Students as Evaluators in the Inquiry Based Classroom

This post was originally written for (and first appeared in) an Education SmartBrief.

In the earlier post Who Do Our Students Consider The Audience For Their Work?  (originally posted in Smartblog for Education), I advocated that by providing rich, complex, authentic classroom tasks, we open the door to expanding the role of students. They move from producers to evaluators of their classmate’s solutions. I shared that we need more environments like this because they enable students to be engaged in creating with content and the resulting products are far more meaningful in fostering learning that will stick.

I’d like to add a Part 2: These environments are far more powerful and effective in fostering reflection and growth about each child’s learning process.

To be clear, students can and should be reflective learners in any environment. Many would agree that the most important skill we can teach is that of learning how to learn. But when we transform traditional units of study into truly rich, PBL, inquiry-based environments, we provide an environment where high-level cognitive activities have greater potential to surface.


Traditional environments ask students to turn in work to the teacher for evaluation; students are seldom placed in the role of evaluating quality of their own work let alone another classmate. Because traditional assessments rely heavily on the recall of knowledge or demonstrating longer forms of recall through the ‘synthesis’ of producing essay responses “The three main causes of World War II were…”, it is likely safe to say that there is actually minimal benefit from having students be evaluators in these types of tasks. It can be argued that students might learn how to write a better essay, but it’s highly doubtful they will learn much more about World War II by peer reading essays.

However, when we provide open-ended authentic tasks, students are placed in the role of evaluators, thus allowing them to see the many varied ways that these problems can be solved. What resources did this student consider? Which parts of her solution were effective? Which parts have not been addressed? Inevitably, students who are placed in this role are asking themselves , How is this student’s solution and rationale different than my own? Assessments – and the diversity of solutions that they bring about – enable students to learn as they evaluate. To be clear, I am not saying that the idea of students as evaluators has to play a role in the actual grading. It could. But if we are truly leveraging authentic learning tasks, then we need to recognize that empowering students as evaluators we create a powerful learning tool.


Again, within a traditional classroom, we can and should ask students to reflect on their process.

However, these reflections can lack depth because the student was seldom in control of the product itself. Asking students to reflect on their learning in a traditional assessment usually garners answers such as:

  • “I should have worked harder / started earlier.
  • “I should have focused more on Chapter 2.” (Usually, this is because the assessment had more Chapter 2 questions than the student envisioned.)
  • “I should have taken better notes along the way.”

None of these responses are bad. But they are limited because the tasks tend to be limited. Students are missing out on the chance to create a solution by using content. When these type of PBL tasks are used in the classroom, student reflections can include the statements above, but they will also open up deeper reflections including:

  • I should have considered more viewpoints before I came to my conclusion.
  • I knew my research / facts well, but I wasn’t very effective at communicating my plan to my audience. I forgot that my audience is more concerned about ____,  ____, and ____ .
  • I would have been more effective by acknowledging the weaker aspects of my plan in advance.
  • I had a strong, well-thought out message, but I chose the wrong medium for how to present it to my audience.


If our learning tasks are asking students to (hopefully) produce the same type of answers, there is little incentive for students to want to learn from each other than trying to ensure that each of them has the “right” answer. When we open up problems with multiple pathways toward different solutions, we not only can see the pathways they take; we provide an environment where they seek out and learn from one another along the way.

When student work has an authentic audience (and especially if that audience can be students themselves) within our inquiry based, PBL classrooms, we not only end up with student work at a higher quality. We open up avenues for learning and reflection that simply aren’t possible if the teacher monopolizes the role.

All of this is (slowly) coming together in my mind on the heels of reading Kath Murdoch’s The Power of Inquiry – highly recommended – and my attendance at a 3-day workshop on the International Bacculareate’s (IB) MYP & PYP Programs. I’m excited by the challenges and opportunties thus far as we  (the Shanghai Community International School)  transition to the PYP and MYP programs which advocate these authentic, complex, inquiry-based environments.

