Teacher Roadmaps - Lab Notebooks and Science Notebooks

Why Use a Lab (or Science) Notebook?

Students and teachers alike benefit when students keep a lab (or science) notebook. Many teachers use notebooks in their classrooms so that students can practice the art and discipline of keeping personal written records of their investigations. That is a good thing. There is growing literature about the importance of understanding science by talking and writing about it.

Notebook entries give teachers a window into what students are thinking. It is only when students reveal their conceptual development and misconceptions that teachers have an opportunity to choose instructional strategies to work with student ideas.


Like drawing to learn science, keeping written records is a tool to support differentiated learning in the classroom. Notebooks can be particularly powerful for English Language Learners. And for all students notebooks can serve as places to practice writing and research in ways that meet Common Core writing standards for English Language Arts.

It's a record of student ideas, actions, and evidence

A lab notebook is far more than a list of observations and data collected during a science investigation. It serves as information for making evidence-based conclusions. But it is also a record of:

  • prior knowledge
  • plans
  • predictions
  • problems to solve
  • procedures
  • ideas on what worked, what didn't, and what the research means

Having students fully capture the richness of their thinking as they work like scientists can be challenging! The study by Ruiz-Primo and Shavelson showed that students used their notebooks to record data seven times more often than to make sense of it. Regular practice and prompts can support students as they develop inquiry skills. It also simply requires setting aside time for students to reflect in written and oral communications. While time is always in short supply, the resources needed to get started with lab notebooks are minimal.

A student notebook can be as simple as folded pieces of paper stapled together. Bound composition notebooks, more expensive but readily available, more closely resemble the lab notebooks found in college science classes and work-day settings of practicing scientists. While not common across all research settings, some scientists today use digital lab notebooks where they are entered and backed up online. Like hard-copy signed lab notebooks, these meet the legal document requirements for patent applications. No matter where scientists keep their research records---or whether they do lab or field investigations---scientists follow a standard notebook procedures.

There is no one right way to guide student development of written records during a science investigation. Highly structured formats are common when students are beginning this practice or teachers are scaffolding particular skills. In his 2010 book geared to middle school, Michael Klentschy describes the emphases interactive science notebooks (designated use of each side of the page with the right side for recording teacher-directed information and the left side for student-generated understandings) and science journals (writing primarily for reflection). While the term "Lab notebooks" becomes more common in high school, Klentschy's thorough helps for using science notebooks in middle school fit in high school classrooms too.

Using Lab Notebooks in Class and Online

We encourage you to have each student keep their own notebook and to update it regularly on the website.

Your students can make records in their electronic notebooks directly online. There are many good reasons to use hard-copy notebooks in your science classes. However, this means extra work for students and teachers to also place a record of the lab notebook online. If you have a scanner or can take photos of student notebooks and upload them, the scientist mentors would delight in seeing these so they can comment and ask questions! Determine what format will best fit your class.

Here are tips that work with all formats:

  • Students can take a step further into scientific practices by seeing scientists notebooks and incorporating a few key conventions. (See the Student Lab Notebook resource for a link to one of Charles Darwin's notebooks and more information about how scientists use their notebooks.)
  • Share examples of good, bad, and ugly journals with students so they have explicit expectations and an opportunity to evaluate for themselves strengths and weakness.
  • Provide time before, during, and after the investigation for students to write in their lab notebooks. You may also want to include writing prompts throughout the inquiry cycle or at specific phases.
  • Regularly review students' notebooks and provide ongoing feedback to students. Snapshot views of students' entries may inform your next learning activities. Encourage students to regularly reflect on their notebooks and your feedback so they can self-assess their learning progress.

 

See also the Lab Notebook Resources for Students and Mentors


Lab Notebook Resources and References

How to Start-and Keep-a Laboratory Notebook: Policy and Practical Guidelines

This site has straight-forward description of scientific research notebooks as legal documents and illustrations of lab notebook pages.

Science Notebooks in K12 Classrooms

This site has examples of student work, classrooms tools and resources for elementary, middle school and high school teachers.

East Bay Educational Coalition – Scientist's Notebook Toolkit

This site has a collection of resources, writing prompts, including many created by Dr. M. Klentschy.

Darwin Online

This is a comprehensive archive of information about Charles Darwin. It includes descriptions and images from the various notebooks and diaries Darwin kept during his life.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

Gilbert, J. and Kotelman, M. 2005. 5 Good Reasons to Use Science Notebooks. Science and Children 43(3):28-32.

Klentschy, Michael P. 2010. Using Science Notebooks in Middle School. NSTA Press, Arlington, VA.

Marcarelli, K. 2010. Teaching Science with Interactive Notebooks. Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Ruiz-Primo, M. A., Li, M., & Shavelson, R.J. 2001. Looking into students' science notebooks: What do teachers do with them? National Center for Research on Evaluation and Student Testing.

Canfield, M. (ed.) 2011. Field Notes on Science and Nature. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.