MINI THEME: Assessment for Critical Thinking. Teaching in the Zone: Formative Assessments for Critical Thinking


Enter the Library Media Center in a public high school in Denver. The students are sitting in small groups engaged in conversation, with notes and laptop computers at their tables, as well as primary source images, letters and objects. They are in the exploration phase of an inquiry project looking at the topic of the post-emancipation African-American experience 1865-1917. One group is talking about freedom and the challenges that newly freed people faced. Another group is delving into identity creation, how African Americans, during that time period, came to define themselves. Another is looking at the institutions that shaped the African-American experience. A fourth group is talking about the politics and leadership that arose within the African-American community.

As students immerse themselves into the inquiry, the instructional team encourages them to bridge the connections from the information they are finding into their own interests and lives. Students fill out “connection journals” to help them purposefully and explicitly relate what they are reading to their own experience and thinking.

A closer look at the groups uncovers the emerging individuality. Under the group topic of freedom, Destiny and Brianna are interested in finding out about the women, looking at images of women’s dress, as well as songs and mottos. Marcus, in the leadership group, is interested in Frederick Douglas’ writings. Derek, in the identity group, has uncovered a paper on “Pigmentocracy” and is interested in how skin tone of African Americans creates an unspoken hierarchy (Harris). He wants to look closer at the historical underpinnings of this value system. Talking to Derek about his topic has made Alicia curious about the biology of race, and she is examining the human genome project and relating it to the beliefs of the post emancipation time period.

Derek and Alicia are not the only two conversing. The students are grouped in ways that enable conversation around topics and provide a supportive environment for questioning and puzzling through ideas together. The instructional team recognizes the power of social learning and provides the structure for that learning to happen. The teachers also recognize the power of intrinsic motivation and encourage the students to connect the information that they find to their own lives. It takes a bit more time for students to find their own path through the information, but the end result is much more powerful learning. The teachers have decided that the time invested is worth the learning rewards.

The history teacher and the school librarian are sitting with different student groups. When you look carefully, they are mostly listening and taking notes. Each has an observational focus for the session. The school librarian’s goal is to gather information about how students are engaging their critical-thinking skills. The history teacher is examining how students are synthesizing connections between their current understandings with what they are discovering about the time period and its people. This instructional team is facilitating learning by guiding the inquiry.

Figure 1
Topics and resources for this impressionist vignette came from the National Humanities Center toolbox. Find much more about this topic and others at:



The previous impressionist vignette (Van Maanen) demonstrates of the complexity of constructivist learning that occurs within an inquiry frame. It describes the social learning context of inquiry while highlighting, at the same time, the customized and individual nature. These complexities of inquiry pose a problem for assessing the learning that occurs. The conclusion of this vignette highlights how the instructional team takes on the task of assessment (Harada and Yoshina). The librarian hones in on the assessment of students’ critical thinking. Her teaching will be guided by the formative assessments of observation and focused note taking during group work. What should these notes include? How can she help students improve their critical thinking and strengthen their higher order thinking skills through the inquiry process? The goal of this article is to help answer these questions.

First, we’ll look at the big picture, using a Guided Inquiry approach to examine how we teach higher order thinking skills within an inquiry paradigm. Next, we’ll consider how formative assessments can be used to match the teaching to the student’s learning needs during inquiry. Finally, we’ll look at a critical-thinking checklist, a formative assessment tool to help teachers focus on specific learning targets of critical thinking during observations. A post-observation worksheet follows to help analyze the observational notes to create meaningful next steps for instruction.

As we implement the AASL standards, students must continually be locating, evaluating and using information in meaningful contexts to construct new understandings. AASL states that inquiry “provides the framework” for students to learn how to “thrive in a complex information environment.” Through inquiry, students are using thinking skills and the habits of mind of information seekers while expanding their information literacy skills within a community of practice (Wegner; Yuckawa & Harada).

