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Teacher suggestions: Investigating in science

Achievement aim: Students will carry out science investigations using a variety of approaches: classifying and identifying, pattern seeking, exploring, investigating models, fair testing, making things, or developing systems.

Each theme is expanded with an explanation, examples, and questions for teacher reflection.

For teaching activities related to Investigating in Science go to the Nature of Science teaching activities section and order activities by Nature of Science.

The nature of student investigations

Students typically investigate existing science knowledge

Teacher reflection

  • What science knowledge might students investigate?
  • What factors might limit student investigations of existing knowledge? Is it possible to overcome these limitations? If so, how?
  • What are some differences between student investigations and those carried out by scientists?
  • When might student investigations go beyond the realm of existing science knowledge?

Students' investigations are a limited modelling of the processes of scientific investigation


Students' investigations are limited by the equipment available, their existing science knowledge, and their knowledge of context.

Scientists approach an investigation with the aim of creating new science knowledge. Students are typically investigating existing science knowledge.

For more information see comparing students’ and scientists’ approaches to science .

Teacher reflection

  • What things can limit student investigations?
  • If time is a limiting factor, how might teachers modify a student investigation?
  • Is it possible to borrow or hire specialist gear?
  • How can teachers support students who are frustrated by the limitations that they experience?
  • Should student investigations be made more complex so that they more closely model scientific investigations? Why or why not?
  • Is it realistic to expect that student investigations might closely resemble scientific investigations? Why or why not?
  • How might student investigations change as students become more skilled investigators?

Attitudes that support investigation

Collaboration enables students to build a richer understanding


Collaboration is bringing diverse thinking and skills to a shared sense of purpose. In collaborating, students can develop a sense of how collaborative investigations might affect scientists’ ideas and processes.

Collaboration is not only about delegating tasks; it is an essential part of the investigation process; from formulating a question to interpreting and reporting outcomes.

Teacher reflection

  • How can collaboration help students to gather more data than they might on their own?
  • How can teachers set up structures to help their students work together effectively?
  • What forms can collaboration take? Is collaboration limited to investigations? Can discussions be considered a form of collaboration?
  • How can collaboration extend beyond the classroom – for example, to other levels of the school, to other types of school, to people outside the school, or to people from a broader range of cultural groups?

Students' relationships with other people affect their investigations


Choices about what students investigate and how they carry out their investigations may be affected by the importance of the investigation to other people (peer groups, parents, role models, siblings, other investigators, and so on).

Students should be encouraged to consider the views of others when carrying out an investigation. They may also be encouraged to consider how their own view may have been influenced by other people.

Teacher reflection

  • How might other people influence students?
  • How can teachers encourage their students to consider the views of others when planning an investigation?
  • What sorts of working relationships can teachers promote in the classroom?

Students bring their personal values to any science investigation


Students have different purposes for carrying out investigations in science. For example, what is important, exciting or useful differs from student to student. The value of the investigation may also be affected by the student’s previous experiences of the idea to be explored.


Students’ motivations for carrying out an investigation may influence their attitude to the investigation (to complete a task, get the ‘right’ answer, explore something they are interested in).

Teacher reflection

  • What does the term "personal values" mean?
  • Do different cultural groups have different values? If so, what are some examples?
  • What things might influence student motivation or interest in an investigation?
  • Are students more likely to engage in activities when the topic is relevant to them? Why or why not?
  • How much choice should teachers give their students to follow their own interests? How can teachers design or adjust investigations to tap into those interests?

Science learning can be improved by encouraging appropriate attitudes


Students’ attitudes toward science affect their investigations. Certain attitudes are conducive to learning in science and should be encouraged, these include:

  • curiosity
  • honesty (in recording and validating data)
  • flexibility
  • persistence
  • critical mindedness
  • open-mindedness
  • willingness to suspend judgment
  • willingness to tolerate uncertainty.

Teacher reflection

  • How can students think critically as well as suspend their judgment?
  • What processes can teachers use to help ensure student honesty in recording and validating data?
  • How can teachers encourage student persistence?
  • How can teachers appropriately channel student curiosity?

Carrying out an investigation

Any student investigation may involve a variety of skills


The combination, sequence, and synthesis of these skills will change depending on the purpose of the investigation.

Teacher reflection

  • These skills include focusing and planning; information gathering; processing and interpreting; and reporting. Do all investigations need to contain all these skills, or can an activity focus on one particular skill, for example, processing and interpreting?
  • Do some investigations better suit one specific skill? If so, what are some examples?
  • How can teachers identify the skills that their students need more experience with?

Carrying out an investigation includes choosing an appropriate approach


An "appropriate approach" is the type of investigation that will best enable the question posed to be answered. Types of investigation include:

  • fair testing
  • pattern seeking
  • researching
  • modelling
  • classifying and identifying.

See Types of Investigation for more on these approaches.

Teacher reflection

  • Types of investigation include fair testing; pattern seeking; researching; modelling; and classifying and identifying. How can teachers decide which approach best suits an investigation and/or their students?
  • How can teachers ensure that student investigations cover the range of investigation types?
  • Do you personally need more support with any particular type of investigation? If so, how can you get that support?
  • How could you modify existing investigations to change the investigation approach?

Students need to be taught relevant procedural concepts to undertake an investigation


Students need an understanding of when a procedure is appropriate and the steps that it involves.

Procedural concepts include:

  • observing
  • hypothesising
  • inferring
  • predicting
  • knowing about the status of evidence
  • generalising
  • measuring
  • sampling.

Teacher reflection

  • Procedural concepts include observing; hypothesising; inferring; predicting; knowing about the status of evidence; generalising; measuring; and sampling. How can students practise these procedures?
  • Can all senses be used in the process of observing? Is it always safe to taste?
  • What activities might teachers use to help their students understand the "status of evidence"?
  • Consider what the term "generalise" means. What activities might allow students to generalise?

Framing an investigation helps to focus students' observations and interpretations


A theoretical point of view is required in order to interpret results. Without this theoretical framework, students are unlikely to be able to engage critically with the idea being investigated, or know what it is they are supposed to observe.

Teacher reflection

  • What does "framing" mean in this context?
  • For what reasons might students miss the point of an investigation?
  • How can teachers set the scene for a particular investigation?
  • Can framing sometimes limit the sorts of observations that students might anticipate? If so, how?

Interpreting observations

Students' investigations may have unexpected results


Unexpected results may provide an opportunity for further enquiry. For example, discussing with students what could have caused their observations to differ from what was predicted.

Teacher reflection

  • What factors might affect an investigation and lead to unexpected results?
  • Do unexpected results mean that the experiment was "wrong" or that the students did the "wrong thing"? Why or why not?
  • How can teachers help their students to change their thinking from "The experiment failed" to "The experiment showed that … is not a cause of …"?
  • How might teachers and their students turn unexpected results into a new investigation?

Students' investigations may only generate partial explanations


Students' interpretations of results are limited by the classroom context. An explanation based on a single investigation is not a basis for valid scientific generalisation.

A scientific generalisation is an explanation that is understood to be widely applicable.

Teacher reflection

  • How might student explanations be limited?
  • Can teachers expect their students to generate full explanations? Why or why not?
  • Should teachers fill the gaps in student explanations? Why or why not?
  • How might teachers encourage their students to carry out further investigations to develop their explanations?

Students' investigations have the potential to be reconsidered, debated and developed further


Students should be encouraged to think beyond the completion of a set classroom practical. For example, they might be encouraged to consider how the investigation could have been carried out differently, or how they might investigate new questions raised by their exploration.

Teacher reflection

  • Can student investigations be so thoroughly planned that there is no room for development? Why or why not?
  • How can teachers encourage their students to reconsider how they run their investigations?
  • How can student observations lead to further discussion? How can this discussion lead to a change in the investigation focus?
  • How might students investigate new questions?