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Making lab notebooks meaningful

Posted by Melissa on October 1, 2010

The September issue of Physics Today has an article about Kamerlingh Onnes’ discovery of superconductivity. While I’ve always had a soft spot for history, what caught my attention about this article was the introductory header: “A century ago Heike Kamerlingh Onnes set a new standard for physics research laboratories. But careless notebook entries have confused the story of his greatest discovery.” In particular, I was drawn in by those three little words: careless notebook entries.

Keeping a clear record of one’s work is an important practice for anyone doing research in industry or academia, and it’s a habit that is developed through practice. While the value of good records should be instilled in students beginning in curricular labs and be reinforced in undergraduate research experiences, with all the learning objectives for our curricular labs — physics concepts, data analysis, error analysis, experimental techniques, and oral and written communication skills — it’s easy for the lab notebook to get overlooked.

If experimental work is a journey, the record of the journey is just as important as the destination (the results). However, curricular labs are often completed in a single lab period or two so students don’t realize the peril that comes with poor record keeping. There is no incentive to write notes about the objective, the experimental set-up, what worked or what didn’t (and the accompanying emotions), how the analysis was performed, etc, because next week students move on to a new lab that doesn’t necessarily build on the work of the previous week. If students find recording notes to be a hassle, as a faculty member, I find grading lab notebooks on a weekly basis can be quite tedious. At the same time, collecting notebooks only once or twice a term doesn’t encourage careful real-time record keeping; I’ve heard of students who try to fill their sparse lab notebooks after the fact, as the due date for turning in lab notebooks approaches.

The question becomes how to encourage students to practice good record-keeping habits even in curricular labs. There was a question on the Advanced Labs list-serve last spring about lab notebook grading rubrics that developed into a more general discussion of the role of lab notebooks.  Linda Winkler’s anecdote about allowing students to use lab notebooks on a final exam (without telling students in advance that this would be the case) interested me as a way to reward those students who have been careful record keepers. I’ve also heard someone else (I don’t recall who) describe an advanced lab activity where, at the end of the term, students were given an oral exam on any one of the labs from the course. The only item that a student could bring to the oral exam was his or her lab notebook. Both of these approaches have the advantage of reinforcing lab notebooks as valuable tools to aid in memory and reconstruction of the research process, without the instructor grading individual lab notebook entries.

I’d love to hear what methods others have found effective to encourage meaningful record keeping during curricular labs. Do you require a lab notebook? Do you grade it? Is saving files on a computer sufficient record keeping or do you think a hard copy is necessary? Do you find students who are taught to keep a lab notebook (electronic or paper) in curricular labs also do a good job of keeping lab notebooks when they participate in undergraduate research experiences? Do you remember when you learned the value of keeping good records in lab?

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One Response to “Making lab notebooks meaningful”

  1. […] I’m elbow deep in lab write-ups and lab notebooks to grade, which means it is the perfect time to procrastinate by blogging. This term I’m teaching labs both for our sophomore level E&M class and our junior/senior level advanced lab class, so I’ve been reading LOTS of lab notebooks and lab reports. The AAPT’s advanced-lab listserve last month had a discussion about writing lab reports and, in particular, what is an appropriate amount of time to ask students to spend on lab reports. The question of how much and what type of writing is appropriate comes up again and again if you talk to those of us who regularly teach intermediate and advanced lab classes. I’ve blogged before about alternatives to traditional lab write-ups and also about the difficulty of getting students to keep good lab notebooks. […]

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