In Guided Inquiry, Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari unpack the complexity of learning in inquiry by defining the five kinds of learning in practice. The simultaneous nature of learning in inquiry creates a complex design problem for the instructional team. How do we teach in this complex learning environment? How can we assess all this learning going on at once? Each kind of learning requires guidance or targeted instruction.

Figure 2 
Interventions for Learning in the Inquiry Process
Five Kinds of LearningTypes of Intervention
Curriculum Contentfor fact finding, interpreting, and synthesizing
Learning How to Learnfor initiating, selecting, exploring, focusing, collecting and presenting
Information Literacyfor locating, evaluating and using information
Literacy Competencefor improving reading, writing, speaking and listening
Social Skillsfor interacting, cooperating and collaborating
Kuhlthau, Maniotes, & Caspari 2007,141



Shepard explains that within a learning culture, such as with inquiry, the assessment changes. Educators are comfortable with assessing the end product, as grading is common practice. We are familiar with using rubrics and looking at products to assess student learning. Using a rubric as a summative assessment has value, but it is not enough (Harada and Yoshina; Zmuda and Harada; Kuhlthau, Maniotes and Caspari). To facilitate learning in the inquiry context, we have to guide the learning. This requires formative assessments (P21 ereport). Through formative assessments we can recognize gaps in learning, and find ways to coach students to improve.

Consider the school librarian in the opening vignette. She wants to assess critical thinking. If she waits until the end there is no opportunity for improvement and instruction. How does she assess during the learning process to intervene? Shepard recommends some tools that can be used to inform our teaching within the learning cycle.


Figure 3
Tools for Data Gathering
Reflective journals
Collections of student work
Students self-evaluations
(Adapted from Shepard, 2000)


Shepard suggests that when we are teaching within a constructivist framework, the assessments must be “dynamic and ongoing.” They must be placed “in the middle of the teaching and learning process instead of being postponed as only the end-point of instruction” (10). She agrees that assessments within the learning cycle help teachers to create “perfectly targeted occasions to teach and provides the means to scaffold next steps” (10). With these tools in use Shepard reminds us that educators “must engage in a systematic analysis of the available evidence” (8) in order to create the targeted customized instruction we seek to accomplish. The analysis must include evidence for specific learning traits resulting in an action plan for assisting or coaching the student toward improving skills, behaviors, and dispositions in action. The research on the Information Search Process helps us to envision this type of teaching as occurring within a “zone of intervention” (Kuhlthau).


Figure Four
Unfortunately, most schoolwork is limited to shallow processing in response to simple or superficial questions with prescribed answers. Deep processing requires engagement and motivation that stimulate inquiry within a constructivist approach to learning. Deep processing fosters higher order thinking that requires intervention at critical points in the learning process...

The zone of intervention is that area in which a student can do with advice and assistance what he or she cannot do alone or can do only with great difficulty. Intervention within this zone enables students to progress in the accomplishment of their task. Intervention outside this zone is inefficient and unnecessary, and may be experienced by students as intrusive on the one hand and as overwhelming on the other. (Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 27)

The zone of intervention, an extension of Vygotsky s zone of proximal development concept, is an area for targeted instruction. Teachers can use the wide scope of research around the ISP (Kuhlthau et al.) to inform teaching decisions. Within these phases there are rich opportunities for learning and developing thinking skills. “The studies of the ISP indicate that the exploration and formulation stages are when higher order thinking is developed by carefully planned advice and assistance of the instructional team” (23).


True inquiry learning requires a customized approach. For example, teaching in the zone requires that students aren’t all handed the same graphic organizer at once and taught how to use it. This may happen at the elementary level when students are just learning what graphic organizers are. But having all students do the same thing is standardized teaching (Christensen). Many times teaching is facilitating, more like a conversation with a student, asking questions, pushing their thinking, wondering with them, and then making a small useful suggestion at just the right time to move them ahead. The assessments we use must help us to make good teaching decisions during the learning process.


