Collecting Data: Observation and Inference

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SWBAT collect data by making accurate and precise observations and analyze data to make data-based inferences.

Big Idea

Solving a mystery using observation and inference skills gives students an opportunity to hone these science practices.


10 minutes

Slow down, you think too fast...time to make the observations last! Our brains are so quick in the processing of data collected by our five senses and making inferences, that middle schoolers are shocked to hear that they need to slow their thinking down for this lesson. In order to collect data to serve as the basis for evidence to answer scientific questions or test design solutions under a range of conditions (SP3), students need to learn how to make precise and accurate observations. Additionally, to carry out successful investigations, students require practice analyzing and interpreting the data they collect to provide evidence for phenomena (SP4). 

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, students make two observations and an inference about this image:

Students will do their best, but the they often conflate observations and inferences. Answers like, "The chimp is looking for something to eat", are common. When students share their observations/inferences, remind them to slow down! Prompts like these can help students separate observations from inferences:

So, what do you actually see?

That sounds like an inference, or conclusion based on data, what makes you infer that?

If the chimp is looking for food, what evidence makes you think that?

What makes you infer that this is a chimp?

Students easily get caught up in the fun of trying to split their fast thinking into separate observations and inferences. During this discussion, clearly define observation and inference, so students can make sense of the distinction. To link this skill to actual scientific investigation, ask students about a time they remember when they needed to make observation and inferences.


30 minutes

The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. To help students explore observations and inferences, students use the Observation and Inference Student Handout to analyze different images:

Observation and Inference Activity Image 1

Observation and Inference Activity Image 2

Observation and Inference Activity Image 3

Observation and Inference Activity Image 4

Observation and Inference Activity Image 5

For the image analysis process, view this video:


 To see student examples using this strategy, view: Observation and Inference Student Work.


30 minutes

The EXTEND stage allows students to apply new knowledge to a novel situation. The novel situation in this case is to solve a mystery using observation and inference skills:

There has been a robbery!  Someone has stolen Ipods out of 10 different lockers and people are mad!! Your teacher has offered to let you help solve the mystery.  The one fact we know is this: the robber drops something out of his/her backpack at each locker.  Use observation and inference to build a case for one of the five suspects.  Find each evidence bag and try to figure out what is inside WITHOUT LOOKING!  Write two observations and an inference for each piece of evidence.  When you are done, look at the suspect list on the board and try to decide who you think is the culprit!

In groups, students access 10 mystery bags. To make these bags, use brown lunch sacks with 10 different items in them according to this resource: Observation and Inference Mystery Suspect List and Evidence. Give each group 2 - 3 minutes to observe the mystery object (touching, listening, smelling only). Students record 2 observations and 1 inference (conclusion about what they think the object is). The mystery bags are passed from group to group until all groups have observed all 10 bags. At that point, students use the suspect list to deduce who the culprit is. Students use a claim, evidence and reasoning (Writing Arguments from Evidence) to construct a conclusion explaining who done it.

After all classes have completed the activity, students share their suspects and each mystery object is revealed. This revealing process gives students instant feedback about their observation and inference skills. Then, in suspense, the culprit is revealed!


10 minutes

The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. In order to evaluate understanding, I use the Observation and Inference Quiz, a quick quiz to assess students' ability to make simple observations and inferences.

Additionally, students' observation and inference skill set should be evaluated within the context of scientific investigation. This additional evaluation gives insight into whether students can apply their skills. A lesson like this one is a great investigation for using observation and inference: Mystery Substances: Properties of Matter Investigation.