What Does It Mean to Make Inferences? , pp. 3 of 9

The current imprecision and lack of a frame of reference to the historical inquiry approach in the process of formal assessments manifests itself in two manners. First, there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding in what is entailed when ‘making inferences’, and how oft-labelled ‘inference questions’, in reality, are merely testing for the ability to read and comprehend sources. This is not a fault common to teachers in the classroom, but also a confusion that was furthered in the Teaching and Learning Guide (TLG), which recommended the use of question stems as such as “what is the message of the source”, and “does the source support…” as ways of assessing for the skill of making inferences (MOE, 2012).[ii] Neither question stems prompts students to utilize the primary source to generate new historical knowledge through inductive reasoning - which is the main objective of drawing inferences, as demonstrated by Figure 1. Nor does either question stem prompt students to think about the sources as potential evidence to uncover, discover, and create knowledge about our past. To treat these two question stems as part of the toolkit to assess for inferences only serves the goal of formal assessments as it rewards students for source comprehension without allowing proper assessment on the actual process of making cogent historical inferences.

Aside from conflating source comprehension for the act of inferring, the lack of a reference to the historical inquiry approach also means that questions aimed at assessing the skill of drawing inferences may not contain any inquiry focus. What could be seen from Figure 1, and also from Figure 2 below is that all inferences must be performed in relation to an attempt at responding to an inquiry question. This may be evident from a common way of introducing students to the process of inference, that is, to ask them to imagine themselves to be detectives on a crime scene, and to infer what happened based on the evidence present. This process itself already has a directed inquiry question as students are tasked to think about what happened in the crime scene.

What this process strongly implies is that all inference questions have to be asked with reference to something that students are expected to infer about. As such, the only question from the TLG that is currently relevant to such a line of questioning and one that can be properly used to assess for inference is “what does the source tell you about…?” This question stem presents students with a definite line of inquiry about the past, in which their inferences must be shown to have addressed, i.e. through the creation of a new piece of knowledge based on the evidence that they are presented. As seen from Diagram 2, the process and position of inferences within the classroom (or for use in school history) is a heavily reduced and much adapted from that of the historian’s process. However, the centrality of inquiry to both train of reasoning cannot be understated.

Given the existing emphasis on the inquiry approach, the way history teachers assess for inference can be made more effective if inquiry is better integrated into the framework for formal assessment. What is demonstrated here are the clear differences between source comprehension and the skill of making inferences. The difference between the two cannot be bigger given their different positions within the (historical) inquiry process and the thought processes that are required to achieve each one. By relating formal assessments to the historical inquiry process, what this section aims to achieve is to close the gulf between teaching and assessment by contextualizing the act of making inferences within the inquiry process, thereby producing greater clarity to the purpose and nature of inferences in historical work, and allow teachers to refine the types of questions asked in formal assessment around making or drawing inferences.

Breaking down the thought process - Rethinking LORMS

Having contextualized the skill of making inferences within the wider canon of source-based skills, there is still a need to rethink the way we grade and reward student responses in formal assessments. The two prevailing methods of constructing LORMS (for the skill of making inferences) do not actually reward the various stages of making inferences. We may need to rethink and refine the way we asses for inferences and to bring the LORMS in line with the process of making proper inferences.  

Related Teaching Materials

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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