Prescription for Authentic, Engaging Student Assignments

Tired of repetitious, copy-paste or plagiarized student products? Your Teacher Librarian can partner with you to utilize effective learning and teaching strategies, including technology and Web 2.0 tools, and to “tweak” your assignments to engage today’s learners to think critically and creatively.

I. Why do we need to change our assignments?

  • Teaching isn’t getting easier. Therefore, we need to change our perspectives in order to deal with new challenges. In this Electronic Data Systems (EDS) video, parallels can be drawn to what teaching feels like today.
  • Societal structure is changing and the global village is no longer a vision -- it is a realiity. This Cisco's Human Network video provides us with a general understanding of this new structure.
  • Information of all types is readily available to students who have Internet access. Online citizenship must be taught so that students can critically evaluate and ethically use digital resources. This will enable them to effectively participate in consuming and creating digital content.
    • Michael Wesch's video about the Information R/evolution demonstrates what is happening in our students' lives in the areas of information retrieval, creation, and sharing.

"The best thing we can be teaching our children today, is how to teach themselves." David Warlick


We need assignments that build upon students' interests, challenge them to ask questions and discover answers, and connect to their lives outside of school. Vito Perrone states that “Our students need to be able to use knowledge, not just know about things. Understanding is about making connections among and between things, about deep and not surface knowledge, and about greater complexity, not simplicity” (Harvey, 2002, p. 13).

II. What is inquiry learning and why should we use it?

a) What is Inquiry Learning?

Inquiry-based learning is a process where students are involved in their learning, formulate questions, investigate widely and then build new understandings, meanings and knowledge. That knowledge is new to the students and may be used to answer a question, develop a solution, or support a position or point of view. The knowledge is usually presented to others and may result in some sort of action. Research suggests that using inquiry-based learning can help students become more creative, more positive and more independent (Kühne, 1995).


  • Inquiry learning provides opportunities for students to evaluate information and create new knowledge which is personally relevant.
  • A shift from the traditional research skills model to an information problem-solving model is required when inquiry learning is employed (Finlay,P).

b) Models for Inquiry Learning:
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III. The Big Question. How do we develop an inquiry assignment?

Questions are at the heart of inquiry learning. Too often, we base student research on lower-order thinking skills such as retrieval and retelling. How do we transform lower-order questioning into higher-order questioning?

a) Defining the Big Question
  • Jamie McKenzie's Questioning Toolkit provides examples of essential questions. According to McKenzie, a big question "probes a matter of considerable importance… requires movement beyond understanding and studying… cannot be answered by a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer… probably endures, shifts and evolves with time and changing conditions… may be unanswerable in the ultimate sense… may frustrate the researcher… and evade the quest for clarity and understanding" (McKenzie, 2005 p. 86). Big questions engage the imagination, and pursuit of the answers often leads to more questions (Clifford & Friesen, 2007).

  • Dr. Roland Case is recently retired from Simon Fraser University and is senior editor and co-founder of the Critical Thinking Consortium, a partnership of school districts, faculties of education, and educational associations. Case is recognized as an authority in the field of critical thinking as it applies to education.

  • Ban Those Bird Units -- In their book Ban Those Bird Units!, Loertscher, Koechlin and Zwaan (2005) have identified the importance of asking the question "So What?" in information projects. Asking this question places the research in a context, brings personal meaning for students, and helps to push the research to a level beyond topical research. "So what?" forces students to report the facts and then comment on their significance. Models for redesigning research assignments to facilitate higher-order thinking can be found online at Ban Those Bird Units.

b) Developing Questions That Matter

  • Just Read Now - Reciprocal Questioning (ReQuest) is a strategy where students formulate their own questions about a reading selection, and the teacher answers them.
  • Teaching Students to Be Literate: A Reflective Approach - This online excerpt from A. Manzo's book identifies quality questioning techniques, including reciprocal questioning.
  • Six Thinking Hats - Edward de Bono's technique enables individuals to look at important decisions from all points of view by forcing them to move outside their habitual ways of thinking.
  • Reading to Kids - These question stems are organized according to Bloom's Taxonomy.
  • Applying Bloom's Taxonomy - This chart of verbs, question stems, and activities was prepared by Dalton and Smith (1986) and provides students with a valuable support for formulating higher-order questions.
  • Q Tasks: How to Empower Students to Ask Questions and Care About Answers - This online excerpt from Carol Koechlin's and Sandi Zwaan's book provides a rationale for questioning and gives educators a framework for nurturing the inquiry process.

c) Question Stems

How, why, should, what if and which are the kinds of questions that ask us to find facts and interpret them with our own thinking.


