Using Lab Notebooks in Physics Class

The keeping of a lab notebook is an integral part of a professional scientist's work in lab. For the professional scientist, the lab notebook serves as an ongoing journal of ideas, experimental methods, collected data, calculations, suggestions for change and suggestions for further study. When done correctly, the lab notebook documents the professional journey of a scientist, telling the story of the progress, barriers, successes, failures, and solutions over the course of time. A remarkable illustration of this can be found in the laboratory notebooks of the esteemed 20th-century chemist and Nobel Prize recipient Linus Pauling. (View the scans of Linus Pauling's Lab Notebooks kept online at the Oregon State University website.)

The pages of a lab notebook are critical documents in commercial industry and in research, providing legal evidence of a researcher's contribution to an invention. In the end, the notebook becomes the official record of invention which is provided to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in an effort to establish patent rights. Far from a personal belonging, a lab notebook is considered to be owned by the company or research firm. The work which is documented in a lab notebook should be clear enough that others can follow it, understand it and if necessary, repeat the experimental procedure so as to verify the results. In this sense, a lab notebook is considerably more than a collection of cryptic notes which only the author can understand and decipher. It is a public record which is documented with the expectation that others could understand it. The ability to thoroughly document and to keep clear, understandable records of one's work is a key skill that the professional scientist must develop.

The use of lab notebooks by students in science class is admittedly different than that of the professional scientist. The professional scientist must keep a lab notebook as a matter of personal necessity - both to meet the demands of the organization for which s/he works and to assist in managing the detailed complexities associated with their research. On the other hand, the student in science class mostly keeps a lab notebook because the teacher requires it. Students aren't seeking to patent an invention discovered during the Newton's First law lab; they don't need the lab notebook to provide evidence of their invention when they apply for a patent. Rather, the lab notebook is used in the assessment of the student's labwork and ultimately contributes to the student's grade in the course. The reasons for keeping a lab notebook are different for the professional scientist and the science student. Nevertheless, there is one thing that they should share in common. Like the professional scientist, the science student must develop the ability to thoroughly document and to keep clear, understandable records of the work performed in lab. This ability to document and organize records will serve the student in a career in science and in nearly every other career path which is chosen.

Lab Reporting

Linus Pauling wasn't using his lab notebook in order to obtain a grade. He was using his lab notebook to document his work in lab, to keep a record of his findings, and to suggest directions for further study. Physics students will use their lab notebooks for similar reasons (to document their work and to keep a record of their findings). Yet because the lab notebook becomes part of the grading scheme for the course, it is convenient if the documentation and record-keeping are done in the format of lab reports. And in order for students to become comfortable with the task of lab reporting, it is useful if a standard format or structure of reporting is used. When students view each lab as being a new experience in lab reporting, then they tend to be preoccupied with the reporting process and lose sight of the purpose. This then becomes a recipe for failure since engaging labs are labs with a purpose - and labs in which students are focused on the Purpose. So one of the earliest objectives regarding the use of a lab notebook it to train students about what is expected to be in the notebook. And if each lab follows a more or less standard format for reporting, then students will quickly learn the process of lab reporting and be freed up to focus on the Purpose. One efficient means of training students to do their lab reporting involves providing them with a set of guidelines or instructions which applies to every lab. An example of such a set of guidelines is provided here at The Laboratory. View example. These guidelines can also be downloaded as a Microsoft Word file and customized to suit the individual style of the teacher. Download Microsoft Word version of the example.


The Lab Reporting Guidelines presented here are intended only as an example. There are no standard rules for how a lab notebook should be kept - other than those rules which are provided by the company, or the university, or the research facility or the teacher. The teacher is not the slave of the notebook nor of a collection of rules which govern the notebook nor of a collection of rules which govern what the reporting process should involve. The beauty of a lab notebook is that teachers can make it into whatever they wish it to be. The notebook is the tool of the teacher. Teachers must make the notebook work for them. If using lab notebooks for the first time, teachers should experiment with it, play with it, attempt different means of using it, test different ideas, and keep whatever works. The key to using a lab notebook effectively is to use it to accomplish what you wish to accomplish in a manner that fits your style so as to maximize learning and cultivate critical student skills. The notebook is the tool of the teacher.

