us as teachers and learners.

Pause before you praise

Listen to how you praise students (and your own children).   If you start to give a student feedback that focuses on his/her talents and intelligence, wait a moment.  Consider instead the effort and process that the student has put into the work and try making encouraging comments related to that.  If the student had no trouble completing the work and made no mistakes, encourage them to try something more challenging that may even allow the student to struggle a bit.


Check your own mindset

Do you believe in the power of your own attitude and effort, or are you limiting yourself to your own teaching comfort zone?  Yes, trying something new leaves us open to making mistakes, struggling, and feeling stressed.  Believe me, I have made epic mistakes when tackling new things.  I do get frustrated when trying to figure out something challenging for the first time.  However, I have learned from most of my mistakes, and felt the exhilaration of FINALLY being successful with something that had previously seen me pulling my hair out.  Staying in one’s comfort zone rarely gives us those same amazing highs and real feelings of accomplishment as when we take on, and finally conquer, a new challenge.

I will leave you to consider the question posed to our online students this year in their first assignment in which they introduce themselves to their new online teachers:  Describe a situation (not necessarily at school) where you had to work hard at something to succeed.

Feel free to comment below to answer this question for yourself, or consider how a growth mindset may have helped you or your students succeed.

Wishing you an exciting year of growth and learning!

An interview with Carol Dweck

The Educator and a Growth Mindset – Jackie Gerstein’s thinglink (click on dots on the infographic for more resources)

TEDx video: The Power of Belief: Mindset and Success, Eduardo Briceno