The Benefits of Investigative Tasks

By Scott Sterling

We’ve been talking a lot about students developing hypotheses and how that can add rigor to your classroom activities. Mostly, these lessons have resembled the scientific process, even if they could be converted to use in the other subject areas.

Investigative tasks are a bit different. They harness the natural curiosity of students, channel it in an organized fashion, and help them extend their learning farther than if they were simply given rote information to study.

Before we talk about how to create investigative tasks, it’s helpful to first explore the three types of investigations that can appear in the classroom setting.

  • Historical investigations answer questions students may have about things that have already happened. What really happened? Why? How?
  • Projective investigations allow students to explore theories they may have about the knowledge they’ve acquired. What would happen if (something) happened?
  • Definitional investigations explore a topic in depth, isolating characteristics and features.


In an investigative task, the primary method of work occurs through research. Once students have identified what they want to investigate, they then use various methods of research to move through the process you define for the project. Direct information should be used whenever possible, preferably from subject matter experts. At the end, students match up what they thought they knew with what they learned.

The important thing about conducting investigative tasks in the classroom is not to constrain the curiosity of the students (within reason). Constraints, in the form of guiding questions and a process, are only meant to move the task along. What the students choose to investigate should be reasonably left up to them. Giving them autonomy is not only a component of rigor, but it also increases student engagement with the task.

Here are some questions you can use to form the basis for your investigative task process. They can be used in a template to guide the students (perhaps in a graphic organizer):

  1. Is my topic something that needs further study, occurred in the past, or might be something that could happen in the future? This narrows down the task into one of the three investigation types.
  2. What do I think I will find out about my subject?
  3. What is already known about my topic?
  4. Is there any confusion or contradictions about my subject that I can help address?
  5. What do I think can be done to erase these contradictions?
  6. Did what I found out align with my original predictions?
  7. If not, how should I change my thoughts about the subject?


In English and social studies, an investigative task’s guiding question(s) may sound like an essay question, such as “What caused __________ to happen?” or “What would have changed if _________ didn’t exist?” That doesn’t mean an investigative task has to take the form of an essay or even a report. They can be as simple as a formative assessment knowledge check or an exit ticket, although giving students more time for their investigations usually leads to more rigor.

In science, investigations are commonplace. Students can comb through what is already known about the world, predict what would happen if variables are introduced or removed, and even create their own direct data to inform their tasks. However, the guiding questions can help constrain a scientific investigation that would otherwise expand in focus.

Technology classes may benefit the most from adopting investigative tasks. Students should already be learning deeply about the technologies that already exist, but technology doesn’t advance without people thinking about what would happen if variables change or predicting how practices will change in the future. Technologists and entrepreneurs spend their lives conducting investigative tasks.

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