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Creating Student-Driven Investigations

Science

Many investigations that students encounter are like recipes in a cook book, where the teacher has selected the investigation question, then guide the students through a pre-designed methodology, so students investigate in the “correct” and “scientific” way. However, I have found when I lead students through an investigation, there is a lack of critical thinking, motivation, and passion for science. Recently, I have begun to incorporate a Student-Driven Investigation Model, when students create the investigation question and design the methodology for researching that question.

When I begin a Student-Driven Investigation, I ask students to perform a brainstorming session, where they each write as many questions as they can about a particular topic, such as an ecosystem or natural phenomenon, in four minutes. I remind students that there is no “correct” question and the more they write the more questions they will have. If they get stuck, I ask the students to simply write words that come to mind as they think about the topic, as they write down more words, this process will lead to more questions.

After the students spend time brainstorming, I ask them to pair up and share their questions with their partner. As a pair, they should pick out their favorite three questions, then narrow those questions down to one investigable question that they will present to their team. I remind the students that investigable questions are ones that can be investigated with the tools they currently have, including observations using their five senses, and can be done within the time limit.

After each pair has presented their one question, I facilitate a group discussion. During this discussion each member is expected to share their opinion on which question would be the best for the team to investigate and why. This generally leads to one or two questions potential questions for the group to consider. As the instructor, you can paraphrase group thoughts or offer advice to help the team reach consensus. However, try not to give advice on the actual investigation topic, so students do not see you as the science authority, who is judging their investigation. Students have real ownership over the topic, if their voices are the only ones heard.

Once the students have selected a question, then the instructor can begin a discussion on how they should actually investigate the question. The instructor may want to give the students time to brainstorm on paper, or share with a partner, before sharing in front of the group. I have found the students are more than capable of designing an investigation with only a little probing and input from the instructor. If the instructor feels they need to guide the discussion, do so only after you have asked the group if they would like your input and try to form it into an open-ended question.

Here are some open-ended question examples:

  • “How can we investigate this in 20 minutes?”
  • “How can we make sure everyone is included?”  
  • “How should we keep track of what we observe?”
  • “What math tools do we have to help us compare data?”

Once students have an investigation question and methodology, they are ready to investigate. During this investigation period, the instructor should only manage behavior.  A student can even be designated as the official time keeper. Once all data has been collected, the students should spend time analyzing and comparing data. Much like the discussions on the investigation question and methodology, the instructor can guide the students during the process using open-ended questions to facilitate their analysis.

  • “How can we compare each other’s data?”
  • “What math tools might help us?”
  • “What tools have you used in past investigations to understand your data?”

After they analysis their data, I have the students write conclusions statements on their own. I usually present conclusion statements as having three parts:

  • Introduction: introduce the question and state investigation method
    • “During this investigation, we wanted to find the most common color of crabs at the Harbor. We seperated into 5 pair groups and tallied all the colors of crabs we found in each pair. We looked in different sections of the beach, so we wouldn’t double count crabs.”
  • Data: what was found
    • “We found an average of 36 green crabs, 11 red crabs, and 24 purple crabs.”
  • Conclusion: the answer to the question
    • “Therefore, the most common color of crabs on the beach at the Harbor were green crabs.”

After the conclusion statements are completed, this is a great time to debrief their investigation. The instructor can ask their students what went well, what didn’t go so well, and how can this investigation be improved. This reflection piece can help students refine their methodology and find more effective ways in investigate. A great assessment for the investigation process is to have student list the steps they used to create an investigation. This can be done the next day or before a second investigation.

Student-driven investigations have the potential to increase student ownership of their learning and provide a greater opportunity for critical thinking, than teacher-lead investigations. In my experience, I have seen a drastic change in student motivation between an investigation I created as the instructor and an investigation the students create and lead themselves. Also, as the instructor, since I am only providing minimum support and do not appear to be the “Keeper of All Science Knowledge”, the students feel empowered by having choice and power over their education. The students look to each other for answers and ideas, and thus begin to see themselves as Scientists.  