Knowledge Telling Question Stems:
  • Who, what, when, and where questions are useful for gathering factual information. These kinds of questions may be needed in the early stages of the research process to facilitate understanding and development of bigger questions. -- Who else in my family has been adopted? What did my parents have to do to adopt me? When was I adopted? Where did my adoption take place?

Knowledge Creation Question Stems:
  • How questions search for a process or action. They ask us to understand problems, weigh options, and propose solutions. -- How can we make our school playground safer for kids? How can I decide what kind of car to buy? How did people decide where to immigrate?
  • Why questions call for an explanation. They can require us to understand the causes of a problem and the effects. -- Why does my cousin have his disease? Why can't penguins fly? Why should we eat from all of the different food groups?
  • Which questions ask us to compare and contrast two or more things and make a decision. -- Which sport should I play this fall? Which house should we buy? Which city is the best to live in?
  • Should questions ask us to make a moral or practical decision based on evidence. -- Should we clone humans? Should we encourage immigration to Canada?
  • What if questions ask us to use our knowledge to pose a hypothesis and consider the options. -- What if people started taking the bus to work instead of driving their cars? What if the driving age went up to 18 from 16?

Other Types of Questioning:
  • Younger students can be taught to think in terms of thick and thin questions. Thick questions are inferential, open-ended questions. Thin questions are factual, closed questions.

d) Brainstorming and Mind Mapping
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Initial brainstorming allows students to access prior knowledge and can provide a topic overview. For example, the broad topic of Violence can have several subtopics, one of which might be Media Violence. Similarly, Media Violence will have several subtopics, one of which might be Cartoon Violence. Cartoon Violence could be discussed in terms of its Effects on Children -- Desensitization, Antisocial Behaviour, or Aggression. Once the broad topic has been distilled down to a specific topic, an essential question can be formulated. How can the desensitization of children to cartoon violence be prevented? (Adapted from On Your Own, Thames Valley District School Board, n.d.)

Like brainstorming, mind mapping is a non-linear way of thinking that capitalizes on the brain's natural thought processes. Mind mapping is more complex, however, as all ideas are recorded on one diagram using branches and stems. While graphic software is available, mind maps drawn by hand are equally effective.

IV. What are the tools available to support inquiry learning?

In her Brighton University inaugual address, media professor Tara Brabazon stated, "Students live in an age of information, but what they lack is correct information...Google offers easy answers to difficult questions. But students do not know how to tell if they come from serious, refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas, superficial surfing and fleeting commitments. Google is filling, but it does not necessarily offer nutritional content." Cited in Valenza, J. (2008, January 17). Google as white bread? (and ICT lit matters). School Library Journal Blog. Retrieved February 28, 2008, from:

"We need to de-criminalize use of Google in libraries. Sometimes we act like the research Gestapo in our scrutiny of search behavior. Google works. Google rocks. And yes, we can all use it better." Valenza, J. (2008, January 12). Databases: Can we get teachers to love 'em? School Library Journal Blog. Retrieved February 28, 2008, from:

Searching the Web Without Google (The Invisible Web):
The invisible web is comprised of authoritative information databases. These searchable databases can only be accessed if a fee is paid, although many public libraries and school systems have purchased access for their clientele. Infotrac and ProQuest are examples of these kinds of databases. Students should also be directed to their school library's Online Public Access Catalogue, online encyclopedias, and Technorati.

A Sampling of Web 2.0 Tools:
  • Aggregators are client software or Web applications which check for new user-determined information in online news reports, blogs, podcasts, and other sydicated Web content. Information updates are forwarded to the user at pre-determined intervals for retrieval. Web-based applications include Bloglines and Google Reader.
  • Blogs are online journals or "Web logs" that allow individuals or groups to share comments and insights on any topic with a mass audience. Blogs may be public or private, individual or collaborative. For further information about blogs, visit Dean Shareski's Wiki or Wikipedia.
  • Social Bookmarking allows individuals to save their bookmarks online, tag them, subscribe to them, and share them with others. A popular social bookmarking site is Other bookmarking tools can be found at Top 100 Tools.
  • Skype Internet Telephone Service offers possiblities for classroom use as it provides remote audio and video access. Brian Crosby's video demonstrates how Skype can be used effectively in an educational setting.

Who can be on your technology team? Who can help? Connect with the following individuals online as they can help you stay informed about what is happening on the Web. They will alert you when new Web tools with teaching possibilities are available.

V. How do we showcase student findings?

Traditionally, students write in one format (a report) for one person (a teacher). Using the RAFT strategy, students are encouraged to create authentic products by varying their Role, Audience, Format, Topic, and strong verb. There are many Web 2.0 tools that will allow students to communicate their learning. In addition, finding authentic audiences is much easier when Web 2.0 tools are employed.