Are there zones of intervention for critical thinking? What do they look like? Kuhlthau’s research suggests that there are. When do you intervene? So how do we know who needs what lesson? Teachers who adopt a constructivist approach are constantly observing students and keeping records of what students are doing, saying and demonstrating. At times these observations are informal. However, when students are working on a specific skill set an in-depth observation is necessary.

Observations can include a variety of record keeping devices from note taking, audio recording, video recording, to scripting conversations. Different forms of recording may be employed, depending upon the learning goals. For example, if the goal is student collaboration, then an audio recording of their conversation during inquiry circles would provide the needed data (Kuhlthau et al., 43). But if the goal is to facilitate the development of higher order thinking skills, then observations of students engaging in higher order thinking would be necessary.

Observing critical thinking during inquiry is a complex problem and checklists are useful when you have a complex problem (Gawande). Checklists break down the core features or elements of a more complex whole to help see its component parts. This checklist was created considering what habits of mind and observable behaviors critical thinkers would employ through the inquiry process (Wiggins and McTighe). It is designed to help focus teachers’ observations on critical-thinking behaviors in action.

Figure 5
In the creation of the checklist I used these online resources on critical thinking: pageid=177,276578&_dad=portal&_ schema=P0RTAL Thinking_Rubrics.htm>


Once these behaviors were identified, the list was arranged in the order that these skills would be put to use in the inquiry. For example, we want students to ask questions throughout the inquiry but students’ questions in the beginning of inquiry steer the thinking across the entire process. Then as students find sources relevant to their interest, they must evaluate those sources and make choices whether to include them or not. As they read, critical thinkers use connections to help bridge information from a variety of sources as well as from their life experiences. During the inquiry the students would share their perspective with others, listen to other peoples ideas and respond to them. Reflecting and reasoning occurs when students synthesize information, interpret ideas and create their own arguments. Students use organizing tools across the inquiry to manage and interpret information. Finally students will draw conclusions and adapt a critical stance to create a logical argument to share with others.

This critical-thinking checklist is meant as a template. All of the higher order thinking skills as well as habits of mind/dispositions in action that occur in a well-designed inquiry can be broken out in this way.

Figure 6
Observationsā€”A Note Taking Form
Elements of Critical ThinkingNotes: Observations, Quotes, Evidence
 Evaluating & Choosing 
 Making Connections 
 Listening & Responding 
 Reasoning & Reflecting 
 Drawing Conclusions 


The blank checklist is an observational note-taking template. As you observe students, only write observations of what the student did, said, and wrote. For example, when you hear a student ask a question, write the question down in the question block. It is important not to add any value judgment to the data. Your analysis can come afterwards. This takes some practice. Before you start, familiarize yourself with the checklist and the elements of critical thinking listed there. Make an audio recording of the conversation you observe as a backup to your note taking.

The first time you observe, focus on one student at a time. As you get better at writing observations, you may be able to take notes on a whole group at a time. This takes practice and some organization in note taking. As with anything new, try a little at a time.

Share these observations with the instructional team to help communicate about students’ needs and collaborate on making teaching decisions. Google applications and other Web 2.0 tools can facilitate that sharing and collaborating.


As you take observational notes in the blocks you are beginning to analyze the information into meaningful units from which you can consider instructional interventions. The categories help guide your interactions with students to assist the development of critical thinking skills and behaviors. The questions on the analysis form help you to reflect further on the data. Consider what the student is doing well and what gaps in knowledge or use of skills are evident. Both the strengths and weaknesses of the student s skills can inform teaching decisions and help to take appropriate action. A skilled inquiry coach or facilitator is a keen observer of student learning. As you practice, you’ll become better at knowing how to use the data you gather to teach in the zone for the greatest impact on learning.

