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Experimental Procedure

Key Info

  • Write the experimental procedure like a step-by-step recipe for your science experiment. A good procedure is so detailed and complete that it lets someone else duplicate your experiment exactly!
  • Repeating a science experiment is an important step to verify that your results are consistent and not just an accident.
    • For a typical experiment, you should plan to repeat it at least three times (more is better).
    • If you are doing something like growing plants, then you should do the experiment on at least three plants in separate pots (that's the same as doing the experiment three times).
    • If you are doing an experiment that involves testing or surveying different groups, you won't need to repeat the experiment three times, but you will need to test or survey a sufficient number of participants to insure that your results are reliable. You will almost always need many more than three participants! See our Science Buddies resource, How Many Survey Participants Do I Need?

Overview

Now that you have come up with a hypothesis, you need to develop an experimental procedure for testing whether it is true or false.

The first step of designing your experimental procedure involves planning how you will change your independent variable and how you will measure the impact that this change has on the dependent variable. To guarantee a fair test when you are conducting your experiment, you need to make sure that the only thing you change is the independent variable. And, all the controlled variables must remain constant. Only then can you be sure that the change you make to the independent variable actually caused the changes you observe in the dependent variables.

Scientists run experiments more than once to verify that results are consistent. In other words, you must verify that you obtain essentially the same results every time you repeat the experiment with the same value for your independent variable. This insures that the answer to your question is not just an accident. Each time that you perform your experiment is called a run or a trial. So, your experimental procedure should also specify how many trials you intend to run. Most teachers want you to repeat your experiment a minimum of three times. Repeating your experiment more than three times is even better, and doing so may even be required to measure very small changes in some experiments.

In some experiments, you can run the trials all at once. For example, if you are growing plants, you can put three identical plants (or seeds) in three separate pots and that would count as three trials.

In experiments that involve testing or surveying different groups of people, you will not need to repeat the experiment multiple times. However, in order to insure that your results are reliable, you need to test or survey enough people to make sure that your results are reliable. How many participants are enough, what is the ideal sample size? See the Science Buddies resource, How Many Survey Participants Do I Need?, to find out.

Every good experiment also compares different groups of trials with each other. Such a comparison helps insure that the changes you see when you change the independent variable are in fact caused by the independent variable. There are two types of trial groups: experimental groups and control groups.

The experimental group consists of the trials where you change the independent variable. For example, if your question asks whether fertilizer makes a plant grow bigger, then the experimental group consists of all trials in which the plants receive fertilizer.

In many experiments it is important to perform a trial with the independent variable at a special setting for comparison with the other trials. This trial is referred to as a control group. The control group consists of all those trials where you leave the independent variable in its natural state. In our example, it would be important to run some trials in which the plants get no fertilizer at all. These trials with no fertilizer provide a basis for comparison, and would insure that any changes you see when you add fertilizer are in fact caused by the fertilizer and not something else.

However, not every experiment is like our fertilizer example. In another kind of experiment, many groups of trials are performed at different values of the independent variable. For example, if your question asks whether an electric motor turns faster if you increase the voltage, you might do an experimental group of three trials at 1.5 volts, another group of three trials at 2.0 volts, three trials at 2.5 volts, and so on. In such an experiment you are comparing the experimental groups to each other, rather than comparing them to a single control group. You must evaluate whether your experiment is more like the fertilizer example, which requires a special control group, or more like the motor example that does not.

Whether or not your experiment has a control group, remember that every experiment has a number of controlled variables. Controlled variables are those variables that we don't want to change while we conduct our experiment, and they must be the same in every trial and every group of trials. In our fertilizer example, we would want to make sure that every trial received the same amount of water, light, and warmth. Even though an experiment measuring the effect of voltage on the motor's speed of rotation may not have a control group, it still has controlled variables: the same motor is used for every trial and the load on the motor (the work it does) is kept the same.

A little advance preparation can ensure that your experiment will run smoothly and that you will not encounter any unexpected surprises at the last minute. You will need to prepare a detailed experimental procedure for your experiment so you can ensure consistency from beginning to end. Think about it as writing a recipe for your experiment. This also makes it much easier for someone else to test your experiment if they are interested in seeing how you got your results.

  • Write the experimental procedure like a step-by-step recipe for your science experiment. A good procedure is so detailed and complete that it lets someone else duplicate your experiment exactly!
  • Repeating a science experiment is an important step to verify that your results are consistent and not just an accident.
    • For a typical experiment, you should plan to repeat it at least three times (more is better).
    • If you are doing something like growing plants, then you should do the experiment on at least three plants in separate pots (that's the same as doing the experiment three times).
    • If you are doing an experiment that involves testing or surveying different groups, you won't need to repeat the experiment three times, but you will need to test or survey a sufficient number of participants to insure that your results are reliable. You will almost always need many more than three participants! See our Science Buddies resource, How Many Survey Participants Do I Need?

Sample

Here is a sample experimental procedure.

Experimental Procedure Checklist

What Makes a Good Experimental Procedure? For a Good Experimental Procedure, You Should Answer "Yes" to Every Question
Have you included a description and size for all experimental and control groups? Yes / No
Have you included a step-by-step list of all procedures? Yes / No
Have you described how to the change the independent variable and how to measure that change? Yes / No
Have you explained how to measure the resulting change in the dependent variable or variables? Yes / No
Have you explained how the controlled variables will be maintained at a constant value? Yes / No
Have you specified how many times you intend to repeat the experiment (should be at least three times), and is that number of repetitions sufficient to give you reliable data? Yes / No
The ultimate test: Can another individual duplicate the experiment based on the experimental procedure you have written? Yes / No
If you are doing an engineering or programming project, have you completed several preliminary designs? Yes / No