George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.

December 18, 2019
Marmaduke St. John / Alamy Stock Photo

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 ease of sharing. Or they can use screencasting apps like Screencastify and Screencast-O-Matic, which allow them to add narration to their video in order to document their learning.

Students can likewise record audio of their lab—the technology demands for creating a podcast are remarkably basic. Students can simply use the voice memo feature on their phones to record themselves in the lab and then create a podcast episode. The file can be uploaded directly to Google Drive or Classroom, and the teacher can decide whether these podcasts are shared with the class.

It’s worth noting that students are generally outpacing teachers in terms of their proficiency with technology. Teachers don’t necessarily have to do a lot of teaching of the tools—simply offering audio and video options is often enough to spark student creativity and yield impressive results.

Some of my students have created videos using staggeringly accurate scale representations of my classroom that they built in Minecraft. They then uploaded videos set in the virtual classroom to YouTube. How these Minecraft classrooms were assembled is beyond me, but it’s exciting to see technologically inclined learners express scientific ideas accurately and coherently.

Speakers and Scouts: An activity I call Speakers and Scouts—adapted from something I found in Science Scope—utilizes the power of peer-to-peer interaction for communicating science ideas. At the conclusion of a lab, I task students with working in teams of four students each to distill the big takeaways from the lab into simplified data tables or graphs.

Each member of the lab team is assigned one of two roles (or teachers can allow students to choose):

  • The two speakers remain at the lab table. It’s their job to communicate to visiting peers (the scouts) the purpose of the lab, the procedures their team used, their results, and the importance of that data in either corroborating or contradicting their original hypothesis.
  • The two scouts rotate around the room visiting each of the other teams, actively listening to the speakers, faithfully recording the testable question and results of their peers, and reporting back to their own speakers.

While Speakers and Scouts can be used to wrap up any lab, the strategy works best in tandem with an open inquiry, in which each team has developed a testable question and designed an investigation specific to that question. If each team has composed a unique testable question, carried out their own experiment, and collected data, there’s greater variety in the stories the scouts will hear from group to group. If all groups conducted the same lab but got slightly different data, the interviews become repetitive and boring for the scouts.

This approach builds a powerful sense of community in the science classroom. In sharing their thinking aloud with others, students become more aware of strategies that worked and ones that did not. Additionally, kids see how their team’s work and results stack up against their peers’. Rather than thinking about their grade, this exercise prompts students to think, “What a great idea—I should have done that!”

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  • Literacy
  • Student Voice
  • Science
  • 6-8 Middle School

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