How to Help Students Carry Out an Investigation

March 28, 2018 5 Comments

The Science and Engineering practice of Planning and Carrying out Investigations requires students to take a more active role in classroom experiment. Many teachers struggle with providing support for the experimental design process.  However, it is essential that teachers provide adequate scaffolding for investigations in an NGSS class.

It took me a long time to give up control and correctly set the scene for students to be successful when designing experiments. Here are a few tips to help make sure that your inquiry activities are successful.

How do teachers scaffold investigations in an NGSS aligned class?

1. Make sure the activity is really an experiment.

Not all laboratory activities are experiments.  Many things that we do in the lab with students would be better categorized as observation activities. During an observation you will likely provide students with a set procedure for them to follow.  It may be essential for them to follow a specific list of instructions in order to get the desired result.

For example, there is an activity I love to do in my classroom where students extract DNA from a strawberry.  This allows them to see DNA and make observations, but they aren't going to do anything with the DNA beyond that point.  There is no experiment to design.  In the era of NGSS, there is still a benefit to this activity.  However, it doesn't qualify as an experiment.

2. Start with a phenomenon that produces an investigative question.

Questions are a vital part of the investigative process.  Ideally, students generate questions from phenomena that is associated with the content.  Great phenomena will help students produce a plethora of questions.

However, it may be difficult to lead students to questions that drive an investigation using only an anchoring phenomenon.  Consider introducing investigative level phenomenon that is more closely related to the content that you hope students will discover through their investigation.

To learn how to use student questions in your storyline, click here.

3. Keep it simple in the beginning.

Teaching students how to design an experiment from scratch is overwhelming.  Instead, start with a small part of the experimental design process.

Review the NSTA Matrix for the Science and Engineering Practices.  This resource includes subcomponents of the Science and Engineering Practice of Planning and Carrying Out Investigations.

Make sure your students understand variables.

Students must understand the significance of variables in order to plan an investigation.  Often, I introduce variables by giving students data as a phenomenon.  We look at the relationships between variables in the data before we even discuss what variables are.

Once students understand what variables look like in data, I introduce the concept of variables in experimental design.  Here are a few resources that I use in my classroom:

4. Require that they check in.

I have students check in after they have identified the variables in their experiment. I initial their document and ask that they check in again after they have written a procedures and created an outline for their data table (when appropriate). This helps me identify struggling students before they have gone too far in the wrong direction.

I use this outline for my classes to help students stay on track.  The investigation requires that students list their variables and controls in their experiment.  They also have to write out their procedure and create a data table to show how they will collect their data.

So, before they can actually complete their investigation, they must show me this form. If there are things that they need to work on, I make notes directly on the form and send them back to revise.

This produce is available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.  It is a Google™ Doc and includes a PDF version.  Therefore, it can be used online and in person.

To purchase this resource, click here.

5. Save time for revision.

This process takes a bit longer than running your pre-NGSS prepared activities, especially the first few times you try. Plan for them to take longer and don't stress about your timeline. In my experience, students understand the results of their experiment so much better that it is well worth the additional time.

Do you want to learn more about scaffolding investigations in an NGSS aligned class?  Check out these resources.

Erin Sadler

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  • Amy March 30, 2018 at 2:02 am

    I appreciate the way this is so well laid out.

  • Taikischa Orakwue April 1, 2018 at 2:05 am

    I feel the same way about students abd their performance in my science lab. Many of my colleagues disagree especially the teacher that used to be in my current position. I always just give a question like Can a plant grow without soil? or Can you melt ice without using a traditional heat source? My principal always tells me she likes the fact that I never tell my students exactly what to do.

    I also hate teaching the Scientific Method. I hate Science Fairs. They make schools partcipate in a district fair as well. I find the concept of variables is hard to teach in elementary school. Do you have any ideas or suggestions?

    • d8jdi April 1, 2018 at 2:37 am

      We haven’t done a science fair yet, but the idea has come up. I think we are probably going to start on next year. When I start thinking about that, I will definitely post something.

      I have a product on my TPT store that I think is good for teaching variables for grades 5th and up. I think, just browsing the science and engineering practices, that they should be discussing variables in grades 3-5. I am going to put that on my ever growing list of things to work on.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  • Erica April 5, 2018 at 9:04 pm

    Yes! This was helpful! I still feel like I struggle sometimes with understanding how to implement NGSS standards, and I liked how you talked about noting if your inquiry was truly an experiment.

    • d8jdi April 6, 2018 at 1:44 am

      Let me know if you have any questions!

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