Open-Ended Science Investigation Tasks


Type of objectives

Science investigation skills

Number of students

Large group

Teacher prep time

Depends on the prompt and materials preparation requirements

Class time

Generally several class periods

Scoring time


Scoring method

Checklist, analytic holistic, focused holistic

Possible problems

Equipment failures; test security, safety; collecting materials; preparing prompts; equating tasks

Possible values

Exciting format for most students; demonstrates students' ability to synthesize many skills

Frequently Asked Questions

What are open-ended science investigation tasks?

These tasks are non-cookbook science investigations. They are not verification labs. They are opportunities for divergent pathways to arrive at a wide variety of answers. Ultimately students should be able to design and carry out their own experiments or evaluate the experimental design of others to make informed decisions. In the past students have been given the task "design and complete an experiment, record your observations, and draw your own conclusions." This is a perfect match to the objective, but the problem seems to have been in too little guidance and almost no reflection on science investigation strategies. The student left alone to design an experiment has fallen short of the goal. It is only when students have internalized the methods used by scientists that students will be able to produce their own inquiries and judge the quality of proof offered by the science inquiries of others. This guide provides several examples of enabling tasks built around a single discrepant event. This type of instruction with guided student reflection needs to be repeated often if students are to be successful at investigating scientifically.

What is an example of a science investigation task and how can students be guided to its development?

The product: An oral presentation of a science investigation.

The prompt: You will be given an object or two to observe. You will produce a written description of the objects using as many of your senses as possible, except taste. (Enough time should be allowed for the majority of the students to feel that they have recorded all of the observations that they can)

Materials: For each student unfamiliar objects such as strange leaves, fruits, rocks, toys, electrical circuits, models, etc. or discrepant events such as Cartesian divers. Examples: Leaves, fruits, rocks, toys, electrical circuits, models, etc. (can be used with simple objects or complex events such as tornadoes, earthquakes, currents caused by airplane wings, etc. This same method can be used for product testing. The question is always the same, "Which of these is the best?" "Best" is defined in terms of observable characteristics that match the needs of the individual. The first step is to make observations just as it is with any discrepant observation. Of course the order of the steps can be varied as students mature and become more aware of science investigation methods)

Measuring devices such as rulers, balance, hand-lens, microscopes, and other equipment that might be useful for making observations.

What is a suggested sequence of learning experiences?

1. Individual Work Instructions

You will be given an object or two to observe. You will produce a written description of the objects using as many of your senses as possible, except taste. (Enough time should be allowed for the majority of the students to feel that they have recorded all of the observations that they can. Formative assessment may focus on thoroughness and accuracy of observations)

2. Group Work Instructions

Make a master list of all of the observations your group made. In your journal add observations that you did not previously have. Be sure to actually make the observations to be sure of the accuracy of group members.

3. Teacher Directed Discussion

Make a class list of all of the observations the class made. Allow each group to add one observation to the list. Proceed round-robin fashion to each group until the class is satisfied that all observations are listed.

4. Group Work Instructions

Your group will have 2 minutes to ask as many questions as you can about the objects you observed.

5. Teacher Directed Discussion

Ask each group to read a question. Repeat this process round robin style until the class feels that all questions have been asked. Group the questions according to the starting part of the question for example: who —, what —, what if —, how —, etc.

Ask students to identify questions that can be answered by looking in a book or asking an expert. Then have students identify questions that can be answered by actually investigating.

Have students write the question starters for investigating in their journals. These might include: What will happen if I..., Will it..., How will it react to..., What are the effects of... Encourage students to add to this list as new question starters arise. (This can also be done in hypotheses format with starters like: I think it will..., If I do... will happen, etc.)

Point out to students that these types of questions lead directly to investigations. For example what will happen if I put "it" in water leads to putting "it" in water to find out.

6. Group Work Instructions

Your group will have 3 minutes to ask as many investigating questions as you can about the objects you observed. Use your list of question starters to help you make a long list. Use your list of observations to help you ask questions.

7. Group Work Instructions

Your group will have about 30 minutes to choose one question and complete your investigation using equipment that is available in the room. (An alternative is to have groups choose a hypothesis to test using a decision making matrix like the one that follows)

Decision-Making Matrix

Criteria for Decision-Making

Must be testable

Must have available materials

Must make sense


Hypothesis 1





Hypothesis 2





Hypothesis 3





Hypothesis 4





NOTE: This same technique can be used for making decisions on issues. The solutions to the problem are listed on one axis and the criteria for decision making are listed on the other. Weights can be added. For example, "must be testable" may be worth 5 times more than "must make sense." It is possible that the totals for all solutions are equal in which case another criterion must be added such as "must be fun."

8. Group Work Instructions

Select one member of your group to explain your investigation. Choose another to explain what happened. Another member should explain why things happened the way they did or how the results might be used. Be prepared to explain how your experimental design could be improved if you had more time or more equipment.

9. Individual Work Instructions

Think of the steps you and your group followed to complete this investigation. List these steps in your journal.

10. Group Work Instructions

Compare your list of steps with other members of your group. You may add steps you have forgotten or combine steps so yours will be more concise. It is most important that the steps you write down are the ones that you personally followed. You will be using these steps and changing them to fit other investigations you will do.

11. Teacher Directed Discussion

Have students post their lists. Discuss the importance of understanding the steps that they follow in order to solve a problem, complete an investigation, or even memorizing facts. (Student lists should not be scored. The steps they use are their own. Most will have some of the steps commonly listed in the "scientific method." It is important that students understand that the steps they follow are the correct steps in the correct order. It is also important that they understand that the steps change and vary in order depending on what is being done.)

How does the teacher prepare for assessment using Open-Ended Science Investigation Tasks?

To prepare a series of short tasks that will lead your students to providing rigorous proof and evaluating the proof given by others, include the following components for the student:

  • The materials, the procedure, and the final product
  • The procedure
  • The final product
  • The scoring criteria

Include the following components for the teacher:

  • A summary
  • The final goal and objective(s)
  • The appropriate grade levels
  • The approximate time
  • Classroom organization and presentation
  • A suggested method of scoring