Many investigations that students encounter are like recipes in a cook book, where the teacher has selected the investigation question, then guide the students through a pre-designed methodology, so students investigate in the “correct” and “scientific” way. However, I have found when I lead students through an investigation, there is a lack of critical thinking, motivation, and passion for science. Recently, I have begun to incorporate a Student-Driven Investigation Model, when students create the investigation question and design the methodology for researching that question.

When I begin a Student-Driven Investigation, I ask students to perform a brainstorming session, where they each write as many questions as they can about a particular topic, such as an ecosystem or natural phenomenon, in four minutes. I remind students that there is no “correct” question and the more they write the more questions they will have. If they get stuck, I ask the students to simply write words that come to mind as they think about the topic, as they write down more words, this process will lead to more questions.

After the students spend time brainstorming, I ask them to pair up and share their questions with their partner. As a pair, they should pick out their favorite three questions, then narrow those questions down to one investigable question that they will present to their team. I remind the students that investigable questions are ones that can be investigated with the tools they currently have, including observations using their five senses, and can be done within the time limit.

After each pair has presented their one question, I facilitate a group discussion. During this discussion each member is expected to share their opinion on which question would be the best for the team to investigate and why. This generally leads to one or two questions potential questions for the group to consider. As the instructor, you can paraphrase group thoughts or offer advice to help the team reach consensus. However, try not to give advice on the actual investigation topic, so students do not see you as the science authority, who is judging their investigation. Students have real ownership over the topic, if their voices are the only ones heard.

Once the students have selected a question, then the instructor can begin a discussion on how they should actually investigate the question. The instructor may want to give the students time to brainstorm on paper, or share with a partner, before sharing in front of the group. I have found the students are more than capable of designing an investigation with only a little probing and input from the instructor. If the instructor feels they need to guide the discussion, do so only after you have asked the group if they would like your input and try to form it into an open-ended question.

Here are some open-ended question examples:

  • “How can we investigate this in 20 minutes?”
  • “How can we make sure everyone is included?”  
  • “How should we keep track of what we observe?”
  • “What math tools do we have to help us compare data?”

Once students have an investigation question and methodology, they are ready to investigate. During this investigation period, the instructor should only manage behavior.  A student can even be designated as the official time keeper. Once all data has been collected, the students should spend time analyzing and comparing data. Much like the discussions on the investigation question and methodology, the instructor can guide the students during the process using open-ended questions to facilitate their analysis.

  • “How can we compare each other’s data?”
  • “What math tools might help us?”
  • “What tools have you used in past investigations to understand your data?”

After they analysis their data, I have the students write conclusions statements on their own. I usually present conclusion statements as having three parts:

  • Introduction: introduce the question and state investigation method
    • “During this investigation, we wanted to find the most common color of crabs at the Harbor. We seperated into 5 pair groups and tallied all the colors of crabs we found in each pair. We looked in different sections of the beach, so we wouldn’t double count crabs.”
  • Data: what was found
    • “We found an average of 36 green crabs, 11 red crabs, and 24 purple crabs.”
  • Conclusion: the answer to the question
    • “Therefore, the most common color of crabs on the beach at the Harbor were green crabs.”

After the conclusion statements are completed, this is a great time to debrief their investigation. The instructor can ask their students what went well, what didn’t go so well, and how can this investigation be improved. This reflection piece can help students refine their methodology and find more effective ways in investigate. A great assessment for the investigation process is to have student list the steps they used to create an investigation. This can be done the next day or before a second investigation.

Student-driven investigations have the potential to increase student ownership of their learning and provide a greater opportunity for critical thinking, than teacher-lead investigations. In my experience, I have seen a drastic change in student motivation between an investigation I created as the instructor and an investigation the students create and lead themselves. Also, as the instructor, since I am only providing minimum support and do not appear to be the “Keeper of All Science Knowledge”, the students feel empowered by having choice and power over their education. The students look to each other for answers and ideas, and thus begin to see themselves as Scientists.  

About the Author
Robyn Boothby