Assessment of Inquiry Skills

The Inquiry Skills

When it comes to the skills of conducting science investigations and inquiry the idea is to promote a series of abilities highly practiced by scientists (Martin, 2009), such as:

Martin, D., J. (2009). Elementary science methods: A constructivist approach. Belmont, CA, Cengage Learning.

Despite the diversity of ways you could choose to teach investigation and inquiry skills, there are 6 features that are essential of an inquiry-based approach to learning:

  1. Learner engages in scientifically oriented questions.
  2. Learner gives priority to data/evidence in responding to questions.
  3. Learner analyses data
  4. Learner formulates explanations based on analysis.
  5. Learner connects explanations to scientific knowledge.
  6. Learner communicates and justifies explanations.

National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. Available on this link: This book has been modified and adapted for the Victorian Curriculum by Towns et al, 2009, Characterizing the level of inquiry in the undergraduate laboratory. Available on this link:

We notice that these words in bold relate to the Victorian Curriculum Inquiry Skills.

Scaffolding Inquiry Skills to Facilitate Learning

Applying the right level of scaffolding for your students is necessary to support learning. Scaffolding can be described as an increasing level of independence with which students undertake each skill.  There is a developmental progression as described below:

Prescription: The student performs the skill strongly scaffolded by explicit instructions. This might involve a highly directive worksheet, or teacher instruction.

Confirmation: The student makes constrained choices within a set of instructions, or strongly guided class discussion. There is minimal room for variation.

Structured inquiry: The student interprets and modifies inquiry processes within an explicit framework.  This may involve prior class discussion.

Guided inquiry: The student is involved in substantial decision making and interpretation within a broad outline of suggestions of possible approaches.

Open inquiry: The student engages with a question or problem that they have posed and are invested in, and conducts an investigation with minimal guidance.

Importantly, different levels of scaffolding can be provided for each inquiry skill. This way, in one Laboratory Learning Activity (LLA) the inquiry skill outcomes for questioning might be offered at the Structured Inquiry level.  However, if the teacher, through class discussion, offers interpretation guidance rather than structured choice via a worksheet then that skill scaffolding may descrease to the Guided Inquiry level.

The image below helps visualise how the inquiry skills, represented by building blocks, might be scaffolded less as the students become proficient in that skill. The level of scaffolding in each of the Inquiry Skills will depend on your students’ ability and the proposed learning outcomes for your class.

Figure 1. A possible distribution of levels of scaffolding across the different phases of the inquiry cycle in a science activity.

The idea of putting all of this into a table came from U.S. National Research Council research in 2000.

National Research Council (2000). Inquiry and the national science education standards: A guide for teaching and learning. Washington DC: National Academic Press.

Bruck, L. B., Bretz, S. L., & Towns, M. H. (2008). Characterizing the level of Inquiry in the undergraduate laboratory. Journal of College Science Teaching, 38(1), 52-58.

The idea of designing one table to represent the inquiry skill outcomes and the teacher focus at each level of scaffolding from prescription to open inquiry was adapted to the Victorian (and Australian) curriculum by the ASELL for Schools – Victorian Node team.  You can access these documents here: The Inquiry Scaffold Tool.