The history of the lab write up: then to now

In the “olden days”, Karen’s students would “do” the lab and “write up” the lab; Karen would mark the lab, the students would get the lab back and the process would be repeated in the next lab.  Sadly, Karen would face similar “write up” woes – conclusions would not really get much better, and error analysis would be weak at best.

What was the problem?  Based on the plethora of research out there now (Black and Wiliam, 1998; O’Connor, 2009; Kohn, 1999 for example), we determined that it was the “mark” that was hindering progress and skill development in lab process and write up.  Simply put, the students were not looking past the grade.

As a result, Karen stopped putting a mark out of anything on the front of the lab, the back of the lab, and after some time, in her mark book.

Instead, she employed the Lab Write Up Rubric

Lab Rubric hi-lited and attached to a completed write up


This is hard to see, so if you would like to view the Rubric for further scrutiny, and to give us feedback, you can find it here: Lab Rubric – Senior Science.


We had hoped for miraculous change.  And, for the record, there MAY HAVE been change, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of change we wanted to see.  It seemed that the students were not significantly improving from lab write up to lab write up despite receiving a hi-lited rubric and written descriptive feedback for “where to next” on each lab.


Again, we asked: what was the problem?  It seemed that Karen was putting more time into the feedback than the students were making to READ the feedback and ACT UPON the feedback.  Essentially, the work that Karen did, in an effort TO IMPROVE LEARNING, was doing little more than use some coloured pen ink and felt hi-liter.  How could we ensure that the students were asking themselves the three questions (Hattie and Timperly, 2007): “what am I learning, how am I doing, and where to next?”?


Karen instituted the Lab Duotang.  All labs are kept in the Lab Duotang and the ENTIRE duotang is submitted (with ALL labs inside) each time a new lab write up is complete.  The goal is to have students look at their previous lab rubric and make an effort to focus on areas for improvement.  For Karen, it will be very clear, very quickly (with a flip to the previous labs) that a student is referring to the feedback.  The evidence is there and everyone knows the why of the Lab Duotang.  Transparency in this process is clear.


For students who manage their time well and submit labs for assessment promptly, this process works like a charm.  We still struggle with students who do not truly see the value in the descriptive feedback to move learning forward.  Without set deadlines, some students are in a mad rush to write up multiple labs; this results in lack of descriptive feedback for improvement and, therefore, less deep learning and skill/process analysis.


To further improve the impact of the rubric and the Lab Duotang, Karen stepped it up a little more.  Students receive their first lab back with the rubric and written feedback,  Now, when they submit their next and subsequent labs, they also include a cover letter.  The cover letter is intended to reflect on feedback received from the previous lab and give Karen a focus.


"Dear Miss Tomlinson" letter: Karen would like to see stronger links to the Lab Rubric, but this is a good start


Karen saw that these points linked more directly to improvement and provided details she was looking in the reflection.


The hope is that students will have, through this process, an opportunity to reflect on the feedback and then commit to improvements as a result of the letter.  When Karen sees that the improvements identified by the student are not truly there, it gives her the space to have a conversation with the individual that is meaningful and focussed on success.  Bruce Wellman refers to a “third point” in coaching learners.  The letter creates a third point.


This evolution has not occurred overnight nor is it complete.  As is the case in our work with students, we believe in self regulation and student engagement.  We believe that this process allows for students to own their learning and really understand how Karen is striving to help her students become stronger critical thinkers, more analytic, and effective communicators.


As is always the case, feedback is welcome.  What do you do in your lab sciences to ensure that students are acting on the valuable feedback you give them?  Do you think that the process in this narrative is effective?  How would you build on this or do it differently?


You can reach Karen via Twitter (@houseofmole) and Angela via Twitter (@ajgadd).  We always appreciate YOUR feedback!

4 thoughts on “The history of the lab write up: then to now

  1. Brilliant! I’m going to share this with science teacher colleagues in my district. LOVE your emphasis on setting up a system that encourages students to actually USE feedback. Great stuff.

  2. Thanks Rob. I love that we can really see where the kids are at and how they are thinking about their learning, especially now that the “3 improvement letter” has been instituted!

  3. Pingback: Stealing this, with gratitude « Messy Professional

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