The STEAM-Active (Project Number: 2021-1-ES01-KA220-HED-000032107) project is funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

Gender and STEM background as predictors of college students’ competencies in forming research questions and designing experiments in inquiry activities

Partners' Institution
University of the Basque Country
Year of publication
Educational stage
University Level
Journal name
International Journal of Science Education
Thematic Area
STEAM intervention (teaching strategies, evaluation...), Gender Inequality
This study examined the roles of gender and STEM major status as predictors of performance in formulating a research question and designing an experiment among 70 undergraduate Taiwanese college students participating in Inquiry-Based Learning. To do so, a learning program was designed to teach and apply the basis of IBL.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
Inquiry learning aims to develop higher-order thinking skills in science, such as the ability to form research questions, design experiments, and engage in problem-solving. An inquiry activity is a very complex process and includes multiple competencies such as observing, formulating questions, hypothesizing, predicting, designing and conducting investigations, and interpreting and communicating results.
It is critical to understand what particular student characteristics and context may be involved in the differential effects of inquiry learning, as learner characteristics can interact with environmental factors in the process whereby students create knowledge.
A common element in every IBL interpretation is the quality of being question- or problem-driven. The current research focuses on an IBL approach that guides students to formulate research questions as the first step in the process, then guides them on how to design an experiment to find the answer to their research question.

Formulating research questions
Question asking is a necessary step toward formulating hypotheses, making decisions and solving problems. The content of a question can indicate the level of thinking of the person who raised it, and students’ ability to ask questions can improve their problem-solving ability.
Students were asked to critique another group’s question based on the characteristics of research questions that they had learned, which included: (i) the questions’ relationship to the research topic, (ii) whether the question referred to dependent and independent variables and the relationships between them, and (iii) the appropriateness of the question for research under the limitations of complexity, available equipment, and time.

Designing experiments
The design of an experiment is performed as a thoughtful and planned activity to find an answer to the research question. To conduct a valid and reliable experiment, students need to consider aspects such as dependent, independent, and confounding variables, as well as control groups and repetition. The independent variable must be manipulated and the dependent variable must be observed or measured. A lack of command over the elements of experimental design makes designing informative experiments difficult for many students.

The study
A total on 70 undergraduate Taiwanese students took part on a IBL course on chemistry which included: videos and instructor explanations to understand Inquiry, event demonstrations, hand-on activities, reading, presentation, and historical class discussions… Students are familiarized with IBL steps and elements through simple activities and during the course, they have to solve 3 different research scenarios.
For the evaluations of the research questions they defined 3 categories: 0 = incorrect, 1 = Partial credit and 2= full credit. Regarding the designing phase, research scenarios were rated on the presence (=0) or absence (=1) of each of these six essential elements: relation to the research question, comparison between experimental and control groups, independent variable, dependent variable, control variable, and repetition of data collection. Thus each student could have a punctuation between 0 and 6.

In the learning context of social constructivism, a major field of study (STEM vs non-STEM) difference in students’ competencies in forming a research question was not supported in this study. However, there was significant positive progress over time in student performance in forming research questions. In contrast, when the research design scores were examined, no significant change in scores over time was observed. This result could serve to remind science educators and teachers that students may need longer time and more learning practice for this challenging inquiry competency.
Point of Strength
This article presents an interesting proposal of how to work on IBL with students and how to improve their inquiry skills. Although it does not find any key concept about gender inequality, the inquiry program and the evaluation of the research question and the design are very interesting.
Science education, science literacy, attitude towards science, inquiry-based learning