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Advice for teachers -

Scientific investigation process

The following diagram represents a general process for undertaking scientific investigations:

diagram showing process for undertaking scientific investigations


Topic selection phase

The selection of a suitable topic for investigation may be initiated in a number of ways, including: through direct observation of, and curiosity about, an object, an event, phenomenon, a practical problem or a technological development; as a result of anomalous or surprising investigation results; as an extension of a previous inquiry; from analysis of qualitative and/or quantitative data; and from research involving secondary data.

Once the topic has been identified, students articulate a research question for investigation. Questions may be generated from brainstorming or teachers may provide a question or scaffold the development of an appropriate testable hypothesis that students can adapt and investigate.

In controlled experiment types of inquiry, a hypothesis is developed from a research question of interest and provides a possible explanation of a problem that can be tested experimentally. A useful hypothesis is a testable statement that may include a prediction. Principles of designing controlled experiments and an example of hypothesis formulation is included in the link below.

Scientific investigation - Controlled experiments and hypothesis formulation

For research questions related to inquiry types that do not lend themselves to developing an accompanying hypothesis, students should work directly with their research questions.

Types of scientific inquiry

Scientific inquiry methods

Planning phase

Prior to undertaking an investigation, students should produce a plan that outlines their reasons and interest in undertaking the investigation, defines the environmental science concepts involved, identifies short-term goals, lists the materials and equipment required, outlines the design of any experiment, notes any anticipated problems, identifies and suggests how potential safety risks can be managed and outlines any ethical issues. They may also make predictions about investigation outcomes based on their existing knowledge.

In planning controlled experiment types of investigations students formulate a hypothesis that can be tested by the collection of evidence. Students should identify the independent, dependent and controlled variables in their experiment and discuss how changing variables may or may not affect the outcome. Students should be able to explain how they expect that the evidence they collect could either refute or support their hypothesis.

In planning an investigation, students may undertake relevant background reading. In addition, students should learn the correct use of scientific conventions, including the use of standard notation and SI units and how to reference sources and provide appropriate acknowledgments.

A detailed explanation of types of variables is provided in the link below.

Defining variables

Investigation phase

In the investigation, students will generate primary or collect secondary qualitative and/or quantitative data as evidence. Data can be derived from observations, laboratory experimentation, fieldwork and local and/or global databases. During the investigation students should note any difficulties or problems encountered in generating and/or collecting data. Data should be recorded in a form according to the plan, for subsequent analysis and relevance to the investigation.

Reporting phase

An examination and analysis of the data may identify evidence of patterns, trends or relationships and may subsequently lead to an explanation of the psychological phenomenon being investigated. For VCE Psychology, the analysis of experimental data requires a qualitative treatment of accuracy, precision, reliability, validity, uncertainty, and random and systematic errors. For more detailed information refer to the section ‘Measurement in science’. 

Students consider the data collected and make inferences from the data, report errors or problems encountered and use evidence to answer the research question. They consider how appropriate their data is in a given context, evaluate the reliability of the data and make reference to its repeatability and/or reproducibility. Types of possible errors, human bias and uncertainties in measurements, including the treatment of outliers in a set of data, should be identified and explained. 

For an investigation where a hypothesis has been formulated, interpretation of the evidence will either support the hypothesis or refute it, but it may also pose new questions and lead the student to revising the hypothesis or developing a new one. In reaching a conclusion the student should identify any judgments and decisions that are not based on the evidence alone but involve broader environmental, social, political, economic and ethical factors. 

The initial phases of the investigation (topic selection, planning and investigation) are recorded in the student logbook while the report of the investigation can take various forms including a written report, a scientific poster or an oral or a multimodal presentation of the investigation.

Detailed information is included in Scientific poster sections and Suggestions for effective scientific poster communication.