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Building Hypotheses

ESA Water Cooler Chat ~ June 26, 2020 

Building good hypotheses is crucial for science, but often students find it difficult to get into the right mindset. What are some methods that can be used to get students to generate questions and hypotheses they can address at or near their homes? Bring your favorite beverage as we share ideas on how to inspire students to start asking good questions posing reasonable hypotheses.  

Hosted by: 

Alan Berkowitz, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies  
Luanna Prevost, University of South Florida  
Janice McDonnell, Rutgers University 


What are Hypotheses: Challenges with Misconceptions 

When discussing hypotheses, the word “hypothesis” is often used in many different contexts to mean different things.  

For example: 

  1. Generalizing hypothesis is a description of a pattern 
  2. Explanatory hypothesis is about the mechanisms that explain the pattern 

One such problem is that in science education, mechanisms are rarely tested, and the term “hypothesis” is also used with statistics. The idea of a “null” hypotheses is also problematic, as AP tests commonly require students to write null hypotheses.  Further complicating matters, cell and/or molecular biologists talk more about statistical hypotheses whereas ecologists tend to have different perspectives. With all these situations and factors, it seems to be no surprise then, that the concept of a hypothesis often gets students confused.  A possible solution could be to use the word “model” instead of hypothesis when teaching and discussing them with students.  


Problems with Building Hypotheses 

  • It is easy to jump into data collection and analyses without developing hypotheses or ideas. 
  • In high school and for non-majors, students write methods but with no question. Even between different colleges, courses are taught and presented differently. The schism between cell/ genetics vs evolution/ecology is a good example. 
  • Many think the alternative is a null hypothesis.
  • The ability to expand beyond question is limited without scaffolding. 

 One negative of using datasets is that students can get caught up in data analyses and visualizations but not create testable hypotheses. 


Ways to Help Students Build Hypotheses 

  • Start with a story-telling approach. 
  • Try extracting information from papers to make it more digestible to students: see what hypotheses are being discussed and then invite students to pose new hypotheses.  
  • Be sure to keep student’s hypothesis and predications statements separate. 
  • Develop the student’s confidence by welcoming all questions asked. 
  • Use termites and the scientific method lab to teach the importance of curiosity, posing alternative hypotheses, performing critical tests, falsifying hypotheses, and inductive vs. deductive reasoning. There are a lot of papers and articles that further describe the termite lab: 
  • Bray Speth E, Momsen JL, Moyerbrailean GA, Ebert-May D, Long TM, Wyse S, Linton D (2010). 1, 2, 3, 4: infusing quantitative literacy into introductory biology. CBE Life Sci Educ 9, 323–332. 
  • “Using termites to learn the scientific method” is an inquiry-based learning plan that might help with getting into the termite chemotaxis/behavior experiments. 
  • Shanholtzer, S. F. and M. E. Fanning. 1991. Termites and the scientific method. Page 195, in Tested studies for laboratory teaching. Volume 12. (C. A. Goldman, Editor). Proceedings of the 12th Workshop/Conference of the Association for Biology Laboratory Education (ABLE), 218 pages. 


Adapting to the Virtual World 

The Right Question Institute has resources such as the Question Formulation Technique. An example of the technique being used in Padlet shows students being able to dive into data in a nonthreatening way.  

Traditionally, students go outside and make observations from the color of flowers to animal behavior, and then discuss the quality of questions. For example, what assumptions and questions were built into the observations. As an alternative, propose answers to questions and then develop hypotheses. 


Challenges of the Virtual World and How to Help 

The ability to help students develop good questions and hypotheses now also has the new challenge of students living in different places in the virtual world, and not being in one place as they normally would be. How will the teacher be able to help when student’s questions about what is outside their houses might cover different ecosystems or even biomes? This new virtual world raises questions regarding instructor’s abilities to teach when not surrounded by the usual local ecological knowledge.  Is local ecological knowledge a limit to instructor’s ability to help students with hypotheses? If students are coming from different places, how can teachers help? Will teachers eventually have to resort to what they are familiar with? Possible solutions revolve around taking the classroom into their student’s own home, thus not requiring the instructor to know everything and using datasets. 

  • Detect and test patterns in nature. Take a nature walk and take notes of things that may or may not be patterns. 
  • Use common animals that are everywhere. For example, set out baits for ants and then note the different types and numbers of ants, observe interactions at the baits, test habitat differences, time of day, and other tasks that can be done from home. 
  • Deploy LED UV lights on sheets at night to photograph moths and other nocturnal visitors. This can create a data set on urban or rural ecological gradients.  
  • Try using online data sets from LTER Palmer Station polar data for a K-12 project.   
  • There is trail camera data from Gorongosa National Park in Africa through WildCamZooniverse and HHMI BioInteractive. 
  • NEON datasets are available and can help answer for bigger context. 
  • Use iNaturalist research grade data to help move from generalizing to explanatory frame of mind. 
  •  Display a photo that displays an organism or a scene in the natural world and have students ask questions about it. 
  • Send Fast Plant kits (seeds, soil, watering system) home with each ecology lab student. Have students develop and test hypotheses. Have them work in groups to get a class level dataset testing aspects like competition or resource availability. There are also a lot of already developed labs (not all ecology) hosted by the Wisconsin Fast plant group 
  •  The Null School Earth Map is a great interactive map that has global data related to climate. 

An important thing to consider is that while teachers may not be familiar with all of student’s ecosystem studying virtually, this is actually a good thing. They are learning alongside their students, creating a more authentic research experience since no one may automatically know the answer.  Students might feel more engaged if they get to explore something that they find relevant and interesting instead of the usual unchanging curriculum. By helping each other with methods, discovering literature, and refining questions, the instructors are creating a new feeling of group work. 


Other Resources: 

Youtube channel, “Tools of Science” 

 Data Lab project uses oceanographic data from the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI)    

Academic Slides used by Paul Strode: Detecting and Testing a Pattern in Nature  

 50 Questions Activity for Terrestrial REU program (3 parts or sessions) – Alan Berkowitz, Cary Institute 

50 Questions Activity for Water-Oriented REU program (3 parts or sessions) – Alan Berkowitz, Cary Institute 

Developing Research Questions using iNatural Datasets – Luanna Prevost, University of South Florida 


Articles and Papers: 

Hoskins, S. G., Lopatto, D., & Stevens, L. M. (2011). The C.R.E.A.T.E. Approach to Primary Literature Shifts Undergraduates’ Self-Assessed Ability to Read and Analyze Journal Articles, Attitudes about Science, and Epistemological Beliefs. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 10(4), 368–378.   

Paul K. Strode; Hypothesis Generation in Biology: A Science Teaching Challenge & Potential Solution. The American Biology Teacher 1 September 2015; 77 (7): 500–506. doi:   

Kristin L. Gunckel, Beth A. Covitt, Ivan Salinas, Charles W. Anderson A learning progression for water in socio-ecological systems 

Russell C. Wyeth, Marjorie J. Wonham; Patterns vs. Causes and Surveys vs. Experiments: Teaching Scientific Thinking. The American Biology Teacher 1 March 2018; 80 (3): 203–213. doi: 

Guisasola, J., Ceberio, M. & Zubimendi, J.L. University Students’ Strategies for Constructing Hypothesis when Tackling Paper-and-Pencil Tasks in Physics. Res Sci Educ 36, 163–186 (2006).