The term inquiry has figured prominently in science education, yet it refers to at least three distinct categories of activities—what scientists do (e.g., conducting investigations using scientific methods), how students learn (e.g., actively inquiring through thinking and doing into a phenomenon or problem, often mirroring the processes used by scientists), and a pedagogical approach that teachers employ (e.g., designing or using curricula that allow for extended investigations) (Minner, 2009[1]). However, whether it is the scientist, student, or teacher who is doing or supporting inquiry, the act itself has some core components.

Inquiry based science education (IBSE) is an approach to teaching and learning science that is conducted through the process of inquiry. Some of the key characteristics of IBSE are:

  • Students are engaged with a difficult problem or situation that is open-ended to such a degree that a variety of solutions or responses are conceivable.
  • Students have control over the direction of the inquiry and the methods or approaches that are taken.
  • Students draw upon their existing knowledge and they identify what their learning needs are.
  • The different tasks stimulate curiosity in the students, which encourages them to continue to search for new data or evidence.
  • The students are responsible for the analysis of the evidence and also for presenting evidence in an appropriate manner which defends their solution to the initial problem (Kahn & O'Rourke, 2005[2]).

Assessing students during an IBSE approach can be challenging, however it is an inherent and important part of teaching to promote effective learning.  In particular formative assessment is core to ensuring that the level and quality of teaching is appropriate for the students. This TEP element highlights a number of assessment opportunities and techniques selected from the ESTABLISH teaching and learning units which complement an inquiry approach to teaching and promoting student learning.

Prof. Wynne Harlen has presented a 2013 review of Assessment & Inquiry-Based Science Education: Issues in Policy and Practice. In addition, a number of European projects have been funded under the seventh framework programme that focus on the assessment of skills and competencies that are developed in IBSE and these offer extended opportunities for developing confident and competence in assessing inquiry, including the SAILS (2012-2015), ASSIST-ME (2013-2016) and FASMEd (2014-2016).

[1] Minner, D.D., Levy, A. J, and Century, J. (2009) Inquiry-Based Science Instruction—What Is It and Does It Matter? Results from a Research Synthesis Years 1984 to 2002, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47 (4) 474-496 

[2] Kahn & O'Rourke, (2005) Understanding enquiry-based learning, Aishe Conference Proceedings online retrieved from