The importance of keeping a laboratory notebook

In the research laboratories, a scientist’s notebook represents a comprehensive record of the experiments that were performed, why an experiment was performed, and what the results mean.  First, the lab notebook is used to design their experiments.  As the experiment progresses, the scientist will then document everything that happens, including experimental conditions, thoughts and observations while conducting the experiment, changes to the protocol, and any data collected.  After the experiment is finished, the experiment is summarized and interpreted.

Lab notebooks encourage your students to think critically about experiments.  ©Edvotek 2014
Lab notebooks encourage your students to think critically about experiments. ©Edvotek 2014

The lab notebook can be used in your classroom laboratory as an exercise to develop important critical thinking and literacy skills in your students.  This makes it easy for you link your curriculum to the common core literacy standards (specifically, CCSA.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.1 through RST.9-10.10). More importantly, the lab notebook will give you, the teacher, an idea of a student’s strengths and weaknesses.  That’s why I think that the laboratory notebook is an important part of the student experience.

A lab notebook doesn’t have to be formal – it can be as simple as a few pages of paper stapled together!  Here are some things for to have your students do in their notebooks:

Before starting the Experiment:

  • After your students read the background information and the protocol, they should generate a short introductory paragraph in their own words.
  • They will use this information to form a hypothesis for the experiment.
  • Knowing the background, the students will predict the results of the experiment.

During the Experiment:

  • Students should be documenting their observations and thoughts in a laboratory notebook or on a separate worksheet.  What do they see when start the experiment?  What do they see as the experiment is running?

After the Experiment:

  • At this point, your students will interpret the results.  They will decide whether the data supports or contradicts your hypothesis.  This is a great place for your students to practice making evidence-based conclusions.
  • Using the data, have your students write a persuasive essay.  The students will need to present all data and explain why it backs their conclusion.
  • If you repeated this experiment, what would you change?  Have your students revise their hypothesis to reflect any changes.

We hope this gets you excited about using the laboratory notebook as a teaching tool!