Using the Notebook as a Journal or a Portfolio

It is likely that your students have a notebook which they use in your class. They may keep notes from class discussions in their notebook. They may copy example problems done in class into their notebooks. If notes are placed upon the board, they likely copy those notes verbatim into their notebooks. If a PowerPoint Presentation is used, they likely do their best to copy the slides into their notebooks. They may do their homework in their notebook. And the most diligent among them may even record notes from assigned readings in their notebooks. The likelihood is that students probably already have notebooks which they use in your class to keep records. And most of those records are records of what the teacher has written, spoken or somehow presented. So now what do students do if they have to keep two notebooks - one for class and one for lab? Some students have enough difficulty remembering to bring one notebook to class; how can they possibly remember two?

Many teachers have found that lab notebooks can also serve ascourse notebooks orcourse journals. Mindful of the idea that the notebook is a tool of teachers to accomplish whatever they wish to accomplish in a manner that fits their style and serves their students, such teachers have learned to implement their notebook in such a manner as to include both labwork and classwork (and in some cases, homework). Some teachers use Opening Questions or Bell Ringers with their notebooks. They start class with an opening question which bridges the previous lesson (or homework) to the current lesson. Students respond to the question in writing and then the class discusses the question as a review of previous learning and/or a springboard into the current lesson. Some teachers require that studentsrecord the product of cooperative group activities in their notebook. Other teachers require that students document the solutions to assigned homeworkproblems in their notebook. Some teachers provide end of the period reflection questions, the answers of which are journaled by students into their notebook. Some teachers who are using online homework delivery and grading systems request that students include the work to specified problems within their notebook.

There are multiple ways of using notebooks. Perhaps it is helpful to view the notebook as a collection of work which chronicles the student's journey through the course. If desired, it can be a tool which documents student learning in class, in lab and out of class. Whatever the notebook becomes, it should be a channel through which students document their learning, their findings, and their understandings. Notebooks should requirea student to keep careful records of what they do, what they learn and what they conclude. The challenge of using a course notebook as more than just a lab notebook causes teachers to rethink how they teach and what they expect students to do as a result of that teaching. The notebook begins to emerge as a more of a student record which documents what students have learned; and is less of a record of what the teacher haswritten, spoken or somehow presented. With practice, the notebook can be a tool to assist students in keeping good records, asking good questions and thinking scientifically. However the notebook is used, the key to using it effectively is to use it to accomplish what you wish to accomplish in a manner that fits your style so as to maximize learning and cultivate critical skills.


The two most common reasons which are cited by teachers for choosing to use traditional lab handouts in place of lab notebooks are related to issues of management and grading. I have heard of other reasons (for example, questioning whether the keeping of a lab notebook provides any benefit compared to other methods of documenting lab results), but management and grading seem to be two of the greatest fears. Managing a lab notebook involves having a plan for:

  • what is included in the notebook,
  • how labs and other items are to be formatted,
  • when the notebook is collected for grading and subsequently returned to students,
  • how to inform students of expectations regarding the notebook,
  • how to train students to keep an effective and organized notebook,
  • how to assign grades for both lab and (especially) non-lab items,
  • how to deal with situations in which a student is absent.

The key to the management process is effectively training students early in the course about how to document and keep good records. During one of the firstdays of class, it is important to discuss the role of the lab notebook (or journal or course notebook) with your classes. As you accumulate good notebooks from previous years' students, distribute the notebooks during class to allow students to view the exemplars. Make an information sheet available to students which describes the notebook policy. An example of such an information sheet is available here at The Laboratory as both a web page and a downloadable Microsoft Word document.

