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What Happened When I Ditched Formal Lab Reports in my High School Science Classes

formal lab reports

Here’s the deal. There are a lot of things (like formal lab reports) that we do as secondary science teachers because it is how they have always been done. But when you sit down and really think about it, are all of the things you are doing REALLY beneficial for your students?

Once upon a time, I was a VERY tired and overworked teacher. I was consistently the last car to leave the parking lot, and I felt like even when I WAS at home and away from school, I couldn’t truly disconnect from work. Teaching had become my life, and not just my job.

This led to a serious amount of self-reflection that ultimately caused me to entirely re-assess how I did this job until I got to the place where I was able to do it in only 40 hours a week (like it should be able to be done!!)

But I tell you all of this so that you can have context for why I decided to ditch formal lab reports in my high school science classes.

Why I Ditched Formal Lab Reports

formal lab reports

To be perfectly frank, I was exhausted. And while there were MANY things that contributed to this exhaustion, one of the main factors was how much I was grading. When you see 100+ students a day, you simply cannot feasibly grade all of the things and do this job in 40 hours a week. When I evaluated what was sucking the MOST time (and life) out of me, it was honestly grading lab reports.

So I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?”

The answer: because this is how science classes were when I was in high school and college. This is how my coworkers run their science classes. This is how I have always seen science classes run.

And I realized that wasn’t a good enough reason to keep doing formal lab reports.

You know what IS a good reason to do formal lab reports? Teaching your students critical thinking and scientific writing skills.

This led me to my next question – how can I continue to teach my students critical thinking and scientific writing skills while also eliminating formal lab reports so I can majorly decrease how much I am grading and reclaim some of my life?!

How Ditching Formal Lab Reports Benefited ME as the Teacher

formal lab reports

First and foremost, it created a HUGE decrease in my grading time knowing I wasn’t constantly having a stack of lab reports I needed to get through all year long on the corner of my desk. I had found that in the last year I was doing formal lab reports consistently in my classroom, I was speed grading so much that I wasn’t really even giving my students great feedback. SO WHAT WAS THE POINT?

I decided to focus on QUALITY and not QUANTITY. Once a year in each science class I teach we do a formal lab report. (Ex. In biology, I start the year doing this lab investigation that students both design from scratch AND formally write up.) I preface the assignment that this type of scientific writing is something they will be expected to do in every science course they ever take for the rest of their lives, which is why we will take the time to do it once and do it REALLY thoroughly and really well. LOTS of drafts, and lots of back and forth feedback. I block out significant class time for this, too, since I don’t assign homework.

That’s it. One time of year I really give formal lab reports 100% of my energy and effort. I block out all the time and energy for them. Then I let it go and focus on teaching my students these critical thinking and writing skills in other ways. I can’t tell you how much of a burden this released for me! But it didn’t just benefit me – it also benefitted my students as well.

How Ditching Formal Lab Reports Benefitted My STUDENTS

formal lab reports

Let’s be honest – there is no one “right way” to formally write up a lab. And if I am fully transparent, every science teacher I have ever had – whether it be a high school teacher or a college professor – has expected me to write formal lab reports in a different way. So why do we put SO MUCH EMPHASIS on writing formal lab reports when our students will be expected to accommodate a variety of different styles and preferences for how to do this in the future?

Assigning formal lab reports wasn’t benefitting my students nearly as much as I had assumed it would. Labs had gone from being a learning experience that allowed students to engage with the content in a hands-on way and strengthen their analytical skills to becoming a performative task of writing up their findings “exactly how I wanted to hear it”. They were so worried about getting the formal lab report right that they didn’t really care about learning anything from the actual lab.

By ditching formal lab reports, the pressure was OFF. My students started to see labs as a learning experience. It wasn’t about getting the right data or writing up that data perfectly. It was about LEARNING how to THINK like a scientist.

What I do instead of Formal Lab Reports

formal lab reports

My students still do labs. They still write hypotheses, create graphic representations of their data, analyze their findings, and deduce conclusions. We just do them informally. They do not neatly write out every lab in its entirety. They do not type up every lab into a formal report. They DO walk through creating graphs and analyzing data in EVERY SINGLE LAB, though.

Sometimes I collect the labs, and sometimes I don’t. We just swap with a peer and discuss instead. When I DO collect labs, I choose just a section or two to grade (you can read more about that here) so that I can give a lot of feedback on just one section at a time (and still grade this faster than I could grade a stack of formal lab reports!)

I would much rather put the focus on the THINKING skills I want them to develop rather than the WRITING skills. I cannot tell you how much making this change transformed the culture of lab days in my classroom. The pressure was OFF of students to write down all the things and to get the “right answers” and I found my students really cared more about DOING the lab and considering whether or not their data made sense.

I also utilize a LOT of strategies to engage my students in my science classes other than labs. You can read more about how I engage my students without exhausting myself here.

Are there benefits to writing formal lab reports? ABSOLUTELY. But when I really assessed this practice in my classroom, I found that the benefits of ditching formal lab reports far outweighed the costs of keeping them – both for me and my students.

One last thing I want to note – your reasons for doing formal lab reports may be entirely different from mine. You may actually have more valid reasons for doing them – and that is WONDERFUL!! I am just sharing this because for me PERSONALLY, I didn’t have great reasons for doing them and thus it had just become something I felt like I *had* to do rather than something I had intentionally chosen to do to benefit my students. And letting go of that pressure changed everything for me, and them.

I hope if you get ANYTHING from this post it is that you feel encouraged to make changes in your classroom that are best for you AND your students – and ditching formal lab reports was one of those changes for me!

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