3 Planning and performing investigations

Whatever the purpose of your investigation, if you want it to be successful then it needs to be planned in advance. You can see Mr Sharma’s plan in Resource 3. You will also need to prepare your students for an investigation and support their planning.

Activity 1: Planning a practical investigation

Resource 3 offers some ideas for investigations that you might do in the context of change. You could also plan an investigation in the topic you are teaching. Your plan will need to be suitable for your students’ age and ability. The following planning steps provide a guide to the steps you need to go through:

  1. What is the purpose of the investigation?
  2. What do you want the students to learn by doing the investigation?
  3. What equipment and materials will you need?
  4. What safety issues need to be considered? What precautions will you take?
  5. How will you introduce the investigation?
  6. How will you help the students understand what they have to do?
  7. How will the students work? In groups? In pairs?
  8. What records will students need to make as the investigation proceeds?
  9. What questions might you ask as they work?
  10. What will you do after the investigation to help you students review their learning?
Video: Planning lessons

Pause for thought

How do you feel about doing an investigation with your students? Excited? Worried? Why is this?

Carrying out a student investigation can seem a bit daunting if you have never done one before. However, your students’ enthusiasm and engagement will be a reward for your preparation. If you have a large class, you may need to think differently about how you work with your students so that they can obtain the most from the experience. Using groups may help and perhaps dividing the class into two and working with one half in one lesson and the other half in the next lesson will give you more opportunities to work with the students more closely. This may be most beneficial to those students who need more support with their learning. Once you have taught in this way, you will find that less interactive approaches are not fulfilling for you as a teacher. Read Case Study 3 before you try your investigation.

Case Study 3: Investigating reversible change

Mrs Kama explains how she used an investigation as part of her teaching on reversible change.

I wanted my students to investigate reversible changes. I had lots of ideas about the changes that they could investigate, but it would have taken too much time for them to do them all. So I decided to get them to work in small groups of four and gave them a list of changes to investigate:

  • I told them that I needed to make some roti, but that the flour had got grit in it.
  • I said I needed some salt, but I had dropped it in water.
  • I said I wanted the oil for my lamp, but it was mixed with water.
  • I said I wanted to burn some wood for heat, but wanted to get it back afterwards.
  • I asked whether I could get my candle back after lighting it.

‘Can you help me?’ I asked. ‘Will you investigate and report back to me?’ They were very excited and wanted to help me. Each group could choose two of the investigations and I made sure all were done by at least one group. To help them plan their investigation, I gave them some questions to think about. These were:

  • How will you try to separate the mixture?
  • What apparatus will you need?
  • What procedure will you follow?
  • What will you observe?
  • What will you record?
  • How will you report your findings?
  • What will each member of your group do?

I told them that they could ask an expert scientist called Doctor Know-A-Lot to help them if they needed it. I played the part of Doctor Know-A-Lot and as they talked and planned, I encouraged them to write their plan and asked questions about what they planned to do.

When they were ready, they collected their materials and carried out their plans. I went around as Doctor Know-A-Lot to make sure they were working safely and making observations.

It was interesting to see the different approaches that the groups took. For example, one group separated the oil and water by carefully pouring the oil off, while another group heated it to evaporate the water off. Another group left the salt water in a shallow dish in the sun, but another group tried to filter the salt out.

In the next lesson, we discussed what methods they had used to separate the mixtures, which ones were most successful and why, and which changes were not reversible and why. The students wrote their reports for me. I could tell they enjoyed the activity because they did some of their best work. I was so glad I did this investigation rather than just a paper and pencil exercise from the book, because it really captured their interest.

Pause for thought

Referring again to Table 1, what type of investigation(s) were the students asked to do? What do you think contributed to the success of Mrs Kama’s approach to the investigation? What ideas would you use in your own teaching? Check your plan from Activity 1 and make changes if you want to.

Did you notice that Mrs Kama set the investigation in a problem solving context? She did not simply ask the students to investigate how to separate the mixtures – instead, she made it part of a story that had a purpose. When you are planning your own investigations, think about the context that you could set it in. It might be a problem to solve, such as getting salt from sea water or preventing nails rusting. Or you might put the students in the role of scientists tasked with making a recommendation – asking which insulator is the best, for example.

Activity 2: Using an investigation in your teaching

You are now going to teach your investigation lesson with your class.

Resource 4, ‘Planning lessons’, gives advice to help you do this activity, and Resource 5 gives some ideas for investigations that you might do in the context of change. Introduce the investigation, relating it to what has been covered previously. Explain the purpose of the investigation to the class.

As the students work on the investigation, go around the classroom and check what they are doing. Ask questions to find out their ideas and support them. Make sure that you support those students who have more difficulty with learning. You can do this in many ways, such as, for example, grouping them together and working with them to aid their discussions, or giving them a simpler task.

Once the investigation lesson has been completed, think about and make notes on the following questions:

  • What type of investigation did your students do?
  • What planning was needed to prepare the investigation?
  • What went well with your lesson?
  • How did the students respond to the investigation?
  • What do you think your students learnt from doing the investigation? How do you know this?
  • What could have been improved? How would you change it?
  • Which students did well and which may need more support? How do you know this?

Practical investigations are an important part of the elementary science curriculum and are fundamental to learning about science. They can be used across all ages and science topics, and serve a variety of purposes. They provide opportunities for students to be involved. You can use investigations regularly in your teaching to improve your students’ science skills and understanding.

Video: Involving all

2 Purposes of investigations