Figure 7
Reflection & Analysis - Post-observation for instructional decision making
Name:_____________________________________ Date:__________________
Elements of Critical ThinkingStrengthsIndication of ZONE & Intervention strategy
What kind of questions?
Levels of questioning:
1. Who? What? When? Where? How Much?
2. OR Why? How? What if?
Range of questions
 Evaluating & Choosing
How was information evaluated?
- Expertise
- Accuracy
- Currency
- Perspective
- Quality
Determining importance,
relevance Decision making:
- what to add?
- what is enough?
 Making Connections
To their life experiences
To the world
To other texts or materials
Explicit connections or inferred
 Listening & Responding
Understanding others
Incorporating multiple viewpoints
Developing own perspective
 Reasoning & Reflecting
Interpreting facts
Synthesizing information
Citing supporting evidence
Reasoning is logical
Using organizing tools
- charts/timelines/flowcharts
- graphic organizers
- outlines/notes/journals
 Drawing Conclusions
What conclusions were drawn?
Test against evidence
On what basis?
Divergent/convergent thinking
Adopting a critical stance



The librarian in the vignette provides an example of using careful observations as assessments that inform instruction. As the librarian completes her observation she notices a few key patterns from the data. She has difficulty separating out process from the thinking but the careful observation, note taking, and subsequent analysis has helped her to be thoughtful about how she moves forward. She has discovered that some students need assistance developing critical thinking and has created a list of teaching points for when she sees the students again. The first item on the list is to sit down one-on-one with Marcus. At this point, Marcus is only collecting facts about Frederick Douglas. The librarian knows that fact finding will lead to shallow learning and she wants to help him begin to dig deeper into the ideas and connect the pieces. Her plan is to model her own connection making and help him understand that these types of connections are what he can include in his “connection journal.” This approach will provide him with a strategy that he can continue independendy and help her to monitor his progress. Her goal for Marcus is to foster deep processing of the ideas and he may need more than one intervention to get him there. Without these assessments Marcus might have been disappointed in the outcome of his inquiry but now the instructional team can work together to help him reach a higher level of learning and understanding as he proceeds through the inquiry.

Further Reading

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. 2007. "21st Century Skills Assessment." 1 March 2010 nt&task=view&id=82&Itemid=185; Standards for the 21st Century Learner. 2007. American Association of School Librarians. 2 March 2010 andstandards/learn ingstan dards/standards.cfm; Christensen, C. M., M. B. Horn, and C.W Johnson. Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York: NY: McGraw Hill, 2008.; Gawande, A. The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2009.; Harada, V. H, and J. M. Yoshina. Assessing learning: Librarians and teachers as partners. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2005.; Harris, Trudier. "Pigmentocracy." Freedoms Story, TeacherServeĀ©. National Humanities Center. 8 March, 2010.; Kuhlthau, C.C, L.K. Maniotes and A.K. Caspari. Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2007.; Kuhlthau, C.C. Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004.; Shepard, L. "The Role of Assessment in a Learning Culture." Educational Researcher 29:7 (2000): 4-14.; Van Maanen, J. Tales of the Field: On Writing an Ethnography. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.; Vygotsky, L. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Soubermen, Eds. and Trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, (Original work published 1934) 1978.; Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998.; Wiggins G. and J. McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.; Yuckawa, J. and V. H. Harada. "Librarian-Teacher Partnerships for Inquiry Learning: Measures of Effectiveness for a Practice-Based Model of Professional Development." Evidence Based Library and Information Practice 4.2 (2009): 97-119.; Zmuda, A. & V.H. Harada. Librarians as Learning Specialists: Meeting the Learning Imperative of the 21st Century. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2007.

Leslie K. Maniotes

Select Citation Style:
Maniotes, Leslie K. "MINI THEME: Assessment for Critical Thinking. Teaching in the Zone: Formative Assessments for Critical Thinking." Library Media Connection, 29, no. 1, August 2010. School Library Connection,
Maniotes, Leslie K. "MINI THEME: Assessment for Critical Thinking. Teaching in the Zone: Formative Assessments for Critical Thinking." Library Media Connection, August 2010.
Maniotes, L. K. (2010, August). Mini theme: Assessment for critical thinking. teaching in the zone: formative assessments for critical thinking. Library Media Connection, 29(1). Retrieved from

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