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The Scientific Method

This guide provides a breakdown of the scientific method, as well as resources that help you apply the scientific method to your studies.

What is the scientific method?

According to Kosso (2011), the scientific method is a specific step-by-step method that aims to answer a question or prove a hypothesis.  It is the process used among all scientific disciplines and is used to conduct both small and large experiments.  It has been used for centuries to solve scientific problems and identify solutions.  While the terminology can be different across disciplines, the scientific method follows these six steps (Larson, 2015):

Click on each link to learn more about each step in the scientific method, or watch the video below for an introduction to each step.

Research Starters

Research Starters is a feature available when searching DragonQuest. You may notice when you enter a generic search term into DragonQuest that a research starter is your first result.

 

If available, research starters appear at the top of you search results in DragonQuest.

Research Starter entries are similar to a Wikipedia entry of the topic, but Research Starters are pulled from quality sources such as Salem Press, Encyclopedia Britannica, and American National Biography. Research Starters can be a great place to begin your research, if you're not yet sure about your topic details.  There are several Research Starters related to the steps of the scientific method:

 

Using Research Starters

To use Research Starters, click on the title just as you would for any other DragonQuest entry. You will then find a broad overview of the topic. This entry is great for finding

  • Subtopics that can narrow your searching
  • Background information to support your claims
  • Sources you can use and cite in your research

We do not recommend that you use Research Starters as a source itself though, because of the difficulties in citation.

 

Citing Research Starters

Using Research Starters as an actual source is not recommended.

Just as we do not recommend using Wikipedia as a source, Research Starters is the same. Use Research Starters as a starting point to get ideas about how to narrow your search and to use its bibliography to find sources you can cite.

We recommend this because citing Research Starters can be tricky as sometimes it will have insufficient bibliographic data to create your reference page.

Observation

To begin the scientific method, you have to observe something and identify a problem.  You can observe basically anything, such as a person, place, object, situation, or environment.  Examples of an observation include:

  • "My cotton shirt gets more wet in the rain than my friend's silk shirt."
  • "I feel more tired after eating a cookie than I do after eating a salad."

Once you have made an observation, it will lead to creating a scientific question (Larson, 2015).  The question focuses on a specific part of your observation:

  • Why does a cotton shirt get more wet in the rain than a silk shirt?
  • Why do I more tired after eating a cookie than if I ate a salad?

Scientific questions lead to research and crafting a hypothesis, which are the next steps in the scientific method.  Watch the video below for more information on observations.

Research

Once you identify a topic and question from your observations, it is time to conduct some preliminary research.  It is meant to locate a potential answer to your research question or give you ideas on how to draft your hypothesis.  In some cases, it can also help you design an experiment once you determine your hypothesis.  It is a good idea to research your topic or problem using the library and/or the Internet.  It is also recommended to check out different source types for information, such as:

  • Books
  • Newspapers
  • Academic journals
  • Websites
  • News reports
  • Audiovisual media (radio, podcasts, etc.)

 

Background Information

It is important to gather lots of background information on your topic or problem so you understand the topic thoroughly.  It is also critical to find and understand what others have already written about your research question.  This prevents you from experimenting on an issue that already has a definitive answer.

If you need assistance in conducting preliminary research, view our guide on locating background information at the bottom of this box.

If you are unsure where you should start researching, you can view our list of science databases through our A-Z database list by selecting "Science" from the subjects dropdown menu.  We also have several research guides that cover topics in the sciences, which can be viewed on our Help page.

Not sure where to begin your research?  Try searching a database in our A-Z list or using one of our EBSCOhost databases!

Hypothesis

When you have gathered enough information on your research question and determined that your question has not already been answered, you can form a hypothesis.  A hypothesis is an educated guess or possible explanation meant to answer your research question.  It often follows the "if, then..." sentence structure because it explains a cause/effect relationship between two variables.  A hypothesis is supposed to form a relationship between the two variables.

  • Example hypothesis: "If I soak a penny in lemon juice, then it will look cleaner than if I soak it in soap."

In this example, it is explaining a relationship between a penny and different cleaning agents.  While crafting your hypothesis, it is important to make sure that your "then" statement is something that can be measured, either quantitatively or qualitatively.  In the above example, an experiment for the hypothesis would be measuring the cleanliness of the penny after being exposed to either soap or lemon juice.

For more information on hypotheses, view DragonQuest's Research Starter on hypotheses here.  Alternatively, you can watch the video below for more details on crafting hypotheses.

Experiment

The fourth step in the scientific method is the experiment stage.  This is where you craft an experiment to test your hypothesis.  The point of an experiment is to find out how changing one thing impacts another (Larson, 2015).  To test a hypothesis, you must implement and change different variables in your experiment.

