Science: An Elementary Teacher’s Guide/Observing, questioning, measuring, presenting

Questions Fuel Science!

What are the Process Skills


Process skills are simply techniques that scientists use--the skills to carry out the scientific process. When we teach science we tend to focus on the science content but we can also teach these process skills in a variety of fun ways, which will help students improve their scientific thinking, carry out their own science projects, and improve their attitude towards science. Here is an external link describing how these can be taught.

  1. Observing: Perceiving events and the natural world through the five senses.
  2. Inferring: Interpreting or explaining one or more observation, often on the basis of prior experience or perceptions
  3. Classifying: Grouping objects or event according to their characteristics
  4. Measuring: Making quantitative observations
  5. Predicting: Forecasting future events or conditions based on patterns recognized in past observations
  6. Communicating: Transmitting information to others through spoken language or written symbols including chart, maps, or other visual demonstrations
  7. Using space-time relationships: Identifying relative position and motion of objects as well as changes over time
  8. Formulating Hypotheses: Making educated guesses on the basis of current information prior to investigating or experimenting
  9. Identifying and Controlling Variables: Identifying the variables that affect a system and selecting those to manipulate and those to hold constant
  10. Experimenting: Investigating through controlled manipulation of variables using all applicable and appropriate process skills



The development of observation skills goes hand in hand with a young child's need to practice verbal and written expression. It is vital to give primary grade students the opportunity to express themselves with the five senses. As a child is examining a fossil, it is important to encourage them to talk about the object. What color is it? How does it feel? Does it weigh a lot? How big is it? Allow children to describe changes in climate and weather, seasons, and even music. It is crucial to have students practice recording their observations through drawings and sketches as well as with written words and numbers. In science we emphasize observations that are accurate and measurable and clearly understood. If the child has not yet acquired the skill of writing the student may dictate their observation to the teacher. The teacher must only write what the child has said and not try to rephrase the statements. While making observations encourage both qualitative (color and shape) and quantitative (number and size) observations. Comparing observations between children can help students create a fuller, more accurate description of what they are observing.



Inferring is what we do when we draw logical conclusions from the information we have available. For example, if you see a young girl sitting on the sidewalk crying, and her bicycle is laying down next to her, you might infer that she fell off of her bicycle. Your inference may be incorrect--perhaps she got off the bicycle to cry after being stung by a bee or after her friend said something that hurt her feelings. In this example, you would probably go up to the girl and look to see if she was scratched or bleeding, or you might ask her questions, like "What happened?" Basically, you are gathering more data to help you draw a better conclusion! In science we collect all kinds of data, usually something that can be measured in some manner. These numbers can be analyzed with statistics--we use 'statistical inference" to draw conclusions when there is uncertainty. One of the most important things to understand is that scientists deal with uncertainty all the time--it is a common misconception that science deals with things that are "known" or "certain." Instead, science is all about drawing inferences from the data we have available, but always looking for more data and testing our old ideas to see if they still hold up, or if we need to modify our ideas.

Using inference does not mean your conclusion is correct--especially if the premise of your argument is false! An incorrect inference is known as a fallacy. Philosophers who study informal logic have compiled large lists of fallacies, and cognitive psychologists have documented many biases in human reasoning that favor incorrect reasoning. Part of doing science is recognizing that humans naturally have cognitive biases. When you are aware of your biases, you can then be more careful to not reach incorrect conclusions. One common problem is called confirmation bias, which is the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. Back to our girl and the bicycle. If you had been in a bad bicycle accident as a child and decided that bikes were very dangerous and you never rode a bike again, then seeing the girl crying next to the bike confirms your belief. You pay a lot more attention to that single observation than to all the happy children you pass by riding bicycles without getting hurt. A more sinister example is if someone has a racial bias. If the bias is that "All ________ are criminals," then every time a person of that race is caught in a criminal act the bias is strengthened. A person with this cognitive bias fails to notice all the honest, hard-working people around them and only focuses on the examples that confirm their bias. You know from experience that if someone has a bias it is very difficult to convince them they are wrong. If a scientist is very confident his or her hypothesis is the correct explanation, they may interpret their data only in a way that confirms their bias. Asking a tobacco company to investigate the dangers of smoking is probably not a good idea--we anticipate that they already have a strong bias. Bottom line: inference is a very powerful tool to help draw conclusions from data, but you have to be careful that 1) you are getting correct data, 2) your assumptions are correct, and 3) you are careful to reach an unbiased decision.









