Teaching Observation Skills with a Science Journal

Matthew Campbellby:  Matthew Campbell

One of the more important traits a scientist can have is the ability to observe.  Helping our students become better observers can be tricky.  Observation is a soft-skill and can be difficult to teach directly.  In my experience I also find that students tend to rush through labs to obtain the answer quickly.  This desire for speed is contrary to the pace required for careful, precise observation.

My solution for helping students become better observers is the science journal.  The purpose of the science journal is to encourage students to observe the science happening all around them.  The scope of the project allows for careful observations to be made which can then proceed into conclusions and validations of hypotheses. As an added bonus, the journal integrates literacy into the science classroom.  I encourage my students to select topics that appeal to them to increase investment in the project.   I do provide a listing of sample topics to help them better formulate their own journal topics.  Some of the topics covered in the journals have included:
    Reviewing newspaper/magazine articles for cases of good or bad science reporting
    Looking for science principles in sports (excellent for physics)
    Studying the changes in an ecosystem (e.g. plant growth, goose behaviour)
    Astronomical observations
    A recording of chemical additives found in the food that the student has eaten
    Beginning a new exercise regime
    Following weather patterns

The ideas for the journal are limited only by the student’s imagination.  I normally have the journal topics last for a unit or two, providing the student with a chance to study a different topic that may appeal to them.

A fantastic twist on the journal idea is to have the students blog their observations.  The integration of technology with journaling tends to improve student engagement. Additionally, the project gains credibility as it is now open in the public space and is no longer private between the student and teacher.  This interaction between the student and other Internet users helps the student desire to improve their writing, as they are now writing for an audience.  The student’s posting obtaining its first comment is normally a momentous occasion that only further entices the student to dig deeper on their topic.

There are numerous free blog hosting sites on the Internet, including EduBlogs, WordPress and Blogger.  Students can create their own blog or record their thoughts on a communal class blog.   Before starting a blogging journal, teachers should review the activity with administrative staff and ensure that parents are properly informed.  If there are concerns about personal information being revealed on the Internet, students can create an Avatar (I like DoppelMe) and use a pseudonym to write under.  If this approach is used, the teacher should keep a master copy of the pseudonyms for reference purposes.

Journaling, when combined with blogging, can be an excellent approach to improving not just observation skills but general science skills such as reporting, hypothesizing and drawing conclusions.  As an added bonus, the science of the classroom begins to filter into the students everyday experiences.

About the author
Matthew Campbell is a certified Science and Mathematics teacher in Ontario.  He currently teaches at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario.  His blog, http://shift-edblog.blogspot.com/ explores the usages of technology in the classroom.

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