Mentor Roadmaps - Research Question

Good Questions Come from Examining Ideas

Careful observations of interesting phenomena can be a powerful generating force for questions. What typically limits students from asking “good” questions is depth of background knowledge and context to connect ideas. You can help students begin to organize their experiences around big themes by how you sequence your guiding questions about their potential research questions.


Broad initial guiding questions allow the students’ ideas to emerge without overwhelming them with terminology and facts. Begin with the big and basic questions about the plant biology related to the students’ topic.

  • What is growth?
  • What are the variables that affect a plant’s life?
  • How does a plant gain mass?
  • Does a plant need soil?
  • Can you drown a seed?
  • How does a plant reproduce?

Guiding questions may then be more complex and detailed as students’ concepts develop.

  • How would cold affect this plant species?
  • How do plants protect themselves from drying out?

Improving Your Team’s Research Question

Students inexperienced in asking biologically meaningful questions will likely ask some questions that are:

  • Too large or general to be investigated
  • Not testable
  • Not scientifically sound

These can sometimes be turned into testable questions. The key is to draw out the variables the students could manipulate or the features they could observe. General questions are obviously the easiest to turn by breaking them down into smaller pieces. For example, What is important for seed germination? can be turned to What is the effect of light on seed germination? Illustrating a real world connection or an avenue of research scientists are currently investigating may also help turn students’ focus to a testable question.

Ownership plays a significant role as a motivator to intellectually invest in an activity. The opportunity for students to ask a question of their own choosing is one of the things they enjoy about PlantingScience. Even if you are not able to turn the students’ question into a biologically meaningful question, you can support their science engagement and understanding.

See the Student Research Question and Teacher Research Question resources for more details on this stage.

Tips for Mentors

  • Begin a conversation with the students as early as possible to help them vet possible research questions.
  • Ask students to describe the variables important to their question. This may help reveal that multiple confounding variables are in play.
  • Ask students to determine possible outcomes for their investigation and describe what background information or experiences makes them predict these outcomes.
  • Encourage students to consider alternative possibilities.
  • Take a look at examples here.