Why Use Interactive Notebooks

I’ve been thinking a lot about interactive notebooks the past few weeks.  In addition to the usual preparations for a new school year, I was asked to co-lead a workshop on interactive notebooks as part of my building’s welcome back week.  Preparing for the workshop forced me to articulate why I use interactive notebooks in my classroom and what benefits I have seen.

The idea behind interactive notebooks is to provide a single place where students keep as much of their work as possible, usually with a table of contents to make it easy to locate specific entries.  The notebooks are typically structured so that right hand pages contain entries where students gather information, such as data collected during labs, notes, or reading assignments.  Left hand pages are then used for students to process information in a variety of ways.  Sometimes I use those pages for analysis on a lab.  Other times, I have students do a short writing assignment that may be as simple as explaining how a science concept appears in the student’s own experience or may be more complex, such as an assignment I give for students to come up with and explain their own mechanical analog for a circuit.

The most obvious benefit of using interactive notebooks is organization.  The simple fact is most students do not have an effective system for keeping track of their work, leading to folders and lockers that are a mess of rumpled papers that make it difficult to locate a specific page when it is needed.  With a clear structure for interactive notebooks, I’ve seen some of my most disorganized students manage to keep track of their work.

During the workshop, organization ended up being the focus of our presentation.  We’d been asked to give the workshop as part of an effort to make sure every teacher had at least one effective organizational strategy to implement and organization is what first got my co-presenter and me to try interactive notebooks.  But, having used notebooks for several years, I would argue that organization is the least interesting benefit.  Organization is also what generated the least interest from my colleagues who attended the workshop.

What people were more interested in, and what I’ve found to be the most significant benefit, are the ways interactive notebooks have helped my students to develop a sense of ownership over their learning.  With very little effort on my part, I’ve seen a shift in the kinds of questions students ask me.  I used to get a lot of students who wanted me to give them a definition, formula, or other piece of factual information previously addressed.  Notebooks make it much easier for students to retrieve this information, which means I now spend my time working with students on more meaningful questions.

Using interactive notebooks pushed me to include more writing in my class and shift to assignments that shift to higher-order tasks.  I noticed very quickly that these kinds of assignments lead to students organically sharing their work.  Its exciting to see my students take so much pride in their work that they can’t wait to show it to their peers or to watch students ask how their classmates approached a task because they are genuinely curious about how someone else approached the task.  As I’ve shifted to using more and more open-ended inquiry, I’ve had the privilege of seeing this excitement from my students more and more often.

So far, I’ve only used notebooks with my 9th grade physical science students, but this fall I’m taking over the 12th grade honors physics course.  Moving forward, I’m thinking about what I want notebooks to look like with more advanced students.  I’m making some significant revisions to the course in an effort to integrate a lot more inquiry and I should be able to give my 12th grade students labs that are more open-ended than I’ve used in the past, especially since the 12th grade course is a full year while the 9th grade course is only 12 weeks.  Since lab notebooks are a natural fit for this kind of approach, my current plan is to focus on using notebooks for students to keep a good record of their work in the lab for this year.  As the year goes on and I get the hang of the new course, I can be more intentional about the writing students do in their notebooks.

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