Helping all students with writing in the science classroom can be really difficult. A lot of science teachers give up trying to teach writing, because they feel the pressure to get all of the science content crammed into the year. Lab reports take an eternity to grade. And bad lab reports take longer than an eternity to grade! So many science teachers decide to just simplify lab write-ups into simple summary worksheets and stop there. I taught as a long-term substitute teacher once in a school for half a year from September until February and I taught Advanced Biology for seniors. At this small school, I had 30 out of the 90 total seniors in the school (the top 30 seniors in the school). In October, I discovered that not a single one of my advanced biology seniors had ever written a lab report. Not one of them. I found that out AFTER I assigned their first one and the papers they turned in were atrocious. The papers were utter failures and it was all my fault. I hadn’t even checked to see if they knew how to write a lab report! I had failed them as a teacher because I hadn’t taught them how to write one! So I did an about-face, I taught them how to write a lab report, and they all were required to re-submit. In my opinion, the fact that I (a long-term substitute) was the first one to require a written lab report in science class after 12 years of formal education… was a tragedy!
I learned a valuable lesson that day: Never assume your students know how to do anything. Just don’t. Assume they don’t know anything.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)
Some teachers may ask, why should we be teaching basic writing skills? Isn’t that the English or writing or ELL or special education teacher’s job? (I have personally heard science teachers say this.)
As science teachers, we should definitely teach about science. But we also ought to teach how to DO and THINK about science and writing is part of thinking. In my first year of teaching, a teacher friend told me that we are all writing and reading teachers. She was right. I take every opportunity to work on literacy in my science classroom. When we read passages together, I stop frequently and ask students to decode sentences or figure out the meaning of an unknown vocabulary word from its context. And when we do a lab, I want my students to learn how to write and think logically and learn how to tell others about their discoveries. This is a huge part of learning how to do science.
Here are a few tips on how to help students with lab report writing:
1. Teach them how to write each section, one at a time.
Students, especially students with difficulty writing or students who are below grade level in reading and writing, have a very hard time writing a full lab report from scratch. Start off by just showing your students how to write a proper procedure. As you start lab report writing, just have your students write a procedure for that lab as its write-up. Grade them together in class using a rubric. Then, the next week, do a different lab and show them how to write a proper results section. Then, the next week, do a different lab and show them how to write a conclusions section. Then, the introduction. Then, a properly formatted works cited page or bibliography. The key is one step at a time. Don’t overwhelm them but slowly work your way up to the whole thing. Set your students up to succeed, not to fail. Some students will take longer to learn how to write a section than others. Provide lots of practice. Show them a badly written introduction or procedure section. Have them fix it! Breaking it down into smaller sections and giving students checklists and/or rubrics really helps students who typically struggle with writing.
2. After you have taught your students how to create each individual section of the lab report, write a whole lab report together! One week, do a lab together and then afterwards, tell your students, “SURPRISE! This week, everyone gets an 100 A+ on their lab because we’re doing the lab report together!” Watch the smiles migrate across the room (or at least the smirks or sighs of relief) and begin on the white board or word processor connected to a projector. Ask questions as you write it, like “What background information do we need in the introduction?” “What was our hypothesis before we started this experiment?” “What materials did we use?” “What errors were there in our experiment?” “What should we do differently next time we perform this experiment?” As you complete the lab together and have students copy it down, you are helping to reinforce each individual part you already taught them.
3. Depending on your class’s strengths, you can start to ask them for more and more at a time. After the in-class-together lab report, for the next week’s lab activity, ask students to write 2 or 3 sections. Grade them together in class with a rubric and work through good examples of each section. Gradually increase how much of the full lab report your class completes each week. To help you reduce grading time, you can try having students self-grade (with a rubric) the procedure and results sections and you can grade only the conclusion and introduction sections!
4. Peer review really works! I tried peer review for lab reports in my 3rd year of teaching and I wished I had tried it earlier. It was well worth the time spent. This is how I did it. For the first full report due, I would tell them it was due on a specific Friday. When they all came in, I would tell them that this was in fact just the rough draft and that they would spend the class time reviewing and proofreading each other’s report. They filled out peer review rubrics. Later when students handed in their final first full lab report, they also handed in their rough draft and attached peer review rubrics and I was able to see the great improvements!
I am currently working on a huge Lab Report Writing Activity and Instruction Packet, but it won’t be finished for another week or two. It will have several cut-and-paste activities, instructions to give your students for each lab report section, rubrics, “good” lab report examples, “bad” lab report section examples for students to analyze, and a lot more. It is taking me a long time to get it just right, so it won’t be ready this week. When it is completed, I’ll update you all on my blog and I will send out an email to my exclusive newsletter and freebie mailing list! In fact, I will be sending subscribers one of my lab report writing activities, so subscribe if you would like to try my resources for free!
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