Rachel's First Haircut


Google Earth:

Digital Storytelling:

VI. How do we assess and evaluate the process and product?

Rubric/Assessment Sites by Saskatchewan School Divisions and Saskatchewan Learning:

Online Articles With Sample Rubrics:

Assessment and Rubrics at Educational Network Sites:

VII. So what?

  • “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Albert Einstein
  • “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Alvin Toffler

Print Resources:
Ban Those Bird Units!
LMC Source | David V. Loertscher, Carol Koechlin and Sandi Zwaan | 2005
ISBN 10: 1933170115
ISBN 13: 9781933170114
Can $42.00 from Ontario Library Association _sc/store/html/9781933170379 .html
Bird units are fill-in-the-blank library assignments, or reports; the result of which is copying or outright plagiarism. This book provides ways to ban such low-level activities and replace them with exciting learning experiences that link the library and technology with achievement. Models, sample units, forms, and links to popular educational practices such as Understanding by Design are provided. The models work K–12 and across all disciplines. They work when teachers are interested in going beyond the textbook and the lecture. They work extremely well in differentiated instruction and in classrooms where the students cannot understand the textbook. The models show how to integrate information literacy and technology into learning topics based on state standards. The book is a companion work to Build Your Own Information Literate School. It is a guide for teachers as much as it is for librarians and technology specialists. Great for planning collaborative units and doing professional development with teachers.
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Beyond Bird Units! Thinking and Understanding in Information-Rich and Technology-Rich Environments
LMC Source | David V. Loertscher, Carol Koechlin and Sandi Zwaan | 2007
ISBN 13: 9781933170379
Can $42.00 --from Ontario Library Association _sc/store/html/9781933170379 .html
The authors of the popular Ban Those Bird Units have joined their talents once more to provide more ways to create very high-level think units when teachers bring learning activities into the information-rich and technology-rich environment of the library. The new volume adds three new models to the original 15, provides planning sheets for each model, presents all new learning activities, and concentrates on the culminating high-think activities of a teacher/librarian collaboration. If you already own Ban Those Bird Units, this volume will add many new ideas to your repertoire. If not, then acquire this volume for an introduction to significant learning activites where plagiarism is no longer an issue. The book also includes additional (18 in all) think models and planning guides, plus fresh unit ideas.

Q Tasks
Pembroke Publishers | Carol Koechlin and Sandi Zwaan | January 2006
ISBN 10: 1551381974
ISBN 13: 9781551381978
Can$24.95 from Ontario Library Association _sc/store/html/9781933170379 .html
How to empower students to ask questions and care about answers. Understanding is a process. The key to this process is the question. This timely book will help teachers to create a classroom environment where questions are valued and encouraged. The step-by-step approach in this book offers more than eighty proven classroom activities that will take students beyond memorization and rote learning. These flexible tasks are designed to nurture curiosity, cultivate wonder, and stimulate the imagination. The book provides innovative ways to help students ask real questions that focus on understanding and give them ownership of their learning experience. Any teacher will learn to empower an inquiring spirit that students will take through their school years and beyond.
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Presenters and Session Dates and Places:
February 22 9:30PM – 11:30AM Radisson Hotel
Presenters: On behalf of SSLA, Lucille Dube (Walter Murray Collegiate, Saskatoon), Jacqueline Helman Centennial Collegiate, Saskatoon), Carol Jensen (Evan Hardy Collegiate, Saskatoon), Terry Pon (Campbell Collegiate, Regina), Terry Pon.
169-Middle Years
February 22 1:30PM – 3:30PM Radisson Hotel
Presenters: On behalf of SSLA, Ruth Garnett (Buena Vista, Saskatoon), Florence Barton (Greystone Heights, Saskatoon), Terry Pon (Campbell Collegiate, Regina).

169-Middle Years
February 26 1:30PM – 3:30PM Conexus Arts Centre (BC room)
Presenters: On behalf of the Saskatchewan School Library Association (SSLA), Rhonda Wills (McLurg School, Regina Public Schools), Violet Smotra-Cook (Judge Bryant School, Regina Public Schools).
170 -Secondary
February 28 1:30PM – 3:30PM Ramada Hotel
Presenters: On behalf of the Saskatchewan School Library Association (SSLA), Terry Pon (Campbell Collegiate, Regina Public Schools), Violet Smotra-Cook (Judge Bryant School, Regina Public Schools), Rhonda Wills (McLurg School, Regina Public Schools).