Teaching and Evaluating Science Practices—Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

glassware, beakers and funnel

Since the release of the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education1 in 2011 and the subsequent Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that would follow in 2013, an increasing number of science educators have become familiar with the general idea of placing greater emphasis on science as a way of thinking rather than a body of factual knowledge. To accompany this paradigm shift, authors of the Framework offered a foundation that rested upon the interweaving of content and science practices. Such practices were said to “encompass the habits and skills that scientists and engineers use day in and day out.”2

While I don’t think it is a stretch to say few science educators would argue over the validity and importance of these practices, many educators, like myself, are seemingly left with the helpless feeling of what exactly to do with these practices when it comes to teaching and evaluating them. Though lack of training may contribute to this discomfort, a large part of the issue may simply boil down to the inherent abstract nature of the practices themselves. How do I teach students how to plan an investigation? How do I teach them to think about how they might organize their data effectively? Even if I figure out how to teach these skills, what does an assessment of this look like and how might I go about grading it? These are the types of questions I have been asking myself more and more lately and it has led to some serious shifts in how I intend to plan the rest of the school year. The intention of this post is to share how my chemistry learning team has chosen to focus on the integration and development of the science practice focusing on planning and carrying out investigations. Doing so will hopefully contribute to making these pedagogical shifts less theoretical and more actionable.

Starting the Conversation

Every year, my district mandates that each learning team (PLC) identify a specific area for growth and create a measurable goal to be met by the team. This year, I wanted to challenge not only myself but my team as well. For years, we had talked about areas of our curriculum that could be improved, only to result in little action being taken. A common theme in these conversations seemed to revolve around the disconnect between lab instruction and content as well as the continuous realization that our students lacked the foundational skills to effectively investigate any sort of chemistry phenomena. In other words, unless a lab was spoon-fed to students, the vast majority of them had little awareness where to even begin when given an opportunity to investigate a phenomenon, test an idea, or answer a question that did not have an obvious answer. Clearly this was something we valued and yet our actions did not reflect this. Sure, we were doing labs and integrating various forms of inquiry-based activities, but were any of these things meaningfully contributing to the development of the skills our students need to construct knowledge through authentic investigation of the natural world? To some extent, yes, but we could do better. When thinking about how I wanted to start this conversation with my colleagues, I was reminded of a quote from one of my favorite educational researchers, Dylan Wiliam, who claimed “we need to stop teachers from doing good things, so that we can give them time to start doing better things.”

Understanding the Issue and Creating the Goal

During one of our team meetings, I wrote the eight science practices (see the full list below) found in the NRC’s Framework and NGSS on the whiteboard and asked my team members to identify one or two practices they felt were least represented in our current curriculum and instruction. Of the eight practices, planning and carrying out investigations was the only practice all four of us agreed that we need to improve. Our next step was to figure out exactly what this practice consisted of and how we could develop and integrate it throughout our curriculum.

  1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information


My own limited experience with NGSS left me with a bit of research to do. As expected, I found the primary NGSS website3 to provide a variety of useful resources. However, the resource I found to be most helpful was a website specifically dedicated to Instructional Leadership for Science Practices4. This site does a great job communicating aspects of the different practices in a clear and concise manner without feeling like I’m reading a research paper. If you’re new to NGSS, or just want a really good resource, I definitely recommend checking out this site.


Figure 1: Categorizing the science practices to demonstrate their overlapping nature(Used with permission from Instructional Leadership for Science Practices website.)


Though I was aware of the general idea behind our targeted practice, I needed some clarity on defining what this practice consisted of and how science teachers are encouraged to think about it. To help simplify this thought process, I really appreciated the diagrams in figures 1 and 2, which helped me visualize the overlapping nature of the practices by breaking them down into three categories: Investigating Practices, Sensemaking Practices and Critiquing Practices.


Figure 2: One way to group the science practices(Used with permission from Instructional Leadership for Science Practices website.)


Knowing that it’s an investigative practice wasn’t too surprising, but how is the practice of planning and carrying out investigations defined and, most importantly, what does it actually look like when students are doing it? This is what the table below addresses.


