Labs, Notebooks, and Reports: For What Purpose?

Today was Senior Seminar: a day-long school event where seniors get breakfast, BBQ lunch, yearbooks, and attend workshops about upcoming college life. So all my seniors were not in class today, which gave me some time to reflect. I was thinking about how best to use lab notebooks and lab reports next year.

You see, this year in college-prep physics, students recorded lab work in spiral-bound graph-paper notebooks. They taped a rubric next to each lab. I collected their notebooks, lugged them around, marked their rubrics, and returned their notebooks. All 51 of them. For each lab. (I could have simply collected one notebook from each lab group, since the other notebooks in the group were usually identical — right down to the conclusion, awkward sentences and all.)


I’ve gone through various other incarnations of notebooks, reports, whiteboards, packets, etc. in my 15 years of teaching. My handwritten reflection for what to do next year are below. I think it captures the best of all those previous systems while still maintaining a reasonable workload.

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  1. I stamp the lab notebooks during class as evidence that the student was present in lab and participating — brief design, measured data, calculations, and graphs. These are the things that will be identical from noteb0ok to notebook anyway. I won’t be picky about proper format because I’d rather have them spend most of their time taking and analyzing data than worrying about the notebook looking picture-perfect. Also, students who are absent would be required to come during a free period or after school to perform the lab. (I’ve never done that before. It could be overwhelming. But I also think it sends the wrong message to a student that they can just copy the data from a partner.)
  2. Students write a post-lab reflection. After we’ve had our post-lab class discussion to tease out the concepts, idea, models, relationships, etc. from lab, I’d ask students to summarize what they’ve learned, what questions they had,  and what they found to be (in)effective about the lab. I wouldn’t grade this either, but I think taking the time for solo sense making and summarizing is important. This could be done on an exit ticket, in the notebook, or online.
  3. Students write a formal lab report. I think that effective communication of a scientific experiment is important. My failure this year was trying to do it simultaneously in the notebook. How to make a table and graph and put it into a report is an important skill. How to best represent the data is an important skill. How to make a scientific argument based on evidence is an important skill. But reading 50 lab reports about 6 times per quarter is awful. So I’m taking a cue from my freshman writing professor. He set up a rotating schedule in which just a few students submitted an essay each week, based upon one of the books we had read. I think doing it this way would lead to fewer reports to look at each week, thereby allowing me to give more effective feedback. Plus, I’d have fewer copied reports since I’d have just one student from each group-turn in the report. So if there are 3 students in each lab group (A, B, and C) then all the As would turn in a report one week, all the Bs the following week, etc. Hopefully the schedule will allow for 2 write ups per student each quarter in order to show growth.

What’s your system for lab work?

An “I-hit-publish-too-early” update: Of course, none of this directly addresses what I feel is the most important issue with lab work: how to assess the scientific inquiry process. I’m reminded of AAPT’s Goals of the Introductory Physics Laboratory and Eugenia Etkina’s Scientific Abilities.

15 responses to “Labs, Notebooks, and Reports: For What Purpose?

  1. Pingback: Day 158: Labs, Notebooks, and Reports: For What Purpose? | Noschese 180

  2. I like the idea of rotating the notebook’s that are being assessed. I have had a hard time implementing these with my MS sts. I think I was on a good path my HS sts, but then I went to MS and I haven’t found the right key for the sts. to truly own them. I also have gotten overwhelmed with the “grading” of them and also dislike the copy, rinse, repeat effect. I will definitely need to mull this post over as I look forward to next year.

    In terms of lab work, I often have them do observations and data collection together, but then I have them do the analysis and conclusions themselves. For my 8th graders during chemistry, I had been using the skills lists with ACS’s Inquiry in Action as a better means of assessing their lab process. Not perfect, but I think it’s a foundation to work from. Observation still plays a large role because not all students engage in the work to the same extent as other students.

    I am looking to do more student blogging/e-portfolios with students, so I am thinking that conclusions to lab reports would be a good item to have students write on their blog.

  3. secretseasons

    So are your lab groups static all term long? I like to shuffle groups around, particularly as I figure out who works well with whom. But I suppose one week could be A1B1C1 A2B2C2 and the next week could be A1B2C2 A2B1C1 etc, with just a student’s assignment to a letter remaining fixed. Maybe.

