Lab Report Alternatives: Clever Ideas to Cut Down Your Marking!

If you’re a science teacher, I’m sure you’ve been there: sitting at your desk with a stack of lab reports taller than the coffee mug you’d need to refill ten times before getting all of that marking done.  Let’s try to avoid that and explore some other options, shall we?
 Now, don’t get me wrong.  Writing lab reports are important!  Technical writing is a necessary skill that our young scientists need in university and can transfer to other courses.  But does every single experiment we do with our class require a full lab report?  

If you asked your students, “why do you think we’re doing this experiment?” what would they say?  If they said to get a good mark I think that’s exactly what we’re missing.  Experiments are opportunities to teach, to learn, to explore and discover.  If all we’re looking for is a mark, well, marking is all you’ll be doing - and then you might resent experiments and spiral into a hands-off science class.  Or, students may dread labs because they know 5 hours of lab report writing is in their future.  Yikes!  Let’s avoid that.

Purpose is the first thing students write about on their lab report, but science teachers should be evaluating the purpose of the lab long before the students begin.  Why are we doing this lab? What does it provide for the students?  The purpose of labs in high school will generally fall into one of these two categories:
To learn a skill, or,
To discover a relationship

Learning a Skill
Skills need to be built upon in order for or students to continue with their scientific careers.  Imagine a surgeon operating without ever having done a dissection.  Eek!  Anything from finding the mass of a substance, to performing a titration, to dissecting a frog, to planning an inquiry experiment classifies as a skill.  If this is the purpose of the experiment, consider these as some alternatives to requiring a full, formal lab report.

Talk about ease of assessment!  Teach the skill, let’s say a titration.  Have the students practice it (as opposed to starting with an experiment that requires titration as a prerequisite skill).  When students have had practice with this, get part of the class working on some seatwork, and another part performing the skill.  Can you assign a mark to an observation?  You bet!  Just make sure to have clear guidelines and document anything they need to improve upon.  I print off a class list, write the few skills I am looking for at the top and leave lots of space to write notes.

Student-Instructed Teacher Demonstration
Have your student guide you, the teacher, step by step.  Follow their instructions exactly.  When something is unclear - do it in the worst possible way!  I’m talking Mr. Noodle on Elmo’s World bad.  Students will learn quickly they need to be very detailed in their instructions.  This one would eat up a lot of time, so I would recommend doing this once with a whole class, to encourage them to be precise in their description.

Video Analysis
If you’ve got access to any sort of video taking technology you have a lot of options.  Have the students create a video of them performing the skill.  Obvious, but here the marking can be done when it is convenient for you.  Some variations of this include having some students record something incorrect with the skills they are trying to learn (AS LONG AS IT IS NOT UNSAFE).  Students in different classes, or in subsequent years can be quizzed on what was done incorrectly, and how it needs to be improved.  I also like this as a teaching method:
Record your students proficiently performing and explaining a scientific skill, then use that video in stations to teach skills.  This is best with simple, non-dangerous skills, like finding the mass, setting up ticker tape, or using a mortar and pestle.

Write It
Students can write the procedure for performing this skill in different ways.  Consider having students write their own wiki-how article on the skill, a letter home, or pair it with the next option and have students create a manual with descriptive steps and visuals on Google Docs.

Illustrate It
If you’re looking for the correct order of steps, could you have your students represent it in a visual way?  Have them take pictures and describe the steps, create a storyboard of the procedure or even draw instructions IKEA-style.  The hidden advantage here is that you can reuse this in subsequent years for students who need visual instructions.

Sections of the Lab Report
It’s not rocket surgery: if the skill is procedure writing, have students turn that in.  Choose an interesting lab with a procedure complex enough for the level of your students.  With my Grade 9s, I like the borax bouncy ball experiment.  If the skill is graphing, then that’s what they should submit.  Just make sure the success criteria is clear and students know exactly what is being assessed.

Discovering a Relationship
If you want students to discover a relationship, be sure to steer them in the right direction.  Having students graph data is an effective way to discover the relationship.

If students are performing their own inquiry experiments, they can create a short presentation that goes over the experimental design and materials they used.  Then they can show how data was obtained and the relationship they’ve discovered. Open it up to Q&A from the class.

Children’s Book
Students can explain the experiment in simple terms through a story and have their characters discover the relationship.  This is great if you want to turn your STEM into STEAM!

Have students create a website or blog.  After each lab they can report their findings here and BOOM - digital portfolio for the whole course.

News Report
Here in Ontario we have the Grade 10 Literacy Test that students must meet provincial standard on in order to graduate.  One of the components is a News Report.  I give my students practice on writing news reports in Grade 9 and 10.  Have the students write a news report about their discovery, including a headline, subtitle, byline, direct quotes and indirect quotes.

Be really picky here.  If all you’re having your student submit are calculations, make sure they align and organize their work, include all of their units and encourage them to learn an equation editor if they are typing this up.

Sections of the Lab Report
You know your labs best, so if you want your students to discover the relationship between angle and hang time have them graph it and describe the graph.  Discussion questions about their findings are effective for assessing their understanding of a relationship.  Writing a full RERUN conclusion covers a lot of bases as well.

Error Analysis
So they didn’t find a clear relationship... what went wrong?  Have the students examine their reading, random and systematic errors.  Have them redesign a procedure with these in mind.

I hope these ideas keep you from burning out when it comes to assessing labs. They are good alternatives to throw in the mix from time to time, but definitely still have your students write out formal lab reports! It is an important skill that my Scientific Method Bundle can help you out with.
Do you have any more ideas? Share them in the comments below.

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