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Teaching Enhancement Unit

Learning Innovation Unit

Teaching Reflections

Bin the Lab Notebook… for Better Scientific Learning

By Dr. Ciarán Fagan, School of Biotechnology

The hardbacked laboratory notebook has blighted the lives of generations of science students. It is cumbersome, heavy, takes up bench space, and is well-nigh useless for undergraduate teaching and learning. 

The notebook is difficult to collect, assess, mark and return on a regular or frequent basis. Often, a class will submit a full series of lab reports only at the end of a module or semester. When marked books are eventually returned to the class, few students will bother to read the assessor’s comments, or note points for future practice. Thus students lack the regular, timely feedback that will enable them to improve the quality of their reports, to develop critical thinking skills, or to embed module learning outcomes within their personal development. 

These young scientists became victims long before they entered university, however. Recall school experiences with the lab notebook: the tediously drawn diagram of a beaker of liquid heated by a Bunsen burner, the dull description of weighing 10 g of sodium chloride, or of how some paper was spotted with grease (never mind what you actually did with the grease-spot photometer, or what it was supposed to teach you!). Scientific insights do not develop from transcription. Instead, we need a tool that will enable regular, ongoing feedback to students, in order to help them do things better and to impart critical skills. I propose: (i) the adoption of laboratory report templates, something I use successfully in my own lab modules; and (ii) that we should not put down the lab notebook lightly, but fling it with considerable force (to paraphrase Dorothy Parker). 

Features of module report templates:

A short Introduction (2-3 lines) asks students to explain the purpose of the experiment, to show that they have some grasp of what they are doing.

For Method, students record the page number(s) in their lab manual for the experimental protocol concerned – and variations from that, whether advised, mistaken or forced. The supplied lab manual sets out in detail the method they are to follow. Why transcribe this verbatim into lab reports?

They fill their experimental Results into supplied blank tables, plot diagrams, and set out sample calculations in detail.

They are asked to criticize their own results (are they accurate? precise?), to answer set questions, and for a critical Discussion (no matter how brief) of the meaning and significance of the results.

They are asked what did they learn from the experiment (about the biochemical(s) investigated, the techniques/ instruments used, calculation methods, critical skills, integration with lecture content) and, even more importantly,

They are asked in the final report how well their overall learning experience has matched the module’s learning outcomes.


Sample template 1

Sample template 2

Such templates can help move students away from superficial descriptions and to focus instead on the quality of their bench data, how to process data appropriately, to critically evaluate their findings and discuss them in a wider context and, finally to monitor their own learning and development. 

Students simply use the Moodle-posted Word document template to prepare their report, attach plots, staple the lot together, sign it and submit. In sharp contrast to the traditional lab notebook, each report can be placed in a postbox or pigeonhole, or will slide easily underneath a lecturer’s office door. No more excuses for late or unsubmitted reports (“You weren’t in your office when I called, so I couldn’t hand in my lab notebook”). 

The greatest advantages of these templates, however, are their loose-leaf format, light weight and lack of bulk. These features enable the report templates to facilitate teaching and learning, and in a much better way than the traditional lab notebook. 

The small pile of reports fits into a briefcase, and is easily carried for evaluation and marking, either in the office or off-campus. Since results are presented in a uniform layout across the class, the assessor can quickly find and evaluate the key points in each report (data, calculations, plots, conclusions), make comments, give a mark and, crucially, return the marked report to the students(s) at the next session. This rapid, weekly turnaround gives the students ongoing feedback, allowing them to see and correct their mistakes, and to improve the quality of subsequent reports. In some cases, students report in pairs – just as they work together at the lab bench. (‘You sink or swim with your lab partner.’) This halves the burden of correction. 

Postscript

Of course, the lab notebook does have a worthwhile function in research projects, where it provides a full diary and record of materials, methods, results, comments, plans and so on. It also provides back-up evidence in intellectual property claims and traceability in cases of anomalous findings. Students, however, will be better able to achieve the required rigour and attention to detail if they have previously benefited from the type of continuous feedback outlined in this article. 

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