The Science Notebook-A Personal Preference

What’s in a Science Notebook?

There were a few moments as a new science teacher where I was stunned at how much thought I put into something that students didn’t bat an eye at. One such instance was arranging desks (we can tackle this in another post) and another was deciding on what system I should use for students’ notes and papers.

Although many students lose, forget, never bring, or rarely use their science notebook, for us teachers the notebook is very important. Some schools or departments require a specific system. If this is your school, be grateful–the decision of what to do can be paralyzing.

Many veteran science teachers, myself included, are adamant that our notebook system is the best. Although you may find you prefer a different method, below is my favorite way for students to take notes and stay organized for science class.

My Science Notebook System:

The Materials

I am a devout composition book user. I require all students to bring in two composition books (college bound, 100 pages). I do not accept any other type of notebook. (When a student brings in anything else, they trade their notebook in for a composition book!) Why the composition book? Because for some mysterious reason, students are less likely to rip out pages from a comp book than a notebook.

Although the students just need to bring in two composition books, I purchase a few other items to make my system work. These include:

File folders – one for each student

Tape boxes and dispensers for each table

– A continuous supply of tape

– Address labels and Sharpee Markers to set up the notebook

– Index cards cut into thirds to make notebook tabs

– Lots of extra composition books to trade and give (I like to have a stock of 50 when teaching 150 students, but typically don’t use them all in a year)

– Copies of composition book rubrics and achievement grade rubrics

The Set Up:

I use the file folders to keep track of students’ lab work. I use different colored file folders for each class period and label each folder with a student’s name. Labs stay in my room in these folders and allow me to track what labs students have and have not done. This system is used to track lab hours for Regents coursework, but I also think it has helped students stay accountable for finishing lab work.

I purchase small plastic boxes that interlock and tape dispensers for each table, and my schools have been kind enough to purchase tape throughout the year. The interlocking box is key–it allows you to hear when an antsy student is trying to waste tape. Whenever I hear the sound of a box opening, I instantly stop class to stop a tape user from abusing the tape! It may seem like a pain, but it’s what works best for me. I have also tried glue bottles and glue sticks. I do not recommend that you try these.

Students bring their two composition books in to school on the second day of the second week of school (allowing time for those who forgot over the weekend to get them). I am prepared with address label stickers, Sharpee markers for labeling, tape and cut index cards for the first tab. I also have my stock of extra composition books for students who can’t afford them, struggle to get parents to get them one, or bring in the wrong thing. If a student is absent, I give their table partner two blank comp books and have them fill out the label for the absent student. Some may feel that providing students with materials enables them, but it makes it so much easier when every student has their notebook ready at the same time.

Before setting up the composition book, I share expectations for markers and spend a bit of time talking about tape expectations (*especially in middle school). This may feel like a waste of time, but nipping tape abuse in the bud early on will save you lots of headaches and money!

We devote about 20 minutes to setting up notebooks, and I model the process with my own sample notebook at the front of the room with a doc camera. Students write their heading (Name, period, Science and “Fall Semester” or “Spring Semester”) on both notebooks. They tape a composition book rubric in to the front inside cover and an achievement grade tracking sheetinto the back inside cover (*this sheet is for an IB class, although it could be adapted to list key grades like tests, quizzes, labs & projects). I collect the spring semester comp book after they label it and store it in the room until January (this has been field tested–having them bring it back in January doesn’t work.


Lastly, students make a tab for the first unit and tape it on the top of the first page. They do this by taking a strip of an index card and taping it around either end of a page with a little bit sticking out to write a label on. I use tabs to distinguish the big units.

We do not make a table of contents. Many teachers do, but I often got frustrated at how page numbers differed and some students never kept up with it while others seemed overly concerned with it. I require students to put a heading on the top of the page, when relevant (Do Now, taking notes, quizzes and tests), the date, and an entry number. Students write the same entry number for all pages used in a day. This way students can use as many pages as they like without being on a different page than me. If a student is missing work, they have the wrong or missing entry numbers.
The System:
My rule of thumb is: anything that students need to understand or know goes in the notebook. Do Nows and other notes also go into the notebook. If a homework assignment is particularly useful, students tape it in the next day (while I check it). Tests and quizzes get taped into the notebook after being graded, usually the unit test is the last entry in that tabbed section. The only work that is separate are labs (actual labs, not activities), which I keep in a separate folder to track lab hours. Although I started doing this because the state of New York required me to, I think it was valuable to have all of a student’s lab work in a separate place.
I have used the composition book system for years, but it didn’t start to really be successful until I started grading composition books for effort. I strongly discourage collecting all the notebooks and grading them after school–a pile of notebooks on a Friday afternoon is very depressing! Although it requires good classroom management, I started grading the most recent pages in the composition book during every test or quiz. Students pile their comp books by the aisle, and I flip through and give a grade using the rubric on the inside page. This has been instrumental in keeping students on track with their work. Also, I keep a model notebook at the front of the room so students can catch up with any missing pages. I like to have a student who struggles to focus or needs a little special attention help me with my model notebook while I’m teaching.
Recently I started having students track important grades (tests, quizzes, labs, projects and essays) in the back of their notebook using another chart, aligning with IB standards. I kept a similar chart on a big white sticky pad in the corner of the room, updating which assignments students should have recorded. This helped students know how they were doing over time in my class, and became a good way to communicate grades to parents in between report cards.
If you are teaching middle school students or notice that students aren’t bringing their composition books to class routinely, you should consider keeping them in the classroom. I kept composition books in the room when I taught 6th & 7th grade students. I organized them along counters using magazine holders (surprisingly affordable at IKEA), labeled for each period.
Benefits of the Composition Book
One benefit of the composition book is that it saves paper. I often make handouts that are half page size – either by using two columns in Microsoft word or by minimizing the document by 65% on the copy machine.
Keeping all important papers in the composition book is also helpful for parent meetings. Whenever I had to go to an IEP meeting or had a parent come in, I would get the student’s notebook or ask the student to take it out. Not only could we look at the student’s effort grades in the front of the book and important achievement grades (tests, labs, etc) in the back, but almost all of the relevant work was taped in. For example, finding a student’s test became easy (unless they didn’t tape it in!). The notebook also becomes a good resource for the student to review before cumulative tests.

Leave a comment