Table 1: Definition of the Science Practice of Planning and Carrying Out Investigations


Again, none of that information was shockingly new, but it was helpful to have some attributes of the practice explicitly laid out. Additionally, reading these characteristics reinforced our original concern regarding the lack of opportunities we had given our students in the past to develop this skill. With a better understanding of the practice, it was time to discuss its integration into our curriculum and address potential barriers.

The big picture idea for integration wasn’t too complicated—give students more opportunities to think about, develop, and execute a plan for investigating different phenomena. Like most things, that’s easier said than done. It was at this point that a variety of natural questions became evident.

  • Given our current curriculum, what would that look like?
  • How will we actually go about doing that?
  • Is this something we focus on each unit?
  • Do we need to create new lab experiences?
  • Do we just need to alter how we do our primary/traditional labs each unit?
  • Since this requires more time, some content will have to get cut; what can we do without?
  • How do we evaluate students on this?
  • Do we need to come up with a common grading rubric?

After some debate, we eventually settled on the following:

  1. We will provide at least one opportunity each unit for our students to develop this practice.
  2. For the most part, creating new lab investigations may not be necessary. Several of the labs we already do involve a great question and we like the value of content application within them. Because of this, if a unit contains a lab we really like, all we need to do is decrease our traditional role in the planning and preparation of the lab and allow students to assume greater ownership over the same thought processes involved that used to be done solely by the teacher.
  3. Since this is our first time doing this with such intentionality, determining the content that needs to be cut will be talked about as we progress throughout the year. It would require too many assumptions to just start cutting content multiple months in advance.
  4. When it comes to evaluating and grading, we need to develop a common grading rubric. After thinking about what this rubric might look like, I was fortunate enough to learn that my friend Ryan Bruick had been recently working on integrating a similar idea into his physics curriculum. After some discussion, he was kind enough to share his rubric with me. I kept the vast majority of his original rubric, and after making some tweaks to make it fit our needs, we eventually arrived at the rubric below. It’s likely that it will still need to be revised after some experience, but it’s a good place to start.


Figure 3: Common grading rubric used for evaluating the standard of planning and carrying out investigations

While writing this post, we finished our first lab investigation intended to focus on this science practice. Based on where we were in the curriculum, we chose the lab where they had to determine the empirical formula of zinc chloride. Our approach to this lab essentially mirrored the Argument-Driven Inquiry in Chemistry approach. As expected, when it came time to evaluate their initial plans, the scores were pretty low. However, a lot of valuable conversations and experiences took place. The specific areas and thought processes in which they currently lack became glaringly obvious. Even the “best” initial plans lacked sufficient detail and lack of foresight. All of this is completely understandable due to their lack of experience but I’m excited to make a more intentional effort to focus on the development of this practice.

If you have experience with teaching this science practice or it’s something you would like to emphasize more in your class, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have!



  1. National Research Council (NRC). A Framework for K-12 Science Education. (accessed 11/14/19)
  2. Next Generation Science Standards FAQ page (accessed 11/14/19)
  3. Next Generation Science Standards website  (accessed 11/14/19)
  4. Instruction Leadership for Science Practices, A National Science Foundation funded project, 2014 - 2018. (accessed 11/14/19)
  5. McNeill, K. L., Katsh-Singer, R. & Pelletier, P. (2015). Assessing science practices – Moving your class along a continuum. Science Scope, 39 (4), 21-28.


Planning and carrying out investigations in 9-12 builds on K-8 experiences and progresses to include investigations that provide evidence for and test conceptual, mathematical, physical, and empirical models.


Planning and carrying out investigations in 9-12 builds on K-8 experiences and progresses to include investigations that provide evidence for and test conceptual, mathematical, physical, and empirical models. Plan and conduct an investigation individually and collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, and in the design: decide on types, how much, and accuracy of data needed to produce reliable measurements and consider limitations on the precision of the data (e.g., number of trials, cost, risk, time), and refine the design accordingly.

Assessment Boundary: