Evolution of the Scientific Method in the Classroom

I asked a simple question on my Facebook page: “Are there any science education topics you would like to see more blog posts about?”  A IRL (in real life) friend of mine responded, “The scientific method… Is it used? What are contemporary thoughts on this? Relevancy to teaching?”

We probably all know the scientific method in some form.  When I was in school (specifically, 8th grade – my teacher that year was also a veterinarian on the side and I believe his focus was farm animals, particularly large ones like horses and cows) I learned the scientific method as “PPRCPurpose, Procedure, Results, Conclusion.  I still use this, actually, when writing scientific articles and abstracts.  (One sentence for each makes a great abstract!)  Another common topic was the more expanded “Scientific Method”, which usually includes:

1. Question

2. Hypothesis

3. Procedure

4. Results

5. Some kind of analysis (may or may not involve “rejection” of hypothesis)

6. Conclusion

I suspect many teachers still teach this way, and frequently I see things like “discussion” and “data collection” and other relevant but complicating detail thrown in.  If it works for them, that’s fine.  It also lines up nicely with what is expected for students participating in science fair activities (you’ll hear more about science fair from me later), and that repetition is good for students.

Back to the Facebook question, is this a contemporary approach to the methods that scientists actually use?  No, I don’t exactly think so.

Firstly, scientific questions.  Scientists DO science differently than K-12 students.  Their questions arise out of personal experiences in their field or come from the resolution of a similar study.  K-12 students generally have a question presented to them from a teacher (this saves a lot of time and does help to keep a class focused).  In the language of education, if you are looking to learn more about posing a good question to lead into a unit of student-based investigation, use the search term “essential question”.  (One great book on the topic of essential questions is Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.)

Secondly, the idea of having a student, at this point, write a hypothesis.  A hypothesis should be informed.  Scientists are informed enough to make a hypothesis (in many cases I suspect even before framing a “question”, which a scientist might not formally do until after they’ve completed their study and are writing it up).  To save time, teachers will provide a worksheet or refer to a textbook reading, but generally, students struggle with writing a hypothesis without any experience.

Honestly, in my classes I don’t see students struggling with ideas about “procedure” and “results” and “conclusions”.  They complain about conclusions because that’s the work after the fun of the experiment, but too bad on that one.

So what do I do with my students?





page25_Scientific Method

Every experiment we do is hung on this frame.

Why are we doing this? (purpose)

What will we do and how will we measure it? (procedure)

We organize the measurements. (results)

We describe what we learned in terms of our purpose. (conclusion)

Now that my students have been trained to do this by 9 weeks of experiments that are organized this way, my students are learning a new step: the hypothesis.  I give them the purpose of the experiment, and the procedure.  Now at the end of the experiment, while they are working through the questions I provide that help them draw conclusions, I am starting to hear more questions coming from my students.

“Dr. O, I think that if we did X instead of Y, then Z would happen.  Can I try that?”

YES!  Make sure you take notes about what happens as you test your hypothesis!

After a few weeks of allowing students to hypothesize, in this way, it can be made part of their formal framework.






Next quarter we will start to talk about making good charts, informational diagrams, and figures.

The last quarter of the year, (handily after their graduation tests) they will be able to create their own experiments, hopefully.

7 thoughts on “Evolution of the Scientific Method in the Classroom

    1. I completely agree with you, Katie. There’s a part of me that wishes we could get away from the list altogether, but students do need to have some idea of the scientific processes of answering a problem with evidence and experimentation.

      We also have to deal with something to help students with science fair projects. Sadly, a LOT of teachers get the process wrong, even for that. They just create too many steps, probably because the teachers don’t understand science themselves – which (IMO) means students get very frustrated and discouraged.

      Thanks for the website! I particularly like this page, which provides their “teaching resources”: http://undsci.berkeley.edu/teaching/index.php

  1. But the scientific method is something that can be used in any facet of life. Making decisions, choosing a career etc. Basically gives you critical thinking skills. Because of it’s name though, people assume it’s not a transferable way of thinking. You should look at how my kid’s school encourages the scientific method – http://www.schoolofdragons.com/how-to-train-your-dragon/the-scientific-method/scientific-method-worksheets . It’s something I never had as a kid. What do you think? Useful? Not really relevant?

    1. Well, what I see at that website is a couple of worksheets about vocabulary tied to the scientific method, then a series of “experiments” that might show the steps, but they aren’t explicitly outlined in the activities you linked to (I put “experiments” in quotes because a couple of these things are really demonstrations of known phenomena without variables to measure). My high schoolers would have difficulty figuring out which parts of the activity were the specific parts of the scientific method if I tried to do these activities with them. But you’re right, the Scientific Method is just a process used to answer questions and people trying to solve problems in any field can use it, but there is usually modification. For instance, a historian might have a question about something that occurred in the past and may have a hypothesis, but their analysis would be based on reviewing historical documents, not conducting an experiment. (It’s also worth noting that there are scientific fields that are based largely on observation and measuring things that already happened – geology and astronomy come to mind). Thanks for the comment!

      1. What I meant is that they don’t explicitly say “this is the scientific method kids, go and follow it” but seem to allow kids to reach that conclusion through activity. Subconscious learning, if there is such a thing. I think I know what you mean though. I suppose that is a website aimed at younger children. You’re right about the modification bit. I concede your point!

      2. But we really do need students to understand what a “hypothesis” is, or a “conclusion” or scientific “results” – so those terms need to be defined in some way. Students can’t do full-inquiry play type activities and then somehow know vocabulary that was never presented to them. I’d love for kids to learn everything through activity, though, I’ll agree with you on that one.

      3. No, you’re right. They focus on intrinsic learning but you need to be able to “know” the concepts if you have to use it. Good Point Chris.

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