Lesson 6: A Lesson on Nature Note Taking

Teach your students the art of recording observations in the field.

November 7, 2008

A scientist's journal goes by many aliases -- nature journal, field notebook, or science notebook. No matter what you call it, people use the field journal for the purpose of recording qualitative, quantitative, and sensory data in the field.

Throughout the curriculum, students have practiced using their field journals. In this lesson, students will learn the constructs of, and good habits for, field journals, taking what they've learned in the past about time, species, measurements, and location, and recording all that data in written form.

Lesson Objectives and Materials


Students will

  • Learn how to take good field notes
  • Use the senses for making observations
  • Practice identifying species in the field


  • NM data-collection form
  • Field guides or animal fact sheets
  • Field journals (bound scientific notebooks)
  • Leaves, seashells, flowers, or other objects for demonstration
  • Honey, perfume, burnt grease, rose, cinnamon, and other items to smell
  • Small containers or jars
  • Pens and pencils

Field Journal Basics

Pre-Lesson Preparation: Create a large wall chart with columns in which students will record their sensory observations. In addition, prepare different scents in vials.

Teach students the importance of using a field journal correctly, and work on student's note-taking abilities. Elicit good practice habits by asking questions and instructing students to make comprehensive recordings while in the field. This is a building process and will require a lot of modeling and practice. State your expectations in the beginning so students can succeed in the field when you're not around.

Follow these steps:

1. Engage students in the lesson by asking

  • Who has a diary?
  • Why do you write in a diary?
  • What can you learn about a person from his or her diary?
  • Would you want to read your mother's diary from when she was a girl?
  • What do you put in your diary?

2. Explain that scientists keep track of their observations through field journals, sometimes called scientific journals or nature journals, depending on the context. (For example, lab scientists usually refer to their notebooks as scientific notebooks; nature scientists often call them field journals.)

3. Explain how students can take their notes from previous lessons and compile them in their field journal. For example, ask students what information they've needed thus far to complete the NM data-collection form. Explain that they should record such information in their field journals first.

4. Show an example of a field journal and describe the components it should contain.

  • Table of contents (Leave the first three pages blank for the table of contents.)
  • Entry title and date
  • Page number
  • Purpose of experiment
  • Procedure or event
  • Scientific drawings
  • Scientific data and observations
  • Neatness and organization (e.g., the use of tables, charts, and graphs)
  • Calculations and results
  • Conclusion and resources

5. Practice some basic note-taking skills on the board. Emphasize the importance of accuracy and completeness.

6. Ask students to select an object from nature (e.g., a leaf, flower, seashell) from a tray and describe the object through words and drawings in their field journals. Encourage students to record the object's

  • Measurements
  • Specific colors
  • Shape
  • Texture and smell (and other sensory information)

Students can also record speculative information, such as how old they think the object is or what it's original habitat might be.

7. Present objects of the same color but different textures to help students enhance their descriptive abilities.

8. Encourage students to reference different materials, such as a thesaurus, the Internet, or field guides to expand their vocabulary.

9. Discuss student's findings, and record different pieces of information on a wall chart. (You might want to organize the chart by senses.)

10. Present to students at least three different scents in small, unmarked vials (e.g., honey, perfume, burnt grease, rose, cinnamon). Put each scent in more than one vial. Ask students to

  • Find partners with vials of the same scent
  • Work as a team to decide what the scent is and to discuss what it makes them think about
  • Write all findings in their field journals

Recording Entries in the Sit-Spot

Throughout several sessions, you will teach students how to record entries in their field journals from their "sit-spot." This is the location where they've chosen to sit and record their observations.

Follow these steps:

1. Inform students about the exercise, choosing a sit-spot on the school grounds from which the student will sit and observe his or her surroundings for twenty minutes (rain, shine, or snow). The student should record all sensory information and observations in the field journal according to the format you have defined previously.

2. Explain that the student will use the same sit-spot for future sessions. Define any rules about the sit-spot. For example, students should be at least ten feet apart from one another, and they are not allowed to talk.

3. Provide guidelines for what the student will be recording during each session. Focus students on observing one thing per session, for example, plants and habitat for one session, insects for another session, and animals during another. Or ask students to refine their entries for each session.

4. Lead students in initially finding the location for their sit-spot. Thereafter, help students refine their note-taking skills throughout the next sessions.

5. Ask students to use observations in their field journals to identify any species they find, referencing field guides as needed. This helps students see what improvements they need in species identification.

6. Inspire future lessons or assignments based on the observations in students' field journals. Here are some ideas:

  • Write three "I wonder" questions about your sit-spot, and research field guides or other sources to find the answers.
  • Write a description of your sit-spot.
  • Draw a picture of your sit-spot and label the parts.
  • Write a story that takes place in your sit-spot.
  • What would happen if you were an animal living near your sit-spot?
  • Complete an NM data-collection form for any animal species you mention.

Customization Tips

Is the lesson too advanced for your students? Here are some ways to customize the lesson for younger age groups:

Grades K-1: Bring in something to look at, such as an insect or plant. Ask students to explain and record what they see, and elicit questions about the senses. Student journals may need a drawing of a clock face to represent time.

Grade 2: Ask students to record what they see in the classroom in their field journals. Try to elicit questions related to the senses. Encourage students to use rulers and colored pencils for graphs and drawings.


Practical and Assessment


Test your students' ability to take good field notes. Ask students to hand in their journals on a regular basis. Use student journal information to clarify previous lessons, such as using measurements or making estimations.


How'd your students do? Your students' journals should contain all the information you defined in the lesson, such as good organization and using the time and date correctly. Rather than writing directly on the pages of the field journal, make your comments or mark grades on sticky notes that you attach to the pages.


Teacher Tips

Visit Science Notebooks for examples of student journals, teaching tips, and classroom tools.


Related NatureMapping Activities

If you enjoyed this lesson, check out these links to additional NatureMapping materials.

  • Meeting Needs: This activity helps students understand how appropriate habitats supply all that an organism needs to survive; and teaches habitat sketching.
  • Name the Habitat: Students learn to select a habitat that their species can be found in and enter the code onto the data-collection form.
  • Habitat Association: This activity helps students learn to link wildlife with habitats.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Assessment
  • Classroom Management
  • Curriculum Planning
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.