Using Space-time Relationships


Formulating Hypotheses


Identifying and Controlling Variables






A question is a linguistic expression used to make a request for information, or the request made using such an expression. The information requested should be provided in the form of an answer. When you ask questions, you are modeling a process that students can and should use themselves. Good questioning skills requires understanding of four concepts.
1. Questions are vital part of teaching on your part and learning on the students part.
2. Effective use of questioning can stimulate many types of responses and leves of thoughts by your students.
3. How you as a teacher ask questions can influence students participations, such as the number of students who get involve and even classroom management.
4. Effective questioning will require time and effort for you as a teacher to master.

Questioning skills are critical to problem solving skills; however, few students ask questions.

There are two different kinds of questions that children may ask and as an educator one must be be ready to approach these questions.

Closed Questions, questions that only have one answer. Some examples are, Do you understand this? Can I help you with that? Is that your final answer?

Open Questions, requires more thinking Some examples are, How exactly did you get the dog to move? How do you study for a test? What makes leaves fall?

The best kind of questions to ask students in a classroom are questions that promote divergent thinking.

Techniques for the Effective Application of Questioning


Waiting Time

  • After you ask a question wait 3-5 seconds before accepting a student's response.
    • This gives your students plenty of thinking time.
    • Waiting the proper time can also help you have better control in classroom management.
    • After a student gives a response, wait an additional 3-5 seconds and listen carefully.

With Increased Wait time, the Following Will Increase:

  • Students responses;
  • Number of unsolicited responses;
  • Students' confidence
  • Speculative thinking;
  • Students listening and responding to each other;
  • Increase evidence and inference statements;
  • Questions asked by students;
  • Experiments posed by students; and
  • "Slow" or "Shy" students contributions to the class.

With Increased Wait Time, the Following Will Decrease:

  • Students failure to respond
  • Teacher discipline actions.

Listening to Students

  • Listen attentively.
    • Non-verbal communications can indicate teacher's attention level.
    • Focusing your attention lets the other students learn if they want your attention, asking questions is one way to achieve it.

Redirecting Questions

  • Often times questions can be asked which have no definitive answer
    • Multiple questions can be appropriate
    • Encourages divergent responses

Dealing with Students' Input

  • Respectful, attentive, and thoughtful teacher responses will stimulate more student input.
  • Never put down a student's response.
  • Do not allow other students to belittle other students.
  • Embarrassments will prevent other students from speaking up.
  • The classroom should be a safe place to express all thoughts and ideas.
  • Do not ignore incorrect or inappropriate responses, simply encourage students to rethink about their ideas.


  • Generally do not repeat students answers.
    • Have the students repeat instead.
  • Promotes communication skills
  • Response not changed by you... Which, if it were to happen could cause embarrassment.
    • Do not say "Oh you mean." Better to ask, "Is this what you meant"?


  • Any attempt to answer a question should be awarded
  • But if off the mark ask:
    • What about...
    • "What do you think about...."
    • "Interesting observation.... but what about"

Establishing a Supportive Classroom Atmosphere

  • It is OK to be wrong.
  • Even teachers are not always right.
    • May have to intentionally make mistakes to demonstrate this.
  • The classroom is a place to learn an express all ideas, without fear of humiliation.

Answering Own Questions

  • Not good idea.
  • Questions are to elicit responses, but if you answer your own questions you may confuse students.
    • They may begin to "zone out"

Guessing Game

  • Do not have an answer in mind you are looking for.
  • What is in your mind is just as important as to what is in their mind.

Types of Questions


Closed (Lower Order) Questions
-Only one correct answer
Example: How many marbles are in a jar? (Does not encourages much thought)

Open (Higher Order) Questions
-Open questions result in more divergent thinkers than simply memorizing facts.
-Asks more open than closed questions.
Example: What would happen if the earth was not tilted at 23.5 degrees? (More opinions and many different answers)

Managerial Questions
-Questions which detail how to proceed with a task, but do not directly apply to the task.
-Necessary for the management of space, time, and materials.

Questions based on Bloom's Taxonomy
-Practice each learning skills by asking appropriate questions

Memory (recall of information)
  • Comprehension (show understanding)
  • Application (apply information learned on a specific situation)
  • Analysis (examine information, separating it into its component parts)
  • Synthesis (forming a whole using components)
  • Evaluation (make a judgment)

Gender Biased Questions
-Do not ask or answer questions which may dissuade students from a subject
Example: girls and science



Take this quiz and test your knowledge!

1 Which of the following process skills practices using ones senses to perceive events?


2 A student transmitting information to others via spoken language, or written symbols is utilizing which process skill?

Formulating Hypotheses

3 True or False? A student that can identify the relative position and motion of objects, as well as explain how many objects change over time, is Using Space-Time Relationships ?


4 Which of the following process skills is a student using when they are making quantitative observations?



The Power of Effective Questions