Science notebooks

I’ve heard about “interactive” science notebooks. I would like to use them with my classes, but I think I need to learn more about them before I start.
—Randall, Columbus, Ohio

For many teachers, the word “notebook” conjures up a traditional folder or binder to hold lab reports, homework, class handouts and notes, tests and quizzes, and/or completed worksheets. The students receive a list of required documents and the specific order in which they should appear. Notebooks are graded periodically on completeness and whether the documents are in the “correct” order. Teachers tell the students to “study” from them. At the end of the school year, some students would take them home; others would casually toss them as they emptied their desks or lockers.

However, many teachers are working with their students to create a more useful and personalized notebook that will be used daily throughout the year. These teachers recognize the importance of helping their students learn organizational strategies, but they also recognize the need for students to improve their data recording and analysis skills and learn how to reflect on and communicate what they are thinking and learning through writing. These “interactive” notebooks are living documents where students have the responsibility to record and use their lab investigations, vocabulary, class notes, sketches, summaries, and other assignments.

Here are some resources you can use to learn more:

  • The NSTA Press publication Using Science Notebooks in Elementary Classrooms by Michael Klentschy has become a classic. Don’t be put off by the title if you’re a secondary teacher. The concepts are the same, and the strategies would be useful if your students are not used to organizing their thoughts and notes. There are many examples of student work, and I was blown away by what these little ones are doing and thinking! You can even read a sample chapter online.
  • NSTA’s Science Store also provides access to journal articles on the topic. NSTA members can access journal articles for free.
  • The website Science Notebooks in K-12 Classrooms produced by the North Cascades and Olympic Science Partnership in Washington state is an excellent resource, with lots of examples of student work, templates, and documents—including many in Spanish.
  • Using Science Notebooks is an online teacher resource from the Tucson Unified School District with suggestions for using notebooks, their benefits and advantages, and examples of student work.
  • The Scientist’s Notebook Toolkit from the East Bay Educational Collaborative in Rhode Island is another resource rich in suggestions and examples.
  • The ERIC Digest Science Notebooks: Tools For Increasing Achievement Across the Curriculum provides a rationale for using science notebooks and discusses their effect on learning.
  • There is a forum in the NSTA Communities on Interactive Science Notebooks in which teachers are asking questions and sharing suggestions.

One thing I like about many of these books, articles, and online resources is the examples of student work. Secondary teachers will be amazed at the depth of knowledge expressed by younger students! I suspect these students did not catch on to a new approach to notebooks right away, especially if they have had many years of explicit directions on exactly what papers and information to archive. Their teachers had to provide lots of modeling, feedback, and persistence to get to the point where the notebook is a useful and integral part of their science classes. They also had to try different notebook formats (composition books, binders, folders, digital media) and strategies (logistics for storage, giving feedback) to find what works best with their students. But teachers generally agree the increase in student participation and learning is worth the effort.

It would be interesting to hear from anyone who uses laptops or online notebooks where students record their observations, upload images and videos, and communicate their findings virtually.

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