Who Do Our Students Consider the Audience For Their Work?

We all agree that creating social learning environments where students learn from one another is beneficial. Creative teachers plan for this, advocates of problem-based Learning — PBL — take advantage of this and new models in games-based learning — GBL — are building this into the learning process. And, we can all agree that technology can help facilitate these environments — students will peer edit each others’ literary analysis so that they can learn from observing the changes suggested as they compare solutions.

With or without technology, these environments stretch the learning relationships from “one-to-one” (teacher-to-student) to “one-to-many.” By expanding the number of potential “teachers” in the learning process, these environments strengthen the main component of social learning — that we learn through observation, modeling and making decisions about quality, not solely through reinforcements, such as grades.


We can also agree that providing a more real-world context strengthens the sense of purpose and provides for deeper motivation and engagement. One way to strengthen purpose is by giving students an authentic audience for their creation, for example:  Write a petition to your local chamber of commerce. This type of authentic audience is nothing new to PBL believers; it constitutes the “A” in the always helpful GRASPS acronym shared by Wiggins and McTighe regarding structuring authentic assessments. These are the situations where students strive to effectively apply their content understanding. We unleash their potential as we give them a heightened sense of purpose.

But we need to go one step further.

We need to develop more learning opportunities where students constitute the actual evaluators for the work itself. Imagine if students, teachers and others evaluate and provide feedback to determine the effectiveness of a student’s creation: Develop an 60-second speech to be shared with the student council and three advertising posters to be copied and placed around school to decrease bullying. Your work will be evaluated according to our rubric by the students in our class, outside professionals and me — as the teacher. These are the experiences that push learning beyond a one-way conversation between student and teacher. They demystify the assessment process and allow each student to be a creator and simultaneous evaluator, providing multiple experiences for students to recognize and apply the criteria for quality.


This challenge is important for all educators and resource developers. Thus far, we have plenty of examples where we facilitate collaboration. Technology — thankfully — makes these even more plentiful. But this collaboration is still aimed at producing pieces of higher quality which will eventually be turned into the teacher. They foster the “one-to-one” teacher/student relationship aimed at helping students get at the right answer. However, in the real world, if my message is poorly written, there is a more authentic consequence – confusion and the decreasing ability to move my audience to action. In this way, failure is the currency of growth; other students help peers to identify gaps and demonstrate higher levels of quality.


The “one-to-many” and “many-to-many” networks leverage social learning. These environments do not exclude that a one-to-one relationship can/should exist. Individualized feedback and diagnostic data can be shared on an individual basis as each student does her best to apply content. But the learning task itself needs to stretch beyond the “teacher as audience and sole evaluator.” We do this by initially creating a real-world task, without this task, it is difficult for students to experience authentic learning — where they present solutions, seek feedback, adjust and ultimately strive to produce work that others deem high quality; they are not solely focused on the teacher’s grade. And, while this post discusses the products of learning, imagine the rich feedback we could also share with students about their process in a learning task such as this.

How can you be part of this change in education?

As you design or deliver instruction:

Go beyond facilitating more efficient pathways which help students get to the right answer in order to share that answer with a teacher, provide interactive experiences where students must use content knowledge to solve problems and create solutions while evaluating each others’ solutions. Create learning experiences that open efficient pathways where students interact with content in an authentic way. Engage students in highly collaborative processes allowing students to learn not only from their own work, but from listening and comparing their work and thought processes to their peers.


As you evaluate student work:

Take a step back from your role as the sole evaluator. Look for opportunities to involve others, especially the students themselves, in the evaluation process.


As you consider what best prepares our students:

Go beyond asking students to complete work that “prepares them for the next level;” they need opportunities to use content to solve legitimate problems and create solutions through collaboration and critical thinking. Prepare students to succeed in the real world as effective social learners — as they collaboratively problem solve and simultaneously evaluate in a quest for quality.


This post was initially shared in the May 5, 2014 edition of  SmartBlog on Education by author Derek Luebbe.