If you polled your students, what would they say is the favorite part of your science class? I'm guessing that few, if any, would respond, "writing lab reports." While not a beloved activity, it is a crucial one and one for which we need to equip our students as they move on in their science studies.
Most 7th graders who enter our classroom in September are not equipped to be competent authors of lab reports. The journey from novice to expert is often long but quite achievable for most of them over the subsequent two years they will spend in the science lab.
In the beginning, we focus solely on observational writing. Sometimes that includes answering questions, sometimes it’s generating a list of observations, and sometimes it’s crafting a paragraph. What it isn’t, and what I deliberately avoid at this stage, is procedural and explanatory writing. We stay in this stage of observational writing for our first trimester; three or four months of class. I want the skill of being a great observer to be rock solid before we move on to the other types of scientific writing.
Why do I focus so extensively on observations? Because they’re the bedrock of science. Accurate observations drive research and further study. Precise observations allow for correct interpretations and explanations. If this skill is sloppy or undeveloped, students’ ability to become competent scientists will be severely hampered.
Why do I defer procedural writing to later? Isn’t this easier for the students? Yes and no: it is easier, and most students of this age can write pages of sequential, accurate procedures. But doing this can wear them out and still not have pushed them to do much real science.
After writing a few paragraphs of procedures, most students will feel they’re nearly done when in essence, they’ve hardly started. So we skip this step and introduce it later. As I said, students pick this up pretty quickly with little instruction, so I’ve learned not to spend valuable teaching time on it.
What about explanatory writing? Isn’t that also key to doing science? True, this is a more intellectual pursuit and will warrant your teaching time, but until the observational skills are in place, you’ll only frustrate yourself and your students by spending much time here.
You can’t make good explanations or draw significant conclusions without having made accurate observations. So we start with those and stay there until I’m confident we’re ready to move on.
Typically I’ll ask students to make a list of at least five observations for each lab they do (we do a lab every day). Sometimes we’ll answer the lab questions (which are more about thinking than solely about making observations), and sometimes I’ll ask them to write a paragraph of observations.
I write worksheets for students to use while they're still beginning the process. Rather than questions to be answered, these Lab Notes are phrases to be finished. They help focus students and give them some of the language of science.
Additionally, I extract these writing prompts and place them into a compact list that can be copied and taped into a student notebook. In this version, the student can reference the prompts but are required to be a bit more independent. Ultimately I try to wean students off all prompts and have them write with only the lab instructions as their reference point.
The two versions are designed as a scaffold for students who require a bit more help. I found when I offered these to my class, nearly all students chose to use them rather than starting with a blank journal page, so I had to explicitly ask them to move on once I felt they no longer needed the prompts.
Students in my class transition from the Lab Notes, to the Writing Prompts, to blank journals. Not every student moves at the same pace in this regard. Once I feel the class as a whole is pretty solid in its observational writing skills, we’ll work on additional skills such as writing in the passive voice or writing explanations. We play a series of games to develop their writing skills and keep things interesting.
As the year progresses, we’ll occasionally return to the basics to tidy our skills. By the end of the school year, every 7th- and 8th-grade student should be competently writing full lab reports. When the next year begins in September, the new 7th graders will begin this process from the beginning; the returning 8th graders also return to the beginning (observational writing only) and then quickly transition to where they finished their previous year, writing complete lab reports.
Do we do this for every lab? Nope. Students do labs every day, sometimes more than one--they're expected to write a report about once per week. But not every lab is a good candidate for writing a lab report. Typically dissections, and those focused on identification do not have prompts or worksheets.
Former students repeatedly return and tell me how their science teachers have publicly acknowledged their expertise in writing lab reports. Needless to say, I feel this is time well-spent!
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