Using Science Notebooks
What is a science notebook?
For centuries, scientists have recorded their discoveries and wondered about their explorations by writing in notebooks. Today, many elementary teachers use science notebooks to help their students write about their inquiry-based science experiences, developing both science concepts and literacy. Ruiz-Primo and Shavelson (2002, p. 2) define a science notebook as “a compilation of entries that provide a partial record of a student’s instructional experiences over a certain period of time (e.g., unit of study).” As such, science notebooks reflect with great reliability what students do in science class. Since notebooks are generated during the process of instruction, the characteristics of students’ entries vary from entry to entry as they reflect the diversity of activities in a science class.
In their notebooks, then, students may:
- Describe problems they tried to solve;
- List the procedures they used;
- Document observations they made;
- Note conclusions they arrived at; and
- Record their reflections.
Notebooks are viewed mainly as a written account, in more or less detail and with diverse quality, of what students do and, hopefully, learn in their science class.
Why use a science notebook?
A science notebook enables children to work as scientists and keep a cumulative notebook to record their thoughts and observations about the activities in a unit. Within the context of science activities, notebooks promote the use of literacy while clarifying children’s emerging ideas and theories about science phenomena.
A science notebook encourages children to make records using words and drawings in age-appropriate ways. Students are able to impose their ways of seeing and thinking about the science phenomena, constructing or reconstructing the phenomena through their own lens of experience. This not only promotes their literacy skills, but also important scientific process skills such as:
- Observing and describing;
- Making scientific drawings;
- Drawing to scale; and
- Making graphs.
How do science notebooks help teachers teach more effectively?
Science notebooks are not only beneficial to students, but to teachers as well. They can be an excellent place to:
- Track children’s observations, data and record keeping, graphing, and their use of words and drawings to convey information.
- Evaluate student progress over time.
- Gain insight into children’s ideas, strengths, difficulties, and preferences.
Here are some “best practices” to consider when implementing science notebooks in the classroom:
- Remember that students have ownership of their work. Students should feel a sense of ownership over their science notebooks. They should be free to revisit and make changes to earlier pages, and to tape in additional pages. Science notebooks increase children’s responsibility and provide material they can use for self-reflection.
- Focus feedback on positive aspects of work. While reviewing science notebooks with children, remember to focus first on something positive in their work. The way questions are posed for further research or observation often indicates acceptance or disapproval, so think carefully about ways to encourage further investigation and interest, and to help children feel proud of their science notebooks.
- Use notebooks to inform teaching practices. Student entries can provide insight into how well students grasped the concepts in a lesson. Review student work in their notebooks to evaluate your own teaching and whether additional instruction is needed on a particular science concept. Use feedback from student notebook entries to differentiate instruction for subsets of students.
- Provide adequate time for reflection. Ruiz-Primo and Shavelson (2002) found that students recorded data about seven times more than understanding what the data meant. It is essential that students are provided time to record their data, interpret it, and form conclusions. Only then has true inquiry science occurred.
- Focus on scientific principles—not definitions! Too often, science notebooks are a place for students to copy definitions from a science textbook or from a dictionary. Further development of the concepts defined is rarely found (Ruiz-Primo and Shavelson, 2002). Rather that focusing on definitions, students should be provided with opportunities to apply the concepts they learn to new conditions or observations, or compare and contrast them with other concepts. Remember that a science notebook can be an excellent tool to develop these essential critical thinking skills.
- Focus on scientific literacy rather than science literacy. Science literacy focuses on accumulating scientific facts, scientificliteracy emphasizes scientific ways of knowing and the process of thinking critically and creatively about the natural world. When reviewing science notebooks, do not only focus on what the “right” answer should be, but how the student arrived at their conclusion. Feedback should focus on the scientific processes used rather than what the scientific facts are. (e.g. How detailed were student drawings and observations? Were measurements accurately labeled? Were conclusions made based on student observations? Was data not changed? If student observations did not match the class’s observations, did the student give reasons for the differences?) Only when feedback such as this is given can students continue to grow and develop their scientific literacy skills.
Baxter, G.P., Bass, K.M. & Glaser, R. (2000). An Analysis of Notebook Writing in Elementary Science Classrooms. Learning Research and Development Center.
Fulton, L., & Campbell, B. (2004). Student-centered notebooks. Science and Children. 42(3): 26-29. Retrieved on 8/14/06 fromhttp://www.esiponline.org/csl/presentations/lorifulton.pdf
Klentschy, M. P. & Molina-De La Torre, E. 2004. “Students’ Science Notebooks and the Inquiry Process.” In E. W. Saul (Eds.), Crossing Borders in Literacy and Science Instruction: Perspectives on Theory and Practice (pp. 340-354). Newark, DE:
International Reading Association.
Klentschy, M. (2005). Science Notebook Essentials. Science and Children. 43(3): 24-27. Retrieved on 8/15/06 fromhttp://www.ebecri.org/media/Science%20Notebook%20Essentials%20by%20Klentschy.pdf
Ruiz-Primo, M.A., Li, M, & Shavelson, R.J. (2002). Looking Into Students’ Science Notebooks: What Do Teachers Do With Them? CSETechnical Report 562. National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. UCLA.
Shepardson, D.P. & Britsch, S.J. (2001). The Role of Children’s Journals in Elementary School Science Activities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 38(1): 43-69.
Stokes, L., St. John, M. & Fyfe, J. (2002). Writing for Science, Science for Writing: A Study of the Seattle Elementary Science Expository Writing and Science Notebooks Program. Inverness Research Associates.