Inquiry: Sometimes I need them to learn something specific

Last semester, as I stumbled into inquiry-based teaching, there were times when I wanted the students to learn something specific at a specific time.  For example, how to use an ammeter without blowing the fuse.

Option 1: I make a research presentation for acceptance to the model

It wasn’t perfect, but my solution was to propose something for the model myself.  I would prepare a 3-min presentation, bring 2 sources, and ask the students to evaluate them.  In the context of dozens of student presentations, I made 5 throughout the semester, so it kept my talk ratio fairly low.

Advantages: it gave me the opportunity to show them what I expected in a presentation and in an analysis of the sources.  It also gave me the opportunity to ask them for feedback about specific things, like “making the presentation as short as possible but no shorter” or “keeping the presentation focused.”

Disadvantage: it would be difficult for students to reject my arguments (they never did).  However, they did sometimes propose to rephrase them for clarity or precision.  They used the Rubric for Assessing Reasoning to formulate about my logic.  This is certainly an improvement over what I was doing before.

Option 2: I put it on the skill sheet

I keep my skills-based grading system.  Going with the flow of student questions meant that sometimes we jumped around between units.  Occasionally I removed a skill from the list, if it was clear that the relevant outcome was being met some other way.  However, it was gratifying to realize that the things I put on the skill sheets were mostly things we ended up doing in the course of answering our questions.  In other words, the skills in the beginner course were things that beginners would actually care about while they were in the process of beginning to learn the topic.

If I needed the students to learn something specific that was measurable, I would put it on the “Shop” side of the skill sheet.

Every week during our shop period, I would write on the board the questions that had come up that week.  I would also write any skills that I wanted them to demonstrate by the end of the day.  They were always skills you would need in order to explore the questions.  If the skill wasn’t needed to explore our questions, then I didn’t need to teach it right that minute, did I.


  1. Mylene,
    I’m having a bit of a hard time envisioning exactly what this looks like—can you describe a specific concept you presented, or one that you put on the skill sheet? Also, what’s the “shop” side of the skill sheet? Are you separating out shop skills from other skills?

  2. Good point — this needs an example. I will put that in the post queue.

    Yes, there are two categories of skills. The names are intuitive to my students but not very accurate — the distinction I’m making is about the evaluation *format*, not content and not location. You can see some examples in the skill sheet on the How I Grade page.

    “Shop skill” is what I call performance tasks (example: Use a megger to test insulation). These are job-specific skills that students are performing in much the same way they will do them when they go to work; the only way for a student to get credit for it is to physically do that thing. They can do it in front of me or videorecord themselves doing it, but that’s about all that will fly.

    “Theory skill” is my name for skills where the format can be practically anything at all. For example, “Identify the parts of a waveform.” To demonstrate their mastery with this skill, the student can request a quiz question, make a screencast, give a presentation, write an essay, or perform an interpretive dance for that matter. If it shows that they know the difference between maximum value and peak amplitude, I’ll take it.

  3. If you want to know if you have done a good job setting up a course, look no further than

    “the skills in the beginner course were things that beginners would actually care about while they were in the process of beginning to learn the topic.”


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