Thoughts on Lab Reports in an NGSS Aligned Classroom

Elementary Science High School Middle School NGSS

I got a question from a reader last week asking me if I knew of any good resources for writing NGSS aligned lab reports.  At face value, this seems like a very simple question.  But with the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, many of the things that used to be common practice need to be re-examined.  Here are some of my thoughts on lab reports in an NGSS aligned classroom.

Early NGSS Implementation

I thought about formal lab reports quite a bit when I first started shifting toward using the NGSS standards in my classroom.  I was teaching high school chemistry and biology at the time.  There was very little information on the standards besides the pdf of the standards and not much else.  I was still struggling with the fact that there weren’t designated chemistry standards. (Instead, all physical science standards are mixed together and many chemistry concepts are “missing”.)

The Science and Engineering Practice of Planning and Carrying Out Investigations stuck out as something familiar, and therefore seemed to be a good starting point.  I started thinking about how I could get my students to write up their procedures and create formal lab reports.

I started with a mixture separation lab in my chemistry class, provided students with various tools and asked that they write up a plan for separating the mixtures.  I checked the plan for safety before letting them try it themselves.  When they were done, I had them write up their procedure and a conclusion and called it good.

My plan was to start adding in components of a formal lab report until students were able to write their own.

The Problem with Traditional Lab Reports

The major problem that I didn’t identify until much later, is that I was teaching students to follow the scientific method.  The scientific method in an algorithmic approach that oversimplifies the scientific process.  I have written more about why I stopped using the scientific method in my classroom in this blog post. My thoughts can be summarized in this quote from the K12 Science Framework, the parent document to the Next Generation Science Standards.  Scientific Method

An NGSS Approach

Instead, students should be learning to use the practices separately before they are using them together.  Students should regularly be Asking Questions, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data and Constructing Explanations.  These practices are very similar to the components of the Scientific Method, but they are written in grade-specific bands that make the practices accessible to your students.

However, students should also be using the practices that are absent in the scientific method, such as Engaging in an Argument and Modeling.  Students should learn to use these practices like tools in a toolbelt.

What about a write-up?

Students should show mastery of the individual practices before they are being asked to put them together.   Using the practices together should be scaffolded so that students understand the relationship between practices.  Once students are showing mastery, I suggest having them use two practices together and then build from there.  This can be modeled by you in your classroom through your lesson sequences.

Advanced students who have shown mastery of the practices should be allowed to choose which practices they will use to communicate their investigative design, data and conclusions.  For example, students may choose to collect move quantitative data or use modeling to show their observations from their investigation.

I think that, in most cases, students aren’t ready to put multiple practices together in elementary and middle school, especially considering that most of our students are new to NGSS and haven’t experienced it throughout their scientific careers.  However, in higher-level courses, students should be taught how the practices are related and how they can be used together to effectively design investigations and communicate information.

What are your thoughts on lab reports in an NGSS aligned classroom?

As I said before, these are my thoughts on lab reports.  I would love to start a conversation and hear your thoughts.

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