Welcome to practical physicsPracticle physics - practical activities designed for use in the classroom with 11 to 19 year olds

Making laboratory notes

Many students do not understand why teachers ruin practical work by making them write it up. Perhaps they have a point. It is very easy to end up with a written task that has little to do with the learning that the practical work itself promoted.
If students are carrying out an investigation you may wish to train them to write up an investigation in a ‘scientific’ style using the standard headings such as prediction, method, results conclusion, evaluation. Remember that, just as you would explain the meanings of words associated with particular scientific concepts, you need define words associated with practical work such as ‘hypothesis’, ‘variable’, or ‘validity’.

For much school practical work, however, it is not appropriate to use the writing style described above. The nature of the written work should reflect the particular aims and objectives of any practical task, and should not be forced into a standard template. Students then are more likely to understand what they have to record and why. They may consequently produce work of a higher standard.

If, for example, the aim of a piece of practical work is to observe a particular phenomenon then the writing up should focus on describing that phenomenon. On the other hand, for practical work set in a context such as consumer testing, it would be more appropriate to produce a consumer style report. Some students will find it helpful if you provide a structure for the writing up, including the beginnings of paragraphs or sentences (called ‘scaffolding’).

A particular problem for students is writing up their work in the third person passive; ‘the Bunsen was lit’, rather than first person active ‘I lit the Bunsen’. If you want them to write this way, explain that the impersonal style of writing is an attempt to make the results seem objective rather than subjective.

It may also help students if you explain the role of written research papers in science. With more advanced classes, you could usefully ask students to read extracts from selected scientific papers, both dated and recent. This would enable them to see how writing styles in science have changed and continue to change. Contemporary scientific journals are less insistent on a particular grammatical form than they once were. And the use of the passive voice is now much less common.

You may also want to find a place for methods of communication that are widely used by scientists, such as presentations and poster displays.

This page was submitted by Daniel Sandford-Smith from the Institute of Physics.