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Laboratory Notebooks in the Science Classroom
Laboratory Notebooks in the Science Classroom
In a professional laboratory setting, the laboratory notebook
is a fundamental tool that captures questions, procedures,
observations, raw data, data analysis, potential problems,
solutions, and new questions. In the science classroom, the
lab notebook provides an ongoing record of students’ thinking
and their laboratory methods and processes. These notebooks
help students place science in a meaningful context and emphasize
the importance of critical thinking and communication
(Edelson 1997).
Lab notebooks provide students with authentic science
experiences as they become active, practicing scientists. Teachers
gain insight into students’ understanding of science content and
processes, while students create a lasting personal resource. This
article provides high school science teachers with guidelines for
implementing lab notebooks in the classroom.
Useful tools to prepare students
for authentic science
Christine Roberson
and Deanna Lankford
January 2010 39
A power ful tool
Inside the high school classroom, the lab notebook is
a powerful tool—it engages students in the authentic
practice of science while providing the teacher with
insight into student thinking and comprehension of
content (Edelson 1997). The lab notebook can also help
assess students during performance events—which
require a great deal of time and a number of expert
observers to simultaneously assess numerous students.
Notebooks preserve a great deal of the investigation
while reducing the need for expert observers. A student
notebook can thus be used as a substitute for, or
a supplement to, direct observation (Shavelson, Baxter,
and Pine 1991).
Laboratory notebooks also provide an intersection
for the individual and communal nature of science.
Through the use of lab notebooks, the science
teacher simultaneously addresses course content,
engages students in exploring the nature of
science, and provides a venue for practicing a
broad range of communication skills (Edelson
and O’Neill 1994).
Although there is no doubt that the lab
notebook will eventually go electronic, the
information and detail that must be captured
will not change with the media. In fact, the
added collaboration associated with electronic
lab notebooks will require sharpened
communication skills.
Int roducing the lab
Students accustomed to fill-in-theblank
worksheets may balk at the
additional work that a lab notebook
requires. Establishing the authenticity
of a laboratory notebook is fundamental
to nurturing student buyin.
There are many ways to show
students that the notebook is more
than just a classroom exercise.
This section presents a few possible
activities that teachers can
implement to engage students
with this tool.
Invite a guest speaker from the
industry or a researcher from a
local college or university to talk
to the class. They can share the
importance of documentation
in the laboratory. For example,
they might explain how they
use a lab notebook to document
unique protocols for future use. Guest speakers may also talk
about referring to the lab notebook when troubleshooting an
assay or when there are unexpected results.
Have students use the internet to search for the
phrase “laboratory notebook guidelines.” Cooperative
learning groups can compile, compare, and present the
commonalities in their findings.
As a warm-up activity, give students a list of items that they
could grab during a lab fire and ask them which they would
save. After discussion, inform students that incoming staff
members at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a major
research institute in New York, are advised to grab only
one item in a fire—their laboratory notebooks—because
everything else can be recreated using it (Barker 1998).
Ask students how long their lab notebooks will be relevant.
Share well-known examples, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s
notebooks, which sell for millions of dollars. Introduce
the work of Jeffery L. Bada, who used Stanley Miller’s
notebooks after Miller’s death in 2007 to identify specific
amino acid samples generated in 1953 during the Miller–
Urey experiments. Using current analytical techniques,
and the 1953 samples identified by Miller’s notebooks,
Bada detected 22 amino acids—more than twice the
number that Miller was initially able to detect. The
updated results were published in 2008, and have scientists
rethinking the origin of life’s building blocks—55 years
after the experiments were conducted (Chang 2008).
Encourage students to put themselves in the place of
the Medichem scientists. Scientists at Medichem were
competing with other labs to develop and patent a way
to produce the active ingredient in Claritin. Even though
they made the discovery, they did not follow the standard
procedures for documenting data or counter signing.
Their poor notebook practice was cited as the reason
that the pharmaceutical manufacturer lost a multimillion
dollar patent lawsuit to Rolabo for the production of
Claritin (Medichem v. Rolabo 2006). Ask your students
to talk about the consequences of notebook practice for
this company and the scientists involved.
Note that teacher notebooks are also useful tools. If you
keep a notebook for your lab preps or for designing lab
activities, share your notebook with students. If you do not
keep a notebook, now is the time to start. Let students see
that a lab notebook is a tool with multiple applications.
Help students embrace the idea that they are creating their
own enduring resource that can be used for future reference.
Many of my former students report using their notebooks
as a resource tool and reference for other high school and
college courses.
Class room implementat ion
The lab notebook’s dual purpose—as a personal journal and
as a public (and potentially legal) document—is addressed
40 The Science Teacher
in the student guidelines presented in Figure 1. Everything
inside a lab notebook is there to guarantee the repeatability
of procedures; document thinking and practice; and ensure
the quality, integrity, and authenticity of the data collected.
This practice reinforces the nature of science as a collaborative
pursuit based on evidence.
