I was judging at a science contest on the weekend, for STAQ, and I had a wonderful time. Each year we receive several hundred wonderful projects from students aged 5 – 18 (7 Divisions). There are six categories: Scientific Investigations, Environmental Action Plans, Mathematical Investigations, Technological Models and Inventions, Communicating Science and Classified Collections.

As I was on the organising committee I didn’t judge too many but I did have a good look at most of the projects. In the Scientific Investigations, students are expected to undertake an inquiry project and communicate the process. As a measure of authenticity, students are supposed to supply their science notebook (sometimes called a science journal in Australian schools) along with their project.

Science notebooks are often used by active scientists, to organise research, record observations, ideas, experiences and reflections, meeting notes, questions, frustrations, etc. They can include written text, drawings, labelled diagrams, photographs, raw data, and tables and graphs, concept maps, lists, notes and other records. Entries are usually dated and entered in chronological order, and many organisations keep catalogues of the notebooks their scientists have kept.

Science notebooks kept by students can be used in the same way, but have the added dimension of demonstrating learning, that is, change in understanding, skill or attitude along the journey(s) from the beginning of the book to the other (Primary Connections, 2008). Students are learning scientific concepts, processes and the nature of science, but they are also learning that science is never finished, never tidy, never perfect. Science notebooks are records of a very dynamic process. Science notebooks also promote students’ literacy skills (Gilbert & Kotelman, 2005; Science Companion, 2006). Children’s notebooks may also incorporate literature, prose, feelings, experiences, diary-style entries, and reflections.

So the notebooks accompanying the projects should tell a story. The characters (research questions) will grow and change, the plot will have problems that must be overcome, choices to be made, overlapping threads and occasionally, a disaster. Like the first draft of a novel, initial plans will change, and the story will grow somewhat organically.

This is quite unlike the poster or research presentation, which is finished, is tidy, and often is neat and complete with evidence and explanation.

Students can use their science notebooks to revisit and revise learning. They can practise new vocabulary. Students can see how their understandings have changed, a very powerful reflection for students. They can build a coherent story from their experiences, deepening their understanding, enhancing learning and extending their appreciation for the nature of science. Science notebooks are an important tool – if not the most important tool – for developing scientific literacy (Gilbert & Kotelman, 2005; Primary Connections, 2009).

A very smart lady I know, Louise Maddock, suggests that science journals support metacognitive learning. She encourages teachers to work with students to use the notebooks in two ways: note-making, and note-taking. Note-taking, the everyday record of class science activity, including thoughts, observations and and conclusions, are recorded on the right side of the notebook. Note-making, the metacognitive and reflective practice on the left hand side of the notebook. Students become aware of and value the two kinds of thinking (Maddock, 2012).

Importantly, teachers can also use student science notebooks, to determine student misconceptions (and plan experiences for addressing these). The science notebook is a powerful diagnostic tool for teachers, and with appropriate teacher guidance, an excellent source of formative assessment, which tells teachers how far their students have come (and how much further they can go) (Aschbacher & Alonzo, 2011; Gilbert & Kotelman, 2005).

Nesbit et al (2004) have these three pieces of advice for teachers interested in using science notebooks with their students:

  1. Do not wait to implement science notebooks until you feel you know everything there is to know about science notebooks or until you feel your students are “ready.” Science notebooks improve with time. Start small and build on the process.
  2. Model… model… model.
  3. Provide students with adequate time for writing. Younger students will naturally take more time to complete an entry, and older students need more time to include more details.

Some of the notebooks I browsed on Saturday were clear examples of purposeful and effective science notebooks. It was clear that the students involved had ownership of their project: they had decided what to research, they had generated a methodology to do so, theyfound meaning and value in their results. Often, projects accompanied by these notebooks demonstrated deep understanding of science and an appreciation for the nature of science and science inquiry.

Sadly, though, several of the journals were but shallow copies of the projects themselves; full sentences and paragraphs in the order of question, hypothesis, materials and method, discussion. They provided no evidence of originality or student ownership of the project. Usually, the projects by the authors of these notebooks lacked depth.

Emilie and Lucy keep their science notebook up-to-date.
Emilie and Lucy keep their science notebook up-to-date.

In our course (a first-year course for pre-service primary teachers, focusing on the science concepts, skills and understandings detailed in the Australian Curriculum and beyond), our students keep science notebooks themselves. As future teachers, it’s important they experience some of the same learning challenges they’ll be giving to their students in the future!

Do you use science notebooks with your students? What one piece of advice would you give to other teachers about using science notebooks? What advice would you give to my pre-service teachers about keeping them?

Aschbacher, P. & Alonzo, A. (2011). Examining the Utility of Elementary Science Notebooks for Formative Assessment Purposes. Educational Assessment, 11(3), 179-203.

Australian Academy of Science (2009). Primary Connections: Smooth Moves. Canberra: Australian Academy of Science. [Primary Connections provides a very good guide to science journals for teachers, in the appendices of all of their books.]

Gilbert J. & Kotelman, M. (2005). Five Good Reasons to Use Science NotebooksScience and Children, 43(3), 28-32. Virginia: National Science Teachers’ Association.

Maddock, L. (2012). Using science notebooks to support student metacognitive thinking. Queensland Science Teacher, 38(1). Brisbane: Science Teachers’ Association of Queensland.

Nesbit, C.R., Hargrove, T.Y., Harrelson, L. & Maxey, B. (2004). Implementing Science Notebooks in the Primary Grades. Science Activities: Classroom Projects and Curriculum Ideas, 40(4), 21-29.

Science Companion (2006). Using Science Notebooks. Retrieved on 16/09/12.