Sunday, September 5, 2010

Emotions, Pride and Lab Journals

For the past few summers, I spent the week after school ended on a week-long bicycle trip. Although stressful to practically “race” out the door at the end of the school year, the trip benefitted me by serving as a mental re-set button. After a few days on the bike, my mind seemed to accept that I was no longer in school-mode. This June, I biked with my uncle, an established researcher in molecular biology, and an established biker as well. The first day was the hardest. Think hills—lots of hills—and pouring rain. We arrived at the end of the day to find our luggage had a similar experience as us—it was drenched from downpours, too. My uncle pulled dripping wet clothes, papers, electronics, and the like from his bag. He was most upset that his journal got soaked. I responded with horror, too, asking: “did you lose experiments?” The most interesting thing to me was his response. He replied that it had been a blank journal, and that he had intended to come up with some experiments on the trip. I realized that if all that emotion is connected to a BLANK lab journal, there must be a whole lot of emotion connected with a full one! It made me reflect on a few specific students this year.

On the first day of the school year, I gave each student a blank notebook that I purchased out-of-pocket for them. I introduced the course briefly and then sent students to the back of the room to try their hands at their first lab. Alayna, however, came straight to me. She wanted to know if she could switch the color of her notebook. You see, she had already color-coded her classes, and physics simply had to be the color green. Although it had only been in her possession for five minutes, Alayna was already thinking of the journal as hers. Naturally, we made the switch to green. Alayna made the journal hers in other ways. I’m linking here to an image of the first page of the table of contents Alayna chose to create at the beginning of her journal to give you a sense of the effort she put into making the journal of value to herself. Alayna took pride in her journal throughout the year. As one of the only seniors in a predominantly junior course, Alayna left school about a month early to complete a senior project. Alayna was a deeply involved student, so I’m sure leaving high school was poignant for her. She promised to stop by before she graduated, and she told me that she’d bring me a present when she did. When I saw Alayna in June for the promised visit, she gave me my present. She presented me with her lab journal so that I could keep it and find ways to use it to help future students.

Kara is synonymous with cheerfulness to me. There was, however, one incident that caused Kara great distress. I allow my students to use their journals during tests and quizzes. As a co-worker said, students’ journals are “like Google for physics class.” The use of journals on tests and quizzes adds to students’ desires to make a useful journal, and it encourages me as a teacher to think about how to move past fact-based, recall-only questions on tests. There is one exception to my policy of allowing journals during tests. Students who are absent on test day are not allowed to use their journal on the make-up test. I provide an equation sheet to use with the make-up test instead. Kara missed a test day because she was sick, and she had to make up the test without the use of her lab journal. Although generally more chipper than a Disney hero, Kara was always sullen upon recalling this particular test. The test wasn’t out of the norm in terms of her test averages. In fact, it didn’t even impact her grade (I checked to see if there was any difference in her quarter grade had she been simply excused from the test—there wasn’t). Regardless, taking a test without her lab journal ranked as a truly depressing memory for her.

For both Kara and Alayna, the journals were a large part of their physics experience. Both students spent a lot of time making the journal theirs and of personal value, and as a result both students had a lot of pride and emotions attached to their journals. Although traditional assessments do have their place, journal work often provides something different for students. Here are just a few reasons why I believe students often take more pride in lab journals than tests and quizzes:
  • More focus on inquiry. As a teacher, having the kids keep a lab journal forces me to consider whether my labs are the most appropriate for journaling. A lab where kids confirm things they already know or simply enter numbers into a bunch of blank boxes often makes me stop and think: “how could I add more inquiry to this lab?”
  • Novelty. I was told during a workshop this summer that the average student takes over 1600 tests and quizzes between grades one and twelve. Why should my test be anything special to them? A journal, however, is different—I guarantee you no student has written over 1600 journals!
  • Personal choice and creativity. I was reading the book Drive by Daniel Pink and was reminded how important autonomy and choice are as motivating factors. Journals are a tool that, when used well, allows students to determine how to best accomplish their lab goals. This choice fosters creativity, investment, and motivation.
  • Authenticity. Real scientists, like my uncle, use lab journals. I didn’t ask my uncle the last time he bubbled in answers to a multiple choice test, but I’m guessing it was a long time ago.
  • Evidence of progression. A test or a quiz is a snapshot at one instant in time. Often, the only data that is recorded in a teacher’s gradebook is a percentage. Here’s a challenge for any teacher. Look at your gradebook from last year. Let’s say you find a student who got an 80% on a quiz. Can you tell me anything else about the student’s compression? Did that student understand 80% of the material perfectly and know nothing about the other 20%, or did the student understand all of the material somewhat but just not completely? There is not enough data to determine the answer from just the percentage score. Look back at a student’s lab journal and you will have a much better picture of the student’s progress and understanding.
I am not suggesting that lab journals are the answer to everything, or that I have mastered their use. Rather, I hope you will reflect along with me about some of the things lab journals do that traditional assessments do not, and vice versa. I invite you to share your insights in the comments section of this post. It will be like a mini “online journal.” Speaking of, that’s my topic for next time.

Until then, 


This month's article is contributed by Debbie Berlin. Debbie is a graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has been a high school physics teacher for 12 years. Debbie currently teaches Regular Physics and Honors Physics at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, IL, where she has taught since 2004.  

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I liked your points. Well done!


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