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Assessing enquiry-based learning

How to set up assessment that deals with the varied experiences students encounter with enquiry-based learning.

Cloud created by:

Peter Kahn
17 November 2009


Enquiry-based learning (EBL) usually results in students achieving, creating or experiencing a wide range of: learning outcomes, products arising from learning, processes as part of their learning, contexts in which learning occurs, social structures underpinning learning.

This poses some real challenges for assessment tasks, criteria and feedback, as the tendency can sometimes be to resort to standard approaches that particularly don't benefit the students, but that do assign reliable grades. We need to realise that the demands on staff and student are significant, as support is required to follow an unfamiliar research process, adjust to a new context, and master an ability; on a student by student basis.

I want to outline four principles that help us to deal with this variety that students encounter.


Assessment is formative to the extent that evidence about student performance is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners or their peers, to make decisions about the next steps in research processes ...  (adapted from Black and William, 2009)

We need to capitalise on the moments of contingency that arise naturally within enquiry-based learning:

  • Unpredictable and uncertain aspects of work within authentic contexts.
  • Research processes unfold over time, with scope to shift direction in light of  evidence or to plug gaps in understanding.
  • Opportunity for discussion as an integral aspect of the learning
  • Contingency ties in to one of the most substantive benefits of research-led learning, namely student motivation.


Given this great variety across student learning, we still need to value efficiency:

  • Be realistic in the extent of the research involved or recognise the demands via credit size
  • Students conduct research in groups or pairs
  • Use of coursework requirements: a condition that a student must meet to pass a module or assignment ... and combine this with
  • sampling of student work and the involvement of others in commenting on student work (e.g. self, peers, GTAs, clients, professionals, technicians ...)


The varied range of learning does pose challenges for the consistency of the entire student experience. We need to pay particular attention to alignment:

  • Learning outcomes: we need to make sure that the challenge is fully explicit. Do your outcomes integrate words into them such as 'appreciate uncertainty and limits of knowledge, manage own learning, initiate projects, initiative and personal responsibility, decision making in unpredictable circumstances, complex contexts, autonomously, identify a range of solutions, ...'? This favours an increased use of formative assessment and alternative examination papers and other assessment tasks.
  • Products arising from learning: Assessment to incorporate reports, papers, artefacts, logs, performances, personal accounts, ... How can we integrate these into assessment?
  • Processes involved in learning: Directly assess or give feedback on student contribution to the processes involved, as with facilitating group-work, managing own learning or dealing with uncertainties or un-forseen eventualities. If you are not taking advantage of all this work and these naturally arising products, then the chances are that the student will need to spend more time learning than someone on a similar comparable module that is not based around EBL. (Is that fair?)
  • Contexts in which learning occurs: Taking account of authentic, professional, unpredictable contexts in setting level of support, tasks and criteria. These contexts really do enable students to hit learning outcomes as suggested above.
  • Social structures underpinning learning: EBL often works best when it takes advantage of social structures that underpin learning, as with roles, groups and pairs. Thus we will look for assessment and feedback that builds on the involvement of others in pairs and groups, pattern of meetings, or through specific roles.


Given the genuine variation in tasks/contexts/level of support involved, consider the following:

  • Draw up assessment criteria that take into account the varying demands faced by students, especially when contexts differ significantly (as with lab and desk-based research).
  • Ensure that the credit size reflects the actual amount of student work involved in the module, or scale down your expectations.
  • Use of coursework requirements can avoid penalising students in cases where learning is contingent on factors beyond their control.

... and applying this to your own practice

Consider a given assessment task, along with the associated assessment criteria and feedback mechanisms. How could you adapt this to:

  • draw from moments of contingency;
  • take greater account of the full range of learning outcomes, products arising, processes, social structures and contexts involved;
  • introduce efficiencies in staff time;
  • and ensure fairness to students?  

Concluding thoughts ...

The Carrick model (see references below)  suggests that we should value renovating practice, and that embedding requires extensive personal engagement. So perhaps look for opportunities that will make it easier to implement some of these ideas, where change is already planned or where you can adapt existing practice.  

Black, P. and William, D. (2009) Developing the theory of formative assessment, Educ Asse Eval Acc 21, 5-31.

McKenzie, J., Alexander, S., Harper, C. and Anderson, S. (2005) Dissemination, adoption and adaption of project innovation in higher education, Carrick Institute report, University of Technology, Sydney [Online,].

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