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Laboratory notebooks and reports

Using a laboratory notebooks and reports to assess learning

The laboratory might be a physical or virtual environment and can enable learning and the integration of theory and practice. A particular laboratory activity may be intended to develop knowledge of, and skills in, laboratory procedures, health and safety and/or scientific enquiry. It is important at the points of designing laboratory learning to consider the particular purpose of the laboratory experience and how the learning will be assessed. Laboratory notebooks and laboratory reports are artefacts which capture the laboratory experience in a form that can be shared and read.

The overall aims of laboratory and other practice-based work could include (Boud et al, 1986)

    1. Subject-related cognitive - including scientific method
    2. Subject related practical - using the kit and may also including professional attitudes
    3. Key skills - which would be transferrable to other aspects of study and life

Other aims might include

  • Skills
    • analysis of data
    • recording data or procedures
    • designing experiments
    • ethics of experimental design
    • report writing and intelligent presentation of results (depending on audience)
  • familiarity with kit, procedures and approaches
  • social - working within a group towards a common goal
  • illustrative - of theory, for example
  • motivational.

You need to think about the purposes of the laboratory / practical activity (intended learning outcomes) and then define what the notebook /report will evidence (constructive alignment).

It might be useful to read this section alongside the more general [Reports ] section

What can laboratory notebooks and reports assess?

Outputs such as laboratory notebooks and reports do not directly assess the process of undertaking laboratory work, although it might be possible to directly assess this through observation of practice. As such caution should be exercised as to the extent that a notebook or report represents the practice in the laboratory. For example students might wish to obtain a ‘right’ answer and represent this rather than the full detail of what actually happened in the laboratory, including problems and mistakes. Students can also find it difficult to understand the nature of the data collected and to analyse this fully using their understanding of experimental uncertainties.A conventional laboratory report might be structured using headings such as: Title, Aim, Method, Results, Conclusion, and Evaluation. In designing particular assessments it might be useful to consider the following questions:


    A conventional laboratory report might be structured using headings such as: Title, Aim, Method, Results, Conclusion, and Evaluation. In designing particular assessments it might be useful to consider the following questions:

    • what activities will students undertake in the laboratory?
    • what are the requirements for recording laboratory experiences from professional bodies and in relation to health and safety?
    • what skills, knowledge and understanding are to be developed through the laboratory work?
    • what will be assessed? Is the focus on the process of undertaking the laboratory activity, an output that is produced during or after the laboratory activity, or both?
    • does a full report need to be written by students? Could a part report focus on an aspect of the full conventional report?
    • will the report include results gained by other students? How will this be taken into account?
    • will the laboratory notebook or report be used as formative or summative assessment?
    • what proportion of the module grade will come from assessment of laboratory learning?

    Dependent on the context students might be given different amounts of autonomy: from following an existing laboratory protocol to designing their own experiment. How might your assessment differ as a result? Students might be given laboratory workbooks which structure the responses required; this is an opportunity to reduce the demand upon students and assessors.

    Often practical work is carried out by pairs or groups of students. Will you require each student to write a report independently or will you ask for a group report? In the latter case you will need to think about group or individual marks; if the latter how will you identify an individual’s contribution?

    Careful consideration of the timing of the practical activity is necessary as it can be stressful and frustrating for students not to be able to complete the tasks in the time available. Whatever is being assessed it is important to communicate to students the intended learning outcomes and the success criteria for the particular laboratory report. Questions to consider:

    • how will the assessment criteria be made clear to students?
    • what input into the criteria will students have?
    • how will students understand the nature of the ‘product’ they will produce?
    • will students have the opportunity to see an example of ‘good’ student work?
    • will there be an opportunity for students to have their work peer assessed prior to submission?
    • what feedback will be offered to students on their work?
    Assessing a laboratory report or laboratory book

    What is assessed will depend primarily on the goals of the laboratory work. For example one or more of the following might be used as to develop assessment criteria:

    • technical and manipulative skills in using laboratory equipment, materials or computer software
    • following laboratory procedures, taking into account health and safety considerations
    • identifying a problem to investigate
    • application of concepts to the particular application
    • scientific enquiry and problem solving skills
    • hypothesising and testing hypothesis
    • following appropriate conventions to analyse, interpret and present data
    • drawing considered conclusions from the evidence
    • collaborative and team work skills.

