Guide to Writing An Inquiry-based Question

Inquiry-based questions support student investigation about science technology engineering and math. Students gather and/or analyze data to propose a potential answer.

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Inquiry-based Questions

All inquiry activities start with a research question, which students attempt to answer through data analysis (Bell, Smetana, and Binns, 2005).

A testable question should have the following components:

  • At least two variables, independent and dependent
  • The variable can be tested
  • A cause and effect relationship
  • Specific parameters are stated

Examples of non-testable questions:

  • How is the quality of water measured?
  • What type of protozoan thrive in Lake Erie? Flagellates or Ciliates?
  • What safety measures have coastal cities taken to prevent storm surge damages?
  • Are the organisms found in ballast tanks of ships harmful when released into new bodies of water?

Examples of testable questions and their scores:

  • Does the wind speed and wind pressure of a seiche affect the water level of the West Basin of Lake Erie (score = 5)?
  • How does the average over-lake precipitation vary from overland precipitation in Lake Superior over the last 50 years (score = 5)?
  • Does the water surface temperature differ in 1950 and 1960 in Lake Superior from January to June (score = 5)?

How do you determine if a question is testable and a possible score? Consider the number of variables and the structural quality of the question.


  • The question has at least two clearly stated variables (score = 2).
  • The question has one clearly stated variable (score = 1).

Structural Quality:

  • The question is a well-written, testable question (score = 3).

The question has NO grammatical errors and specifies the parameters of the investigation (i.e. reference to a specific lake, area, or dimension), and states a cause and effect relationship between two variables.

  • The question is testable but should be modified (score = 2).

The question has some minor grammatical errors (i.e., wording of the question should be improved), or the question does NOT specify the parameters of the investigation, or the question does NOT state a cause and effect relationship.

  • The question is testable but needs to be modified (score = 1).

The question is deficient in at least two of the following ways:

    1. Has some minor grammatical errors
    2. Does NOT specify the parameters of the investigation
    3. Does NOT state a cause and effect relationship

Why are inquiry questions important?

There are many types of questioning techniques that occur in the classroom. Most commonly, teachers pose questions to their students, but students also pose questions to the teacher and to their peers.

Teacher-posed questions typically serve formative and summative assessment needs, (Marbach-Ad and Sokolove 2000; Keeling et al. 2009) whereas student-posed questions are aimed at resolving misunderstandings that arise within the lesson. In practicing science, however, the types of questions posed are a bit more restrictive in that they should be “testable.” The National Research Council (2000) defines scientifically oriented questions as those that “lend themselves to empirical investigations, and lead to gathering and using data to develop explanations for scientific phenomena,” (p. 24).

The ability to generate a good research question requires the cognitive process of analyzing data (Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001) and this skill must be developed. Yet this is an aspect of science teacher education that is often taken for granted and neglected. While research regarding questioning techniques is quite extensive (Wilen, 1991; Costa and Kallick, 2009), research regarding a teacher’s ability to generate research questions is virtually non-existent. Pre-service science teachers are usually not given an opportunity to engage in scientific research. Given the emphasis on incorporating more inquiry-based instruction into science classrooms, it would be ideal to provide pre-service teachers with authentic opportunities to develop their scientific inquiry skills.

Source: Rutherford, S., Designing a Testable Question, 2011, Eastern Michigan University.

Learn more about the scientific process

  • Anatomy of Science: Dissecting Research, Ariganello, S., Upwellings March 2010, Michigan Sea Grant.