HTML Format || Microsoft Word Format

Once the groundwork is laid, take moments throughout the class to discuss issues pertaining to organizing, documenting and keeping good records. Pick a student who has written an especially good conclusion and have him/her read it to the class. Observe how students organize their data section, provide diagrams of lab apparatus, and communicate through graphs. You will find many students who are naturally gifted at this. Take the moment to pick one of these notebooks up during class, say "Excuse me for the complement" and proceed to describe to the class the outstanding manner in which the student provided documentation. Periodically take a moment in advance of the lab to describe three ways to organize the information to be collected. Take the time after the lab to pick up two notebooks and illustrate two different means of conducting the procedure or tabulating the data; discuss the prosand cons of each. As you take the time to inject these moments into the course, don't think that you are sacrificing coverage of Newton's laws for nothing. Instead, think that you aresacrificing coverage of Newton's laws for teaching students skills which they will use for the rest of their life - documenting, keeping good records, presenting information, communicating and making evidence-based conclusions.

If you are using the notebook to document both labwork and class work, then you will definitely need a management plan. Without a management plan, you will find students placing class notes and board examples in the middle of their lab report. The grading of labs will be complicated by the difficulty of simply finding them amidst all the other items which are present in the notebook. A suggestion for managing this issue is to use a left side-right side approach to the notebook. Imagine an open notebook lying in front of you such that you see two sheets of paper. There is a left side of the page and a right side of the page. The left side-right side approach demands that students place all lab reports on the right side of each page (the front of each sheet) and all other items on the left side of each page (the back of each sheet). So if students are in the back of the room and making observations and recording measurement, they are doing right side work. They should document this work on the right side of the page. If students come to the end of the page, they will turn the page over and continue recording their data and observations on the right side of the next page (not the back of the page they were just writing on). Suppose students are in the front of the room and the class is discussing the lab (post-labbing); and suppose a student wishes to take a note or two on what the teacher is saying; the note would be recorded on the left side of the page. The teacher's ideas and comments are never included in a lab report (the right side of the page); if a student wishes to annotate something the teacher says, it would be recorded on the left side of the page.

To ease the management tasks, consider the following suggestions.

  • Start small. Add elements as you feel comfortable. Begin using the notebook as simply a lab notebook. After a year or two of use, begin using it for other purposes.
  • Be systematic. For instance, design the program so that every lab description (or every scoring rubric or every unit's worth of expectation) has the same pattern or at least follows one of three variations on the same pattern. There is nothing which speeds development time more than a lot of copying and pasting.
  • Pair up with a partner. Find a colleague of like mind who is interested in developing a similar program. Divide up tasks for the first year or two and share. Over the next couple of years, you can customize your colleague's product so that it is more consistent with your approach and style.
  • Steal. Find an experienced notebook user and ask them for whatever they are willing to give you.
  • Experiment with ideas. Tell students exactly that - "I'm experimenting with ... ." They will understand. And when the experiment is over, ask them for they're feedback. They tend to be very honest and are typically honored to help.
  • Have fun. Enjoy trying something new.


Grading is a significant barrier which stands in the way of many teachers using lab notebooks in place of traditional lab handouts. The thought of collecting and grading 100+ notebooks with 5 labs each and returning it promptly can be overwhelming. Many of us would just rather collect 100+ labs and grade them one at a time, repeating the process five times. Despite the fact that it is the same number of labs, it is far less intimidating task to be grading labs one at a time. Many teachers who do use lab notebooks have simply opted to use the notebooks with a carbon copy function, allowing them to collect labs one at at time.

While the task of grading lab notebooks is admittedly overwhelming, the adoption of a thoughtful, teacher-friendly plan makes the time to grade lab notebooks nearly identical to the time to grade the same number of labs which are documented on traditional lab handouts. In the beginning of the course, the grading of lab notebooks takes considerably more time as efforts are being made to train students in the proper methods of documenting of reporting. By the end of the course, grading lab notebooks takes considerably less time. The key to reducing the time to grade centers around having a detailed scoring scheme prepared in advance of the grading process. The scoring scheme or rubric should identify the elements of a lab report which will be emphasized during grading. If the construction of an organized data table, or the inclusion of proper units, or the labeling of axes on a graph, or the attention to the use of significant digits, or the discussion of the logical connection between data and conclusion is important to the teacher, then they should be listed in the rubric. By listing what will be emphasized, the rubric demystifies the grading process - both for the teacher and for the student. A teacher who is grading with a rubric will look for elementsemphasized in the rubric; little attention, energy or time are devoted to peripheral aspects of the lab report. The teacher focuses on what is emphasized in the rubric because that it what was deemed to be the important outcome of the lab.

