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September 5, 2015

Why Lab Journals?

Since I teach AP Physics (two varieties of it, in fact), my students are required to keep a lab portfolio.   In past years, I have required that they keep all their labs in a three-ring binder that served as their portfolio. This year I made a change. I decided to require the students to keep a lab journal in a graph-paper composition notebook.

I made the change for several reasons, but one of them is predominant: I want to assure that the student's work is his or her own work. Last year, four well-meaning girls subdivided the task of preparing the lab report, printed four copies of a beautiful lab and handed it in, each copy with a different girl's name on it. I had to explain to them that this was not acceptable. But I had a hard time justifying why. When scientists work in a group preparing a report, we don't each prepare our own report and then compare: we work together and put all our names on the paper and submit one paper.   But the purpose of those papers is not the author's learning, it's the sharing of information. The purpose of labs in a physics classroom should be to enhance the students' learning and understanding of the content. For that purpose, each student needs to complete his or her own report.

So in order to further the student's learning, I require the students each to keep a lab journal which they must bring to class on lab days. I got the idea from Connie Wells, a physics teacher in Kansas City, but it took me a year to warm up to it. After all, it means periodically either (a) staying the weekend at school to grade or (b) lugging 70+ journals home for the weekend. Ultimately, I decided it was important to make sure each student went through the thinking process involved in creating a lab report, and to do that, they each need to write the report by hand. I know that seems "old school" but recent studies have shown that taking notes by hand is more effective than taking notes on a laptop. Perhaps the same is true of lab reports. If they are writing out the procedure by hand, then I know they are at least thinking about it for the short time they are writing.  

I'm not a Luddite, and I am not opposed to electronic lab portfolios.  I'm just concerned that if a student copies and pastes the procedure or conclusion from another student, then they are not learning about writing a procedure or conclusion.   This was happening all too frequently when I collected labs on loose-leaf paper.  Students asked if they could "type the labs" and I said "sure." After all, that avoids the problem of reading bad handwriting.  But this led to the situation above, with four well-meaning, intelligent girls co-authoring a single lab. Students have already used Tracker to collect data from video analysis, used Excel or Google spreadsheets to create graphs with best fit lines, and worked with motion detectors. They can work together to collect data, and print the data table to be glued into the journal later. They can work together to create graphs on spreadsheets, which can then be added to the lab journal.  But the calculations, error analysis and conclusions, arguably the most important parts of the report, must be done individually and hand-written in the journal.

Not all laboratory activities are written up in the lab journal. Only the ones that merit a complete lab report with purpose, apparatus, procedure, data, calculations, error analysis and conclusion go in the journal. So far we had some neat motion detector activities that don't require a full report.  I don't collect the journals after every lab since I am grading them in a pseudo-standards-based-grading manner (more about that in a future blog post), but also because the journals need to be with the students in the lab while they are working, not with me waiting to be graded.  It requires planning, and a cart to carry the lab books around, but so far, I'm pleased.  There are lots of details to work out while implementing a new procedure in a course, and I'm sure I'll change the requirements frequently as I go along (that's why Google Docs are great) to better meet the students' needs. I hope to learn a lot through this process.