Get Creative With Lab Report Alternatives

Students should learn to write a formal lab report, but there’s room in science classes for them to show their learning in other ways as well.

Hands-on learning is part and parcel of high-quality science instruction—it’s the whole point of lab work. After a lab, students typically show their learning by reflecting on their results in a piece of formal writing such as a traditional lab report or the more contemporary claim, evidence, reasoning (CER) argumentation format. Formal write-ups offer students a chance to describe empirical information in a professional voice—an important skill.

Students should be given opportunities to practice this kind of authoritative writing, but are there also ways that they can share their scientific understanding without feeling bogged down by technical writing?

For many adolescent learners, lab reports are not always an efficient or comfortable way to communicate. Can teachers take advantage of students’ preferred communication methods to help support learning? Are there methods aside from formal written argument through which students can accurately communicate logical, evidence-based assertions?

In my experience, the answer to these questions is yes, and these are three ideas that I’ve tried. Alternatives to Formal Science Writing

Storyboarding: Storyboarding consists of having students create a comic-book style representation of the work they do in a science lab. Storyboards can be assigned before or after the lab.

If the lab follows the structured inquiry format—in which students follow prescribed steps—the teacher can give the class the lab procedures a day or two before the lab is to be completed and ask them to draw the steps they will be conducting in the lab. That way, they will better anticipate their tasks during the lab. The storyboard can be used to highlight important points in the lab where safety should be considered—indicating when students should put on their goggles, for example, or which steps require the most attention.

The storyboard can also be used as a post-lab documentation of the student experience. I sometimes assign several must-haves when I do this, meaning there are elements students must include that complement a traditional lab report: I may require that storyboards include the steps taken in the lab, the equipment used to gather data, and a representation of the data in table or graph form.

Unfortunately, though, the lab storyboard does not lend itself well to the interpretation and analysis of data—it’s difficult for students to use this format to describe relationships between variables like time and temperature or to identify patterns in data. This is particularly true when the teacher wants students to expand on the implications of their findings.

Multimedia: The way adolescents seek out and obtain information about the world has shifted dramatically in recent years. YouTube and podcasts, for example, provide on-demand content covering almost any topic imaginable. Teachers can capitalize on these dynamic, free modes of communication as an alternative to traditional science writing.

Students can make videos of portions of their lab with their phones or other personal devices. These videos can be compiled and uploaded to YouTube for […]

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