By keeping a laboratory notebook, students develop
and practice the skills required to design experiments and
capture observations. Students learn to record dependable,
high-quality data in these notebooks, an invaluable skill
as they move toward more open-ended, student-directed,
inquiry-based science. With the skills acquired from
this experience, students can develop a much stronger
understanding of the concepts and processes of science as
they gather, organize, and interpret their own data.
Meeting challenges
Most high school students have never kept a laboratory
notebook, so before it becomes a natural part of the
laboratory process, practice is required. It is important
to note that students are often most successful when
they work on one skill at a time. Teachers should introduce
student use of lab notebooks with the most simple
laboratory investigations to allow students to focus on
Your laboratory notebook is a legal document. It can
be used in lawsuits and criminal trails—but its value
depends on your careful record keeping. You must
write in an orderly, legible manner to ensure clarity
for others.
11. Always write in ink, starting at the top of the page
and finishing at the bottom.
12. Never cut or remove a page. If you make a mistake,
cross it out with a single line, write in the correct
entry, and sign (or initial) and date your correction.
The original entry should still be legible.
13. Give your entry a title that reflects your investigation.
14. List the objectives of the procedure or experiment:
u What are you investigating?
u If you have an expectation for this experiment
(a hypothesis), what is it?
15. Describe the procedure in enough detail that
someone could repeat your experiment or procedure
by reading your lab notebook. If you are following
a procedure you have already recorded, you
may refer to it by page number. Note any deviations
from the original method.
16. Design data tables so that all pertinent information
can be recorded. You may have to record equipment
numbers, calibration data, reagent numbers,
and so on.
17. You must always record raw data in the lab notebook—
do not transcribe data into the notebook.
18. Analyze your data in depth. Include any tables,
graphs, pictures, and so on. If these are printed separately,
tape them into your notebook. Never rely
solely on any supplemental attachments. Always
include your own entry describing the attachment
and add any conclusions that you might draw
from its substance.
19. Summarize the results of your procedure.
10. Sign the bottom of the page with your name
and the date formatted as day/month/year (e.g.,
12/May/2001). (In the United States, we would
write this 05/12/2001, but in Europe it would
be 12/05/2001. By spelling out the month you
prevent confusion.)
11. Periodically, have someone check your work and
sign as “read and understood by (name).”
As you record your activities in the laboratory, ask
yourself, “Did I...”
u update the table of contents?
u date each page?
u number each page consecutively?
u use continuation notes when
u properly void all blank pages or
portions of pages (front and back)?
u enter all information directly into
the notebook?
u properly introduce and summarize
each experiment?
u include complete details of all firsttime
u include calculations?
The bare minimum entries for each lab study should
include the title of the lab study, the introduction and
objectives, detailed procedures and data (recorded in
the lab itself), discussion of results, and a summary of
the experiment.
Laboratory notebook guidelines handout.
January 2010 41
Laboratory Notebooks in the Science Classroom
content and process while building strategies to support
student-directed, inquiry-based laboratories. Teachers
can provide student guidance in the form of notebook
guidelines (Figure 1), exemplars, rubrics, and formative
assessment—this allows students to apply teacher
A sample rubric that teachers can use to assess student
notebooks is available online and may be adapted for
specific assignments (see “On the web”). Each category’s
weight may be adjusted depending on the investigation’s
focus and the skills being emphasized.
One of the best ways to help students understand how
to use the lab notebook is to have them analyze several
anonymous examples using the notebook guidelines
and rubrics. Seeing examples and understanding the
strengths and weaknesses of each can help students
overcome their initial trepidation and attend to their
own laboratory work.
Peer review
As students gain experience with the laboratory notebook,
adding a peer review component provides another
level of feedback and supports metacognition. A peer
review encourages students to reflect upon their work
and make necessary corrections within the body of the
text, or add major corrections to the end of the text.
Peer editing also accurately reflects authentic scientific
practice, as researchers are expected to review their labmates’
To encourage sound writing, peer reviewers are
assigned so that students who have worked together do
not review each others’ notebooks. Students are told that
an in-depth peer review will improve the quality of a
product turned in for a grade. Through verbal feedback,
my students have indicated that they benefit both from
receiving their peers’ feedback and from reviewing their
peers’ work. Figure 2 provides an example of the peerreview
Having lab notebook guidelines and a rubric for each
experiment allows the teacher to give targeted feedback
regarding student work, and gives students a structure
for future laboratory investigations. Keeping a notebook
takes practice; students should learn from their mistakes
by using formative assessments to critique
and improve their work.
The take-home message should be that the
notebook is an ongoing project. The purpose
of this work-in-progress is not just to earn a
grade but to serve as a a valuable reference for
future student work. Feedback from my former
students and local employers indicates the value
of notebooking skills in collegiate, research, and
industrial settings.
Guidelines for peer review of lab notebooks.
Never make changes in someone else’s lab notebook.
If you find a miscalculation, ask the author to correct
it. Sticky notes are great for this purpose. If you cannot
follow the procedure from what is written, ask the author
to clarify his or her entry.
Never sign a notebook until you are satisfied with
the entry you are reviewing. Because this is a legally
binding document, when you sign, you are saying that
you are a witness and that you agree with the entries
on the page.
Check the following:
Is the procedure clear and repeatable?
Are all raw data recorded?
Are instruments or equipment identified?
Is the data table understandable, are the units
correct, and so on?
Are the calculations used to analyze the data
Are the computations accurate?
Are all attachments secured?
Is the appropriate format used?
Are all entries signed and dated?
Is unused space marked?
What you do not have to check:
1. Spelling, unless it is critical to the understanding of
the notebook entry. Reagent names and organism
names, for example, could be critical.
2. Grammar.
Remember, this document will carry your name as a
witness. When you sign another’s notebook, it becomes
your responsibility.
42 The Science Teacher
Laboratory Notebooks in the Science Classroom
A major challenge for teachers, however, is grading the
lab notebooks. A rubric that outlines specific areas that will
be addressed is helpful to both students and the teacher.
Notebooks that have a carbonless copy are a tremendous
help, so teachers can grade a lab while students continue
with the following one. Pick one area to focus on for each
lab, and have the grading rubric reflect that emphasis.
For example, focus on the data table for the first lab, and
the procedure for the second. Labs can be graded one at a
time, or several at a time after students have had sufficient
feedback to know what is expected of them. An open lab
notebook quiz or section on a test can serve as a grading
tool rather than reading through every lab. Open book
quiz or test items are a great tool to both assess student
understanding quickly and reinforce the lab notebook as
an ongoing resource.
Benef i t s of lab notebooks
The laboratory notebook encourages students to actively engage
in critical analysis of even the most basic lab activities.
As with any writing, when students translate a procedure
into their own words, they digest the entire procedure prior
to beginning the exercise. This inspires questions about the
procedure and results in a deeper understanding of the experiment
and related scientific concepts.
Writing is a thinking tool (Klentscky and Molina-De La
Torre 2004). Students take greater responsibility for their
learning as they develop procedures and design data tables for
themselves, instead of passively following teacher directions.
It is critical that procedures and data tables make sense to the
student and his or her peers and teacher.
The lab notebook is student thinking made visible.
How a student thinks about the data is reflected in
how he or she designs the data table. Student thinking
about the meaning of an experiment is clear; analysis
and conclusions indicate the depth to which a student
examines his or her own data and thinks about it as
evidence to support claims. Using laboratory notebooks
allows the teacher to see into students’ understanding of
both content and scientific processes and gives students
the opportunity to reflect upon their growing skill sets
and apply those skills to future endeavors.
Relat ionship to inqui ry
The biggest benefit of a laboratory notebook is that
through practice, students are able to make meaningful
claims that are based on well-documented, high-quality
data. The notebook supports students’ generation and interpretation
of data, allowing them to confidently make
claims using their own data as evidence. This is particularly
critical when they conduct their own inquirybased
investigations, as students can examine questions
generated from their own research.
It is important to remember that inquiry is focused
on learning by doing science, not simply learning about
it. Understanding the link between data, evidence, and
claims is important for all students’ scientific literacy—
and is supported by the National Science Education
Standards (NRC 1996). As our world continues to be
more technologically and scientifically dependent, the
experience of doing science is key to achieving scientific
literacy for all citizens, no matter their future plans
(Phillips 2007). Keeping a lab notebook is a vital part of
the scientific process. By using lab notebooks as a learning
tool, every student has the opportunity to experience
authentic science in the classroom. n
Christine Roberson is an
instructor at Columbia Area Career Center in Columbia,
Missouri; Deanna Lankford
is a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri in
On the web
Sample grading rubrics:
Barker, K. 1998. At the bench: A laboratory navigator. Cold
Spring Harbor: Laboratory Press.
Chang, K. New York Times. 2008. Vials from Miller-Urey Experiment
Offer New Hints on Origin of Life. October 16.
Edelson, D.C. 1997. Realizing authentic science learning
through the adaptation of scientific practice. In International
handbook of science education, eds. K. Tobin and B.
Fraser, 314–322. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.
Edelson, D.C., and D.K. O’Neill. 1994. The CoVis collaboratory
notebook: Supporting collaborative scientific inquiry.
A paper presented at the National Education Computing
Conference, Boston.
Klentscky, M.P., and E. Molina-De La Torre. 2004. Students’
science notebooks and the inquiry process. In Crossing borders
in literacy and science instruction: Perspectives on theory and practice,
ed. W. Saul, 359–374. Newark, DE: International Reading
Association and National Science Teachers Association.
Medichem v. Rolabo. 2006. United States Court of Appeals
for the Federal Circuit.
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education
standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Phillips, G.W. 2007. Chance favors the prepared mind: Mathematics
and science indicators for comparing states and nations.
Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.
Shavelson, R., G. Baxter, and J. Pine. 1991. Performance
assessment in science. Applied Measurement in Education 4
(4): 347–362.

Christine Roberson and Deanna Lankford
NSTA is an awesome resource for science teachers at all levels. If you need content specific ideas, check out the sci packs. If you need an article about a given topic look it up. Looking for a professional journal...tha is there too. provides videos on many topics important to teachers.
This is a set of 8 sessions that are available to use for staff development.