Using Formal & Informal Assessments to Test Scientific Inquiry

Instructor: Christopher Caruana

Chris is a science teacher and has a Master's degree in Educational Technology

Scientific inquiry is an important skill for learners at all grade levels. In order to assess this type of learning, science educators should use a mixture of formal and informal assessments. Learn about characteristics and examples of each type.

The Importance of Scientific Inquiry

A student is on a skiing trip, and they notice that the mountains they are visiting are much taller and sharper looking than the ones they have back home. They start to wonder why that might be. Hopefully, this student has gone through some high quality science classes and learned how to use scientific inquiry to search for answers to their questions.

Scientific inquiry is the process that scientists use to understand the world. It includes the scientific method, but also includes asking good questions, testing assumptions, gathering data, and designing scientific experiments.

By using their past knowledge of erosion and weathering; investigating the mountains, climate, and natural forces present in the mountain range; and asking questions, the student might be able to hypothesize that the mountains have not had as much weathering as the ones in their hometown. By using their scientific inquiry skills, the student could come up with a hypothesis, or at least know the right kinds of questions to ask in order to satisfy their curiosity and better understand the world.

Scientific inquiry is applicable at all grade levels from Kindergarten to graduate school, and is important for all learners, not just those interested in a scientific career. Knowledge of scientific inquiry is helpful for learning, and reflects the ways that successful learners approach new subjects and challenging content.

How to Assess Scientific Inquiry

Before we look at how to adequately assess scientific inquiry, let's take a look at the main points of scientific inquiry:

  • Scientific method
  • Questioning and observation
  • Experimental design
  • Testing assumptions
  • Drawing conclusions
  • Communicating results

Scientists applying scientific inquiry in a biotechnology lab
Scientists applying scientific inquiry in a biotechnology lab

Out of these main points, the scientific method and experimental design are the best suited to formal assessment. Using a test or quiz is an appropriate way to test these components and get data about how well students understand the material. For the others, because they are more abstract, formal assessments are less useful, and so an informal assessment might be better. A combination of both formal and informal assessments is the best way to assess scientific inquiry.

Both styles of assessment are useful in different ways, and both work together well in any scientific course. Formal assessments are helpful for providing data and comparing students to a standard and to each other, while informal assessments provide you a way to identify gaps in student knowledge, test their practical mastery, and help guide them towards better understanding. The downside is that informal assessments are harder to objectively measure and can be difficult to implement without some practice.

Formal Assessments

A formal assessment is any test that is measured against a standard and used to collect data. These are scored and are used to give insight into a student's comprehension or mastery of a subject. Formal assessments often come in the form of tests, quizzes or written exams. That being said, you can make formal assessments differently than a standard test if you think outside the box.

In order to assess scientific inquiry with formal assessments we will need to identify the standards associated with the topic and then design a test around it.


Some examples of formal assessment could include:

  • Written test where students need to identify the parts of the scientific method in an example experiment.
  • Lab write-up where students must use each of the parts of the scientific process to do an experiment and report their results.
  • Brief mini-quiz at various points in the lesson to test students' understanding of data collection and scientific inquiry.

Informal Assessments

Informal assessments are not standardized and are often not scored. They take place in the classroom, and are often done alongside other activities. Students are usually not aware that the activity they are doing is an assessment, and these types of assessments let you see students in action and identify any problems they may be having.

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