  4. matthewpmoran

    For my middle school students, I provide a single packet per group with a template for the lab investigation that is essentially just space to write in each section. Students divide up the roles in their lab groups and work towards collectively complete the lab. When the lab is complete, I ask for the students to use the Science Olympiad experimental design rubric to evaluate whether their lab is complete, then I collect it. I mark the lab with some feedback, but do not assign a grade. Instead I return a copy of the group’s work to each student and they decide what to do with the feedback.

    In the future, I want to have a better system in place for ensuring that each student takes on different roles from one lab to another, but that seems like an easy fix by just assigning students to different sections each time. In the end, I think this encourages students to work together (limited time and small groups also help) while also getting a fairly accurate final assessment of each students’ understanding of the lab.

  5. I think that is a very smart move to reduce the grading. This year I had the students hand in only 2 lab reports. The first one got feedback from me, the second one was graded. I think it depends on your students, but for mine I get a lot of reports that are basically the same. Only the conclusions are different. From this, their grade typically is determined from the conclusion, as the data, observations, etc are all ok.

    I also did sort of a summative inquiry assessment, through a lab practicum.

    My soft plan for next year was to move to using lab notebooks, not unlike what you’re doing. I was thinking of treating the lab notebook more like a portfolio, where at the end of the year each student picks out maybe three labs to show progression, learning and competency.

  6. I like the rotating piece.

    My colleague and I were brainstorming how to improve the quality of reports next year, and someone posted an article about writing scientific papers rather than reports. I think we are going to have them do analysis and conclusions on a 3-4 labs with a common theme throughout a semester and give feedback, then they will write a scientific paper bringing it all together. We are thinking of making the theme for semester one be the effect of mass on acceleration; they can do it on ramps during kinematics, then with friction in dynamics, then with projectiles. Haven’t found a good theme for sem two though. Whatdya think?

  7. Wendy Czerwinski

    I agree. I am currently grading LeChatelier lab reports for communication purposes. Most students determined the direction of shift, but their explanations lack completeness.

  8. Wendy Czerwinski

    I think it is important to collect immediate reflection (makes students analyze what they have done) and then selected parts of the disc and/or conclusion. So again, I agree!

  9. You are doing the right things but if you would like different takes, please refer to my TPT article “Assessment Strategies for Laboratory Reports” to see yet another approach. Thank you

  10. I also have students work together for the first part of the lab (determining their question, planning out materials/procedures, and data collection). Earlier in the year, I also had students collaborate on their claim, evidence, and reasoning, which are the parts I try to emphasize the most. Eventually, the latter parts become more independent. I still let them work together setting up the lab and collecting the data, just to make sure everyone in their group is on the same page.

    I’m a year away from having every student with an iPad and am trying to think how I can utilize the iPad to make lab reports better. So far, I am thinking about having students use the Numbers app to organize their table and collect data; use the Pages app for the lab report itself; then use the camera function to take photos of observations and experimental setup, which can be inserted into the Pages document.

  11. I have been teaching chemistry for quite a while now, and this year used a this website:, and walked my students through writing up a lab report with it. I was quite impressed with the quality of their reports. I wouldn’t do this with every lab- just the formal ones, but you may want to look at it.

  12. Pingback: Google Drive Lab Report Workflow « Re:thinking

  13. Jennifer Grady

    I am wondering what you think of your new system after a year of doing it- did it work the way you expected? Are you tweaking it?

  14. Pingback: My first take on Interactive Science Notebooks | Time-Variant Teaching

  15. I’m on a mini-rampage about my lab notebooks. In my case I would have to lug around 120 composition books. In many cases the students didn’t keep them organized (I have middlers) even though they were required to, so the labs were hard to find in the notebook or even just missing. I’ve done lab notebooks for two years, and decided to nix them this year.

    Since I teach middle school, my focus is a little different than yours. I want to teach them experimental design and analyses (using the CLaim-EVidence-Reasoning [CL-EV-R] format).

    I used to have them write out all their procedures and variables for every lab even when I gave it to them. Now this next year, I think I’m just going to have them keep a lab section in their binder. We already do an organized binder system, so this will reduce the amount of systems they have to keep track of. When I need to grade something I will just collect that specific paper (i.e. a lab analysis, or an experimental design sheet). This will be at least 1/100th the weight of what I carry around now. Then I can just collect what I care about and not the extra stuff.

    Also students can still do labs while I’m grading, where as with lab notebooks they couldn’t (because I’d have their lab notebooks).

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