Variables

Anything that you modify in an experiment is considered a variable.  There are two types of variables:

  • Independent variable: The variable that is modified in an experiment so that is has a direct impact on the dependent variable.  It is the variable that you control in the experiment (Larson, 2015).
  • Dependent variable: The variable that is being tested in an experiment, whose measure is directly related to the change of the independent variable (the dependent variable is dependent on the independent variable).  This is what you measure to prove or disprove your hypothesis.

Every experiment must also have a control group, which is a variable that remains unchanged for the duration of the experiment (Larson, 2015).  It is used to compare the results of the dependent variable.  In the case of the sample hypothesis above, a control variable would be a penny that does not receive any cleaning agent.

Research Methods

There are several ways to conduct an experiment.  The approach you take is dependent on your own strengths and weaknesses, the nature of your topic/hypothesis, and the resources you have available to conduct the experiment.  If you are unsure as to what research method you would like to use for your experiment, you can view our research methodologies guide below.  DragonQuest also has a Research Starter on research methods, located here.

When designing your experiment:

  • Make a list of materials that you will need to conduct your experiment.  If you will need to purchase additional materials, create a budget.
  • Consider the best locations for your experiment, especially if outside factors (weather, etc.) may effect the results.
  • If you need additional funding for an experiment, it is recommended to consider writing a research proposal for the entity from which you want to receive funding.  You can view our guide on writing research proposals below.

You can also watch the video below to learn more about designing experiments.  Or, you can view DragonQuest's Research Starter on experiments here.

When conducting your experiment:

  • Record or write down your experimental procedure so that each variable it tested equally.  It is likely that you will conduct your experiment more than once, so it is important that it is conducted exactly the same each time (Larson, 2015).
  • Be aware of outside factors that could impact your experiment and results.  Outside factors could include weather patterns, time of day, location, and temperature.
  • Wear protective equipment to keep yourself safe during the experiment.
  • Record your results on a transferrable platform (Google Spreadsheets, Microsoft Excel, etc.), especially if you plan on running statistical analyses on your data using a computer program.  You should also back your data up electronically so you do not lose it!
  • Use a table or chart to record data by hand.  The x-axis (row) of a chart should represent the independent variable, while the y-axis (column) should represent the dependent variable (Riverside Local Schools, n.d.).
  • Be prepared for unexpected results.  Some experiments can unexpectedly "go wrong" resulting in different data than planned.  Do not feel defeated if this happens in your experiment!  Once the tests are completed, you can analyze and determine why the experiment went differently.

Analyze Results

Before arriving at a conclusion, you must look at all your evidence and analyze it.  Data analysis is "the process of interpreting the meaning of the data we have collected, organized, and displayed in the form of a chart or graph" (Riverside Local Schools, p. 1.).  If you did not create a graph or chart while recording your data, you may choose to create one to analyze your results.  Or, you may choose to create a more elaborate chart from the one you used in the experiment.  Graphs and charts organize data so that you can easily identify trends or patterns.  Patterns are similarities, differences, and relationships that tell you the "big picture" of an experiment (Riverside Local Schools, n.d.).

Questions to Consider

There are several things to consider when analyzing your data:

  • What exactly am I trying to discover from this data?
  • How does my data relate to my hypothesis?
  • Are there any noticeable patterns or trends in the data?  If so, what do these patterns mean?
  • Is my data good quality?  Was my data skewed in any way?
  • Were there any limitations to retrieving this data during the experiment?

Once you have identified patterns or trends and considered the above questions, you can summarize your findings to draw your final conclusions.

Draw Conclusions

Drawing conclusions is the final step in the scientific method.  It gives you the opportunity to combine your findings and communicate them to your audience.  A conclusion is "a summary of what you have learned from the experiment" (Riverside Local Schools, p. 1).  To draw a conclusion, you will compare your data analysis to your hypothesis and make a statement based on the comparison.  Your conclusion should answer the following questions:

  • Was your hypothesis correct?
  • Does my data support my hypothesis?
  • If your hypothesis was incorrect, what did you learn from the experiment?
  • Do you need to change a variable if the experiment is repeated?
  • Is your data coherent and easy to understand?
  • If the experiment failed, what did you learn?

A strong conclusion should also (American Psychological Association, 2021):

  • Be justifiable by the data you collected.
  • Provide generalizations that are limited to the sample you studied.
  • Relate your preliminary research (background information) to your experiment and state how your conclusion is relevant.
  • Be logical and address any potential discrepancies (American Psychological Association, 2021).

Reporting Your Results

Once you have drawn your conclusions, you will communicate your results to others.  This can be in the form of a formal research paper, presentation, or assignment that you submit to an instructor for a grade.  If you are looking to submit an original work to an academic journal, it will require approval and undergo peer-review before being published.  However, it is important to be aware of predatory publishers.  You can view our guide on predatory publishing below.