Students should know in advance what is expected in their lab report; nothing should be a surprise. The rubric should be an expression of those expectations. And the rubric should be made public in advance of the submitting of their lab notebooks so that the grading process is demystified. By making the expectations and the rubric public, students can learn while producing the lab report. When they are reminded by the rubric that significant digits are important, they will go back through the report and apply what they know about significant digits in order to improve their report. When students are reminded by the rubric of the importance of combining logic and evidence to support their conclusion, they take the time to reflect on how they will write their Conclusion/Discussion section. The role of the grading is not just to supply a grade, but also to motivate the learning; and a good scoring rubric will direct motivated energies in the proper direction.

The scoring scheme or rubric should emphasize quality. More than a checklist for the presence of key features, the rubric indicates to the student that the quality of such included features will also be evaluated. Instead of stating in the rubric: "extrapolated the results of study to predict the expected result under the condition of no friction", state "accurately extrapolated the results of study to predict the expected result under the condition of no friction." Instead of stating in the rubric "Discussion of results explains the logical connection between the data and the reported equation.", state "Discussion of results accurately and thoroughly explains the logical connection between the data and the reported equation." Instead of stating in the rubric "Discussion centers around the strategy used in determining the answers.", state "Discussion centers around the strategy used in determining the answers. Discussion elaborates on the topic, is accurate, and neither vague nor ambiguous. Discussion reveals understanding." When grading a particular lab report, if there are issues with the thoroughness or the accuracy or the understanding level in the report, then feedback can be quickly provided by circling or underlining these words in the rubric.

To ease the task of grading, consider the following suggestions.

  • Don't use notebooks in all your courses (at least not the first year you attempt to use them). Pick a course for which you have two or three sections and use the notebooks for that course.
  • Don't wait until there are 10 or 15 labs in the notebook before you decide to grade them. Collect the notebooks when there are four or five or ... labs.
  • Don't collect the entire class of notebooks at once. On Tuesday, collect the notebooks of all students whose last names begin with the letters A through M. On Wednesday, collect the notebooks of all students whose last names begin with the letters N through Z.
  • Decide in advance that some labs will be quick-grade labs. Consider the lab that was extensively discussed in a post-lab session. Students probably did a good reporting job on this. Make it worth a lesser number of points; then quickly scan (5-10 seconds) it to insure that everything is documented and award points accordingly.
  • Use scoring rubrics. Many examples of scoring rubrics are provided here at The Laboratory. Construct the rubrics in such a manner that each feature of the report which you deem important is listed and briefly described in the rubric. As you grade the notebook, have the rubric available and circle or underline items on the rubric which are missing or lacking in quality. The rubric becomes a quick feedback mechanism.
  • Use post-lab check ups for some of the labs. Create a short list of easy-to-grade questions which serve as an assessment of the lab. Craft the questions such that a student who understood the lab and carefully documented the findings can quite easily answer the questions. Distribute the post-lab check up at the beginning of the next class and have students use their notebook to complete the check up. Grade the check-up and make the lab report a quick-grade lab with the check up comprising 30 to 50% of the grade for the lab.
  • Always remember that if you were not grading lab notebooks, you would still be grading lab reports. And we all know how fun that is.
  • Remind yourself that very few students learn anything by the act of teacher grading. The learning happens in the doing of the lab. Save your energy for the careful engineering and implementation of effective labs.

Those teachers who are interested in discussing the topics presented here in more detail or contributing ideas of their own are encouraged to follow along and participate in the Lab Blab and Other Gab blog.

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