Science Notebooks: Tools to get students thinking and writing like a scientist
They were present when man discovered antibiotics, when the first light bulb was lit and have helped in the discovery of the structure of DNA. They have been to the moon, all continents and the bottom of the ocean. They allow us a glimpse of what science greats such as Einstein, Darwin, and Bohr were thinking as they observed the world, reflected on nature and conducted experiments. That of Marie Curie’s is still so radioactive that it is not safe to handle. They can serve as an integral part of the science classroom for the purposes of observation, reflection, note taking, problem solving, mind mapping, and formative assessment.
Science notebooks are now a required part of the science curriculum in Texas (TEKS K.4A, 1.4A, 2.4A, 3.4A, 4.4A, 5.4A, 6.4A, 7.4A, 8.4A, Biology 2.F, Chemistry 2.I and Physics 2.K) and can serve as a very powerful learning tool in the classroom. However, they require pre-thinking and planning on the part of the teacher to be effective. This article will provide some suggestions and questions to get teachers started on using notebooks and journals in the science classroom. We have grouped items into two categories: Notebook Management, which covers the more practical, nitty-gritty aspects of notebooks; and Notebooks as Learning Tools, which will get teachers started in utilizing notebooks as an integral part of their students’ learning.
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that this is the STUDENT’S notebook, not yours’. As a teacher you will need to provide guidance, modeling, and expectations for notebook use, but the more ownership students feel, the more powerful the learning. Teachers must find a balance between their need for control and the students’ need for autonomy and personalization.
1. What Type of Notebook to Use?
The use of spirals versus composition books is a debate that will likely continue until paper is completely replaced by a digital medium. Composition books have the advantages of pages not being easily ripped out and feeling more “official” compared to spirals. Spirals do offer greater surface area but do not stand up to as much abuse. Either way you can make it work.
2. Setting up the Notebook
Most notebooks have the following organizational elements:
- Decorated front cover with student name, subject, and teacher name.
- Title page with student name, teacher name, and school so the notebook can be returned if lost. Many teachers also have students decorate this page.
- Table of contents with title, page, and date. If you will be using one table of contents for the entire year, leave several blank pages at the start of the notebook. Some teachers prefer to do this by unit throughout the book.
- Page numbers. Students should number the pages on an outer corner. Secondary typically numbers the entire notebook at the beginning of the year while early elementary may number a few pages each week as students learn their numbers. Some teachers require all students to be on the same page at the same time, while others allow students the freedom to write larger, insert notes taken from outside sources, or include diagrams.
- The front versus back debate. Teachers should also decide if they want students to write on both the front and back of the pages. Some teachers reserve the backs of the page for later reflections, teacher comments, etc. These items could also be added on sticky notes.
- Extras: Pockets, flip out information sheets, ribbons as page markers and an assortment of other items can also be added either during initial set up or as needed.
Note for first time notebook users: Keep the set-up simple for the first year or two until you have mastered the basics and feel successful using notebooks. More complex features can be added as your comfort level increases.
Notebooks as Learning Tools
1. Entry Types
Notebooks can include many different types of entries: observations, questions, reflections, data tables, scientific drawings (or non-scientific ones for that matter), graphical organizers, notes, creative and expository writing, practice problems, graphs, inserts such as Dinah Zike’s Foldables®, and real objects such as leaves and soil samples (minus the bugs and water). Anything that can be done on a regular sheet of notebook paper or a worksheet can be done in a science notebook. If you absolutely must use them, worksheets themselves can be reduced during copying or folded and glued into the notebook.
Tip: Glue works better than glue sticks for holding power and glue is more environmentally friendly.
2. Differentiation and Scaffolding Support
Sentence stems and prompts can be tailored to fit the needs of individuals or groups of students. Using sentence stems and engaging prompts increases the quality of response from students.
Rubrics and expectations can also be individualized to ensure students are appropriately challenged.
Templates, stems, teacher created data tables, and more can also be provided initially and then given less frequently as students gain mastery.
Science notebooks also promote English Language Learners to utilize new vocabulary whether it is by labeling a diagram or answering a prompt. Learning strategies such as using prior knowledge to learn new terms, internalizing language, and distinguishing between formal and informal English allow students to succeed not only in the classroom but also in life. Strategies utilizing notebooks can also be structured so that students are participating in all four domains of language development: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
3. Cross-curricular Integration
Incorporating reading and writing tasks into science notebooks provides for authentic integration of literacy strategies into science. Discussing with peers enables students to develop academic language and reflect on their own learning and understanding.
Integrating mathematics concepts and skills into science notebooks develops numerical fluency and increases science literacy with regards to measurement, graphing skills, and problem solving.
The College and Career Readiness Standards also include literacy and emphasize the importance of scientific reading and presentation of scientific and technical information to success in college or a post-secondary career. Specific CCRS to note include: Science IE1, IIIA1, IIIB1, IIIB3-4, IIIC1, and Cross-Disciplinary Standards IA1-2, IB1-4, IC1, ID1, IIB1-3, IID1-3.
4. First Week of School Suggestions
The first week of school offers numerous notebook entry opportunities ranging from, “What does a scientist look like?” prompting primary students’ discussion and “Safety and Equipment 101” emphasizing awareness and lab expectations, to an initial “familiar observation entry” allowing students to experience and practice different entry types as well as understand expectations for their notebook use. It is best to use something familiar to the students for this first investigation-based entry. This allows the lesson focus to remain about their notebook work and the purpose and usefulness of notebooks, rather than any new or specific content. As classroom teachers model their expectations and entry types, students are able to understand and practice entry types.
A familiar object entry can be based on literally anything, such as a hand lens, key, or even an apple. Students observe the object, record findings through technical drawings and words, add any connections they may have, and more. Working through each of their senses, as appropriate, is a common approach for primary students. This initial observation entry is a great time to authentically integrate safety as well as classroom and investigation expectations for all elementary-aged students.
Secondary teachers may want to consider a descriptive investigation to serve as in introduction to notebook expectations and a review of scientific processes. Observing behavior in animals, performing a simple physics lab, or making observations about a chemical reaction can stimulate conversations about the nature of science and how notebooks will be utilized, and allow the teacher time to observe students’ skills and level of sophistication in their entries. While feedback should be provided and a completion grade can be given for this work, teachers might want to refrain from formally grading notebook entries until students are more comfortable with the expectations.
Note: An example of a 1st week with science notebooks can be found on page 12 of Science Notebooks: Writing About Inquiry (Campbell and Fulton).
Ready to get started? Here are a few suggestions for next steps. Head to the store and buy yourself a notebook or two of the type you will be asking students to use and start planning out the notebook components you will require of students. Determine what supplies you will need for students to add entries to their notebooks (scissors, glue, colored pencils, graph paper cut into fourths, etc.). Spend some time working with the other science teachers at your campus or in your district to discuss common elements across classrooms and grades. Modify any syllabi or letters to parents to include information about science notebook expectations. Decide how notebooks will be graded and write rubrics as needed. Start planning the first week of instruction and incorporate notebooks into as many of the activities as you can. No matter your level of implementation of science notebooks, don’t be afraid to try new things. And remember: record your successes, unsuccessful attempts, and reattempts in a notebook.
Sample Student Work
Campbell, B. & Fulton, L. (2003). science notebooks: writing about inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Fulwiler, B. R. (2007). writing in science: how to scaffold instruction to support learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Klentschy, M. P. (2008). using science notebooks in elementary classrooms. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association. Out of print.
Klentschy, M. P. (2010). using science notebooks in middle school. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association. Out of print.
Maracarelli, K. (2010). teaching science with interactive notebooks. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Norton-Meier, L., Hand, B., Hockenberry, L. & Wise, K. (2008). questions, claims, and evidence: the important place of argument in children’s science writing. Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association.