    A laboratory report typically adopts a depersonalised and objective style which reflects the premise that the experiment / procedure might be done by another investigator who would be expected to obtain a similar outcome. A report will typically include written elements, presentation of numerical data and presentation of analysed numerical data. In a particular assessment it could be considered which of these models of communication are most important.

    A presentation or poster might be considered as an alternative to a report or laboratory book or to operate alongside it.

    Diversity & inclusion

    Students may have different experiences of undertaking laboratory work in their educational history. Some, because of group dynamics, may have allowed other students to take the lead in laboratory work and so have little practical experience themselves. It would be important to consider how to ensure that when working as a group each individual student has the opportunity to engage in the full experience. This might be done through the allocation of student roles, for example.

    Academic integrity

    If students have significant autonomy in the design of their laboratory work, such as in a project, there is less risk associated in relation to academic integrity. If students follow a standard approach then it may be difficult to identify the extent to which the work produced is their own. If the students work in groups, as with all such work it is good practice to distinguish co-operation and collaboration from collusion and plagiarism and make these distinctions clear to all students. (Click here for further guidance on plagiarism.)

    Student and staff experience

    The preparation of a laboratory report has the potential to develop a range of skills and to facilitate higher order thinking. In addition to the possible descriptive, analytical, numeric and interpretative parts you could ask for a reflective component encompassing the whole process of undertaking a scientific enquiry. A laboratory notebook offers different benefits because it is written, at least in part, during the practical activity. A laboratory notebook also gives a useful picture of student development over time, perhaps of how formative assessment has been acted upon to improve a student’s work.


    If students are given significant amounts of autonomy in the design of laboratory activity there is the potential for high resource demands and increased health and safety risks. If students follow existing protocols and methods then their autonomy, and possibly ownership, of their learning can be limited.


    Laboratory notebooks and reports can be very time consuming to complete and assess.

    For students: given that students may be required to write multiple reports during several modules, it could be useful to focus on particular aspects of report writing at different times; for example one report could focus on writing about experimental procedures and another on presenting data - with other elements of report either omitted or reduced in significance.

    For staff: An assessor might need to undertake calculations themselves to identify whether, for a particular set of data, the students have followed procedures. It might be useful to consider whether peer-student assessment could reduce this demand. Rather than collect reports, to take away and mark at the end of the class, could marking be done by interviewing students prior to them leaving the practical class?

    Pickering and Brown (2006, p71) developed work by Hughes (2004) to produce a table of the type below which gives some useful ideas about who does what for which gains and losses. The ‘traditional’ write-up, for comparison, is that each student completes a full report of every practical that s/he completes.


    Who does what

    Advantage over traditional


    Students work as teams and submit a team report.

    Opportunities for peer teaching and reduces workload.

    Who gains what from the feedback? Lack of individual comments.

    Tutor marks only a selection of individual reports.

    Reduces marking load.

    Student cannot know which will be selected otherwise could reduce effort. Reduced feedback.

    Postgraduates, who support the lab, mark the scripts.

    Reduced workload for staff member(s).

    Need training to maximise consistency of marking.

    Students complete an mcq to test understanding of the practical. No report required.

    If computer-based then can reduce workload and feedback can be given on every point.

    Report writing skills are not developed. Need to think about learning outcomes.

    Students mark peer’s work.

    Reduced workload for staff member(s); bit probably need sampling.

    Need explicit marking criteria and guidelines. Peer pressure can improve standards.

    Tutor interviews students when they have completed the practical work.

    No take-home marking for staff

    Better, timely individual feedback but need to ensure both consistency and equity.

    Probably the ‘ideal’ is a mix of the above across the year.

    Useful resources

    Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. and Marshall, S., (eds) (2015). A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education: enhancing academic practice. 4th edition London: Routledge.

    In chapter 15 of each edition there is section about teaching in the disciplines; e.g. in ed4 Nathan Pike talks about “the experimental sciences” and in ed3 Ian Hughes & Tina Overton discuss “key aspects of learning and teaching in experimental science” - well worth a look.

    Brown, S. and Pickford, R. (2006). Assessing Skills and Practice. London: RoutledgeFalmer

    Baillie, C., De St Jorre, T.J. & Hazel, E. (2017). Improving Teaching and Learning in Science and Engineering Laboratories. HERDSA []

    The first new thing that I that has been written about labs in some time; HERDSA texts are always good value.

    Other sources: