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The Assessment of Inquiry Based Research Learning at a South Australian High School

Author: Adam Fitzgerald

This Case Study focuses on the assessment of skills such as 'critical analysis' (and similar skills) that repeatedly feature in both Australian Curriculum Achievement Standards and SACE inquiry tasks. Different disciplines have different approaches to the assessment of analysis through inquiry, and the exploration of these differences and how they are enacted through different assessment tasks is leading towards assessment that is much more "fit-for-purpose".

School and Site Context

The school engaged in this Case Study focusses on providing 'authentic assessment tasks'that aim to 'engage and challenge learners' (School Improvement 2016: Quality Teaching, Quality Learning). This is achieved, in part, through the explicit teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) in the Middle School Years 8 and 9 (School Prospectus, 2016). The students at the school come from a diverse range of backgrounds with a range of abilities. The school also aims to teach these students to become Life-long, 21st Century learners and achieve success in the Australian Curriculum and South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE). These capabilities and skills are important, and feature heavily in Guided Inquiry or Research Based Learning Models (Kuhlthau, Maniatos, & Caspari, 2012), but are not always presently promoted consistently through the school's current assessment practice.

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Analysis of Assessment Practice in Context

This Case Study aims to promote a greater use of authentic assessment practices in Inquiry (or Research) Based Learning. As I am mostly involved with Senior School (Year 11 and 12 students) at the school through my role as Teacher Librarian in the senior school library, the focus will be mostly on the promotion of authentic assessment of senior school (SACE) subjects. However as this Case Study has progressed it is clear that the principles of authentically teaching and assessing Inquiry Based Learning skills has applications in the middle school year levels as well. A focus of this Case Study is to promote discussion and a greater understanding of the assessment of skills such as 'critical analysis' (and similar skills) that repeatedly feature in both Australian Curriculum Achievement Standards and SACE.

Performance Standards are often poorly understood by teachers and students. Research Based Learning also features other assessable skills in the Inquiry Based Learning process such as 'Initiating', 'Designing Inquiry Questions' at the beginning and 'Evaluating research' at the end (Kuhlthau, Maniatos, & Caspari, 2012). As a Teacher Librarian, I regularly assist with students in undertaking Research Based Learning tasks set by their teachers. Most often these tasks come from the same learning areas; Science, Humanities, Heath and Physical Education. As identified through a collection and study of various Inquiry Learning Task sheets, there has been a tendency in some Research Based Assessment to focus too heavily on basic lower level thinking skills, such as 'Remember', 'Explain,' and 'Describe' and 'Classify.' This Case Study will focus on improving the quality of Research Based Learning assessment through the use of HOTS in these Faculty areas.

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Evaluation of Current Practice: Assessing 'Critical Analysis',Differentiation and Time

Presently the Assessment of Research Based Learning at the school varies enormously between faculties and individual teachers. An element of 'traditional assessment' practices that value topic knowledge above skill development is reflected in assessment tasks that emphasise 'knowledge and understanding'.'Critical analysis'or 'reflective evaluation'skills are either not evident in the assessment task sheet or not emphasised.

Other observation of classes and of task sheets showed Research Based Learning tends to ignore the assessment of other processes of the Inquiry Based Learning such as the assessment of the 'development of an inquiry based question' or if included in assessment, often limited to a few controlled question options (for example, students might be given the opportunity to choose one of five research questions on a task sheet for an Issues study). By not properly differentiating the assessment, students might be unfairly disengaged from the Research Based Learning task, disadvantaged and thereby impacting validity (Moon & Tomlinson, 2013).

The time to authentically assess genuine Inquiry Based Learning can also be problematic and can lead to inappropriate assessment practices. The issue of time in Research Based Learning tasks can lead to problems where there is no or a limited opportunity for the feedback to be given on a research based learning task to 'feed forward' (William, 2006). Other examples of the inappropriate assessment of research based learning include over emphasising or placing a numerical value on a specified expectation such as the presentation of a Bibliography or Referencing, especially when such skills have not been explicitly taught. Each of these inappropriate assessment practices can detract from or unfairly value constructs that are not necessarily part of the required assessment criteria.

The process of improving the assessment of Inquiry Based tasks across the school, particularly from a senior secondary perspective, has been, and will continue to be, multifaceted. Differentiation according to the needs of each learning area (faculty), student and teacher is necessary. These assessment improvement strategies have included, and will continue to include, group and faculty professional development sessions, discussion with individual teachers related to specific tasks and more general discussions with faculty and school leaders.

'Assessment Literacy'is needed by all teachers and students to promote student wellbeing and a common understanding of what students are supposed to be learning (Popham, 2009). The primary focus of this Case Study is to promote the use of authentic assessment practices, not just during Inquiry Based Learning tasks but also within all learning areas in all learning assessment. However, given that some faculties feature Inquiry Based Learning more often, I have chosen to focus on these, specifically: Humanities, Science, Health and Physical Education faculties. By way of targeted discussions, focus meetings, and use of a shared PowerPoint presentation I have promoted the use of authentic assessment practice, and more specifically the use of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) and questioning to improve the level of engagement in Inquiry or Research Based Learning tasks. This professional development has focused on the language of assessment, in particular the need to work and assess students during their Inquiry Based Learning process, formative 'Assessment for learning' (Stiggens & Chappuis, 2006), and not just relying on the 'end point' assessment of the assignment, essay or report. In some Learning Areas, aspects of the Research Based Learning process are assessed more formally, by way of a Folio for example. In other cases teachers need to be made more aware that the process of inquiry is as worthy of assessment, arguably more, than the final 'product' and should be assessed, if only in a 'formative' way (Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment, 2011, pp. 62-63).

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Differentiating RBL Assessment: Sports Studies 'Project' Example

As outlined in the Evaluation of Current Practice above, a large proportion of the action to improve assessment practice of Inquiry Based Learning particularly in the senior school, has focused on assisting teachers in developing and delivering assessment tasks with their students. This has included and will continue to include developing 'Research Questions' for classes with teachers based on Higher Order Thinking Skills to ensure that the task is 'fit-for-purpose', has scope for 'Assessment as Learning' and is properly differentiated to meet the learning needs and interests of individual students.

An example of this was in working with a Year 12 Sports Studies class and their teacher. Sports Studies is taught under the SACE Stage 2 Integrated Learning subject. The course has been designed to cater for students who have an interest in sport and physical activity, but do not have the need or inclination to study Stage 2 Physical Education. A key component of the Stage 2 Sport Studies Integrated Studies course is an Investigation (known as 'Project') which is externally assessed and worth 30 % of the course. Through discussions with the Sports Studies teacher, we established that whilst the requirements of the 'Project'are negotiable to some extent, for satisfactory achievement (C Grade) the performance standards require a level of 'analysis'and some involvement in the planning process in developing a topic to investigate. Coupled with the desire to provide scope for some students to succeed at a satisfactory level is the need for a few students to achieve the highest level possible (A grade or better). It has been therefore critical that on a basic level, the way in which we approach the 'Project' task would not only need to be 'fit-for-purpose', but it is also differentiated to encourage 'critical analysis' at all levels. Accordingly, the Sports Studies teacher and myself planned to approach the 'Project' tasks on an individual level focussing on a 'guided inquiry'process, in providing support where appropriate but also encouraging Higher Order Thinking by the way of phrasing questions in the task as well as providing ongoing formative feedback and the use of targeted 'Non-googleable''nudging'questions (TfEL PILOT: Student voice learning tool - Non-googleable questions, 2015). The aim of the assessment of this 'project'has been successful, as not only have students been further challenged to produce higher levels of thinking in their research, but concurrently the discussion amongst teachers and students, and teachers and teachers has shifted to how assessment design can increase deeper learning, which in the end has led to improved results.

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Findings and further recommendations

In all likelihood, as a Teacher Librarian and teacher, I will continue to pursue a better understanding of how to best assess the sometimes complex skills and aptitudes that are promoted in Inquiry or Research Based Learning. Similarly, the teachers at the school in this Case Study are also likely to grapple with the fairest ways to assess and promote a higher quality of achievement in the same skills. Developing 'assessment expertise' in teachers is more than what can be presented in a few workshops and discussions about changing a few words on a task sheet or developing a rubric. It is an ongoing cognitive exercise that asks teachers to reflect on and justify their assessment habits (Stiggens & Chappuis, 2006). It is highly unlikely that teachers will, at least in the short term, be able to consistently assess the sometimes complex and unexpected learning that occurs during Inquiry Based Learning without a whole school intentional approach to improve the assessment of Inquiry Based Learning, and therefore my work is ongoing. In the last 12 months since beginning this Case Study, I have had many discussions with teachers about the assessment of Inquiry Based Learning. As well as the Sports Studies 'Project' outlined above, other learning areas and individual teachers have adjusted their assessment practice as a result of my discussions and professional development sessions on assessment. For example, I helped a Home Economics teacher negotiate inquiry questions to promote critical analysis with her class, as I did similarly with the Science faculty for a Year 11 (Stage 1) Physics Issues Analysis on the use of WI-FI. Further improvements will involve ongoing 'assessment' discussions with teachers and students, working with students and teachers one-on-one to develop 'research focus questions' and discussing ways in which the often complex and open ended skills and aptitudes that occurs during Inquiry Based Learning